Today is my birthday and it is therefore exactly one year since I crossed the Rubicon and announced to my family, friends and work that I was leaving London to become a nomad. My travels are all about personal growth, and so it feels right to dedicate my birthday post to exactly that.
Reflecting on the personal growth I’ve had over the years, I see a distinct pattern. My growth has not been slow and steady; it has been a series of explosive bursts. One such burst came when I moved to London. I became a new man in those first few years. I remember feeling like I had just been released from a cage that I had not known I was in, and suddenly I had space to spread my wings and explore a whole new life.
I felt the same way when I left London and became a nomad. London had been a bigger cage, but a cage nonetheless. It took longer to grow enough that it became a limitation, but now that I walk the open roads, I recognize that London had held me back. The explosion of new experiences and life lessons I’ve had since I became a nomad proves that.
These and similar events make me to think of personal growth as the breaking through of a series of nested cages, one within the other, like a Russian Matryoshka doll. For each such cage, we go through three phases.
In the first phase, we have plenty of room within our cage. We are free to live and grow within the boundaries of our cage, which may be so large that we don’t even recognize that it is there. As we explore our cage, our lives expand to fill the room within.
The second phase comes when we have grown so much such that the confines of our cage become a problem. There are parts of life that we want to experience and areas of growth that we long for, but the cage holds us back. Our wings are pressed against the bars of the cage, and there is no room for us to grow. We have outgrown our old life, like a snake ready to shed its skin.
The second phase is both frustrating and painful, but it also necessary. It is in this phase, pressed against the bars of our prison, that we truly get to know the things that hold us back. Without knowing the nature of our cage, we won’t know how to tear it down. The pain and frustration also act as motivation. It is frightening to leave the safety of the known and brave the fear of the unknown, and we need the pain and the frustration to push us out of our comfort zone.
The third phase is short and explosive. This is where we burst through the cage and suddenly find ourselves free to spread our wings and fly again. For a few days or months, we ride strange new winds to exciting heights and places. It is a thrilling time of exploration and growth. Eventually we adapt to the new cage and we start the whole process over again, now in a larger cage.
However, there are risks involved with personal growth. The main danger in the third phase is that we might not be able to handle what is beyond the cage, or we can’t handle the speed with which we are released into the new life. For example, I’ve seen plenty of people be swept away by the London clubbing scene and end up in really bad places, doing things they cannot handle. It is as if they damage their wings when they break out of their cage. Broken, they fall and fall, seeing their old cage vanish above as they rush towards the bottom.
The second phase is dangerous only if we get stuck in it. We need to feel the pain and frustration of the cage to motivate us to break through it, but some people never build enough strength to do so. Then the pain and frustration become lifelong torments, and the person is doomed to sit deformed and stumped by the shape of his cage.
There are no real risks inherent in the first phase. We know the world within our cage, and it is big enough to be happy. But we often don’t have a choice of staying in this phase. If we are meant for greater things and if there is yet more growth left in us, it will come and we cannot and should not stop it. If the cages we build for ourselves are too small, then we will eventually grow into the second phase, and we must escape those cages, no matter how hard it is.
There are many sorts of cages. Most are self-made, and those we can tear down ourselves. The fear of rejection, for example, may hold us back from coming out as gay. Some cages are imposed on us by other people, like a controlling partner. These can usually be dealt with, but it can be very painful. Finally, some cages are simply impossible to break out of, such as an incurable medical condition. For those cages, learning to live with them and accept them as they are is better than to rage against them and beat yourself bloody against their walls.
Personally, I am currently in the first phase. The rush of excitement of the third phase, when I first hit the road, has subsided. My travels are still exciting, but I’ve broken in my nomadic boots and I feel in control. I think I am a long way from hitting the second phase. The world seems impossibly large at the moment; yet I know that somewhere out there, there will be another cage. I just don’t know the shape of it yet.