On Growth

On Growth

Do you ever think about your closest friends—the ones with the in-jokes and incriminating photos and embarrassing stories from ten years ago that you’re always afraid of them bringing up in front of your still-new friends—and remember the time before you were friends? When you had just met, were beginning to get to know each other, suss out whether they were suitably weird enough to be able to let them into your own, special kind of weirdness? Remember the first time you got your parents to arrange a sleepover, or a trip into town (hey middle school friendships), or the first time you arranged to go out for coffee with someone who before was just a classmate?

And then, one or four or ten years down the line, your standard hangout sessions are lying in bed next to each other, watching cringeworthy chick flicks late into the night, in your ugly pajamas and surrounded by junk food. You’re tagging each other in ridiculous memes and whatsapping the embarrassing details of bad dates and first kisses and that time you accidentally typed "I love you" instead of "I like you" (true story; thanks autocorrect…), swapping screenshots without even questioning whether that person would laugh at you, or judge you, or think any less of you for letting them into the embarrassing and ugly and complicated parts of your life.

The beginnings of friendships—or relationships—can be slow and awkward and scary, as you work out how far to let someone in. But years down the line, you have a foundation built that would survive any earthquake. The development of these friendships is hard to see day to day. There are milestones, sure, every "first" and every barrier broken down, but the real growth of these things goes unnoticed, takes place over time that can’t be measured or tracked. But you look back months, or years later, and you see the intimacy and the trust that have built. Progress is subtle and quiet, and can’t always be seen until later on.

I found a letter the other day. Written by me, to myself. Back in early October, right at the start of the academic year, as I was swirling through transition: back to the UK, after a year of living in France; back to Durham, from a summer of holidays and staying at home with my parents; transition into a new community, back into a year of studying after a blissful break from academia.

It’s an idea I had at the start of my year abroad, as I arrived in France in the autumn. I’d heard a little of what might be in store for the year, so I wrote pages full of hopes and expectations of how things might pan out. The people I might get to know, the projects we could set up, big plans and high hopes. Maybe unsurprisingly, or maybe thanks to the impulsive and changeable nature of the community I lived and worked with, very few of these predictions for the year panned out.

So much so that on reading the letter again in the summer just before I came home, I was so bummed out about all the things that hadn’t happened, that I wrote a reply. I stuck the letter in my journal, and on the page opposite, I wrote to past me (this is maybe the kind of thing that sounds not-so-normal to anyone who is less reflective than I am) to reassure her that a lot of great things had happened in the year. Just different great things from what I had expected. I reminded myself of all the areas I’d seen growth: in my confidence, my joy, my self-awareness. The steps I’d taken, not marked by achievements or success, but in standing up straighter and deciding to like the person I am; deciding to be friends with her.

So last September I wrote another letter, "to open July 2017’" (and so successfully forgotten about that I actually only found it a couple of days ago). But this time, I didn’t try to predict my year. I wrote instead:

“I thought that the transition would be ‘done’ by now. I had all summer to move on from France and now I want to get stuck into Durham but, surprise surprise, my mind is stuck in the past. This isn’t all that surprising: I tend to do this every year. But France was different, it was big and important. So it’s okay and natural that it’s still feeling hard to admit that that’s in the past. So I guess I wanted to write this to look forwards, to the end of the year, in hope of the stories and adventures that await me. I don’t want to assume that I'll know the specifics of what’s coming—I tried that when I wrote this kind of letter in France and it ended up being quite different. I don’t know what your time will have been filled with for the last 10 months—hopefully you will have at least graduated! And probably done a dissertation and some exams too, so well done for that. I hope that the rest of your year has been filled with adventures and fun and new and scary things. I hope you’ve grown; that you’ve continued saying yes to God. I hope that this has been a strong start to the year, for honesty and friendship and freedom and depth. I hope that you have enjoyed fellowship and relationships. I hope that you are proud of yourself—I am, and the year hasn’t even happened yet…”

Growth is slower and more subtle than I used to think it was. It doesn’t always look like milestones or hurdles jumped, and it’s hard to document. My journal pages from the last two years don’t look all that different from each other; there aren’t huge leaps made from one day to the next. But over the months, my voice reads a little happier. A little more hopeful for the future. So I'm pleased with the attitude I took this time around: deciding to be proud of myself, regardless of what happened or what I achieved. I don’t want to try to predict what will happen in this next year to come—my predictions are likely to be off, anyway. But I've decided to be expectant and hopeful of big things, exciting things, and growth. Whatever that looks like.


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