What is it to really thrive?
Do you feel as though life has been passing you by? Are you waiting for your ship to come in? Do you find yourself asking if this is all there is to life?
Not long ago I was flipping through channels on the television when I chanced upon a point in a program where someone was saying that his or her objective in life was much more than just survival and coping with circumstances. This person wanted to really thrive. What is it to really thrive? This struck a chord with me and is something that I have been meditating on for quite a while.
Many go throughout life in what might be termed as the survival mode. Henry David Thoreau famously once wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” They chug along just doing the best that they can with what they can get. Focus is on obtaining basic physiological needs such as food, water, shelter, sex, and safety. These are very real issues for everyone but especially for those who live in or on the brink of poverty, unemployment, and/or underemployment. This also pertains to those who are trying to live in spite of physical challenges and health issues.
Fight or flight. When the threat of danger approaches, our bodies are naturally wired for fight or flight.This goes back to day of the cave man where surviving an encounter with a saber-toothed tiger meant either slaying the beast or running away. In either instance the adrenaline is flowing, the heart is racing, the senses are on alert, and the blood pressure is up. Although no one today has face-to-face encounters with live prehistoric creatures; many still have modern wild dinosaurs that emerge in the course of everyday life that trigger the old fight or flight response. This is sometimes conscious, but most often it is unconscious. Usually there are no physical monsters at all just things and circumstances that are reminiscent of them. Life in the big city is full of stimuli that bombard that senses. Anything that seems like the saber-toothed tiger triggers the physiological fight or flight.
In addition, when an immediate threat is over many have great difficulty returning to their baseline relaxation state.They have trouble turning off the fight or flight switch. A perceived danger can swing a person into overdrive quicker than the brain can mentally process. Over time a person can become more and more broken down physically, psychologically, and even spiritually. Anxiety attacks prevail. An extreme form of this may take on characteristics similar to Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
Withdrawal and avoidance. There are other types of fight or flight responses that a person might fall into. A person might become combative, irritable, and/or have difficulty managing anger. Another manifestation is seen in a person who might try to avoid anything perceived as a stressor, or to flee from anxieties. Some might even withdraw altogether in relationships and have difficulty making decisions, commitments, and evade responsibilities.
Psychological needs. In addition to the physical needs, there are some very real psychological needs and challenges as well. Psychologists have shown that the needs of love, belongingness, self-esteem, respect, achievement, and meaning are sometimes even more essential than food.
Spiritual needs. There are also spiritual needs of which some people literally starve themselves. A person can have everything in terms of material possessions, fame, and fortune but yet still be very empty inside. They build bigger and bigger warehouses to hold all of their goods to no avail. In the Gospel of Luke (12:15) Jesus gives the warning, Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
Developing coping skills.
Many seek out counseling in an effort to develop coping skills superior to the old intrinsic fighting or fleeing behaviors and to stop their biological systems from physically going into overdrive. Coping skills help a person transition from being a victim to taking control over their circumstances.
Addictions. The survival mode can get out of balance and result in less than optimal coping skills. Addictive behaviors can happen when a person tries to self-medicate to deaden or heighten their senses, to be avoidant, to flee from circumstances, to find meaning, to obtain comfort, to relieve boredom, and/or to just satisfy curiosity. Studies have shown that such attempts at self-soothing behavior can be both conscious and unconscious. Addictions do not always take the form of drugs, but also can be manifested in terms of behaviors. Sex addictions, shopping, and gambling are common examples of activities that produce artificial highs and a false sense of coping.
Chemical imbalances. Some persons through no fault of their own might experience chemical imbalances. A common example is what happens when a person might have swings in blood sugar with hunger. They might become easily irritated and impatient due to changes in insulin in their body. There are others that are biologically predisposed to overdrinking and over indulging. Some might seek comfort through overeating. However there are also those who engage in not eating at all. Though not in every case, cigarette smoking and marijuana usage has been linked to people challenged with serious psychological conditions and mental illness. Such persons could indeed be searching for balance and trying to find a more optimal way to get through their lives. Although from a diagnostic standpoint, it is a gray area of whether substance abuse causes mental illness, is a form of escape from psychological distress, both, or neither. One sure thing is that an addiction doesn’t make things any better in the long or even short run. In psychology it is common that those who fight some sort of addiction also have a comorbid condition or conditions. By comorbid a person has more than one diagnosis complicating their emotional health picture.
Life is a journey. That journey involves peaks and valleys. It also involves running into and away from monsters. But at the same time it would be nice to realize that we can do more than just survive and cope through life. We are more than victims in the jungle. We can thrive. Thriving implies growing and making progress. Interestingly, one can be on the brink of death and still thrive. One can be physically starving and still thrive. A person who has been in the valley of addictions can still rebound to thrive. Everyone has encountered at least one person in his or her life that is a blessing to others through their suffering. This is what testimonies are made of. We don’t have to look too far to find a Savior who was crucified, died, and was resurrected.
What is thriving? Thriving is an attitude and a state of the soul. It is learning how to be content with whatever state we might find ourselves. Sure, everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants peace. But many confuse happiness with pleasure and crumble in the midst of a storm. It is being able to appreciate and value the joy and love that can be found in relationships with others. It is taking the time to have wonder at the beauty of the natural world around us. It is being in awe of God. It is rising above the flight or fight response. Sometimes it means calmly standing up to the saber-toothed tiger with complete confidence. It does not mean being the biggest or the greatest. Often it means being the most humble. This sounds next to impossible, doesn’t it? But we have to remember that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37).
Tools for thriving. Prayer and participation in the Sacraments are essential for thriving. We can obtain grace from these things. Grace is participation in the life of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1997). Unfortunately many have imposed spiritual starvation upon themselves. In the medical world, a baby that refuses to eat is labeled as having “failure to thrive.” We are more than animals that are fighting and fleeing creatures in the jungle. In the spiritual life many of us are still babies and we do indeed need spiritual food to thrive. This life is not all that there is. We have souls that need to be fed and nurtured for life here in preparation for eternity.
Similarly tested in every way. This past Sunday’s New Testament reading (October 21, 2012) spoke of our source of strength: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”
Help comes from One who did not spare Himself from the trials and difficulties of this world but rather is a trailblazer through the storm. Jesus has said, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” This sounds a lot like thriving to me.