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  • Writer's pictureMr. B

Living Growth, Part One

This episode explores the meaning of "growth," especially personal growth. In this, Part One, Mr. B outlines the modern idea of growth, and he does his best to recover what "to grow" was originally meant to convey. You might be surprised! In Part Two, next week's episode, Mr. B will consider how someone might begin to move beyond understanding and actively participate more effectively in the process of living growth.

Stephen Jenkinson: "Grow" = Old...

"Our word old, these semantic treasure troves tell us, derives from a pan-Northern European word root, recognizable to this day in the Nordic and Germanic languages: alt. It is cognate with the Latin "to nourish," "to grow," and also "to cause to grow." This link to Latin is as you might expect, because it is a sign of two historical events whose consequences are far from spent: the conquest of Germania, Gaul, Iberia, and Brittania by the Roman Empire, and the subsequent conversion of these peoples and places, and their northern neighbors and adversaries, to Christianity over the following seven or so centuries. With conquest came the domination of Latin over the indigenous languages. Latin became the language of learning and civility and governance. With the conversions, Latin became the language of devotion. These two events and their howling brood of consequences will be fundamental....

This is a tricky and not very wise translation, though, using our current understanding of growth, including the notion of "rising above" (as in altitude), to suffice for what al(t) may have meant. I would like to imagine that the early custodians of what became the English tongue did not share our preference for installing their deities way up out of reach, hovering as those ominous drones do now. They seem instead to have been willing or able to find holiness in the weft and whorl of the little corner of the world granted them, and to have settled for a kind of animism that did not make their Gods or themselves strangers to the world. And they may have not had the aversion to limit and frailties and endings that very much hovers at the edge of what we mean by growth. In fact, northern mythologies seem to have had a healthy estimation of what their Gods couldn't do, couldn't manage, couldn't vanquish. There is not much sign that they traded in the degradation and slander of the natural world and of the body that prevailed among some of their contemporaries who were influenced by eastern Mediterranean Gnosticism, aspects of Greek philosophy, and some Eastern religions during the same period. So the spatial and moral hierarchy we might bring to "above and below" and to "old and young may not have been there in the early going.

The change of meaning of the word growth to something like "unerring good for you and for the world" signals, among other things, a steep and intolerant shift in the place granted to limit, frailty, age, and elderhood by which our time is now recognizable. In our regime, growth is something between a mania and a moral obligation. In its spatial iteration it certainly evokes a sense of "increase," of "more where there once was less." Growth accumulates. It takes up room. It occupies. It swells. The way the word is used now, growth, is inherently good in much the same way that natural is good.

When the business reporters gravely report that the rate of growth has slowed this quarter, though you are no economist, you can take from their voices that this isn't good. The rate of growth has to grow, because the alternative, the opposite, is ... What? Contraction? No, not really. In economic terms, contraction is just this side of the apocalypse. Functionally, ideologically, the opposite of a growing rate of growth isn't a growing rate of contraction. It is a slowing rate of growth. They aren't the same thing. But if you are in a time and place utterly strung out on momentum and change, they sure seem like the same thing. In such a place, the mandate to grow itself grows. It brooks no doubt, no challenge. Some working in and out of the geopolitical economic world have begun now to question or warn us away from undertaking growth for its own sake, which is proper and long overdue, but I suspect the lion's share of people in North America continue to endorse growth, especially the financial and personal kind, for its own sake.

Look to the self-help industry, the retreat industry, the personal-growth industry in North America. There you will find that growth has become a moral order unto itself. Personal growth is a secular salvation for the nonaligned, for the demographic swell that elbows its way to the front of every line, and the personal growth industry strikes me, for the most part, as an elder-free zone. Younger and older, all of them seeking betterment. The sense of personal inadequacy that drives the thing seems to have become the great social leveler, the great generational equalizer. The democracy of growth is the antidote to hierarchy in a culture that no longer believes in wisdom and ancestry.

Personal growth, the atomization of benefit, the obligation to leave the baggage behind, to shed and shuck what binds you and precedes you, and to strive. It is the great leveler of merit. "Oh, I'm always learning," people say. "If you stop learning, you start dying." I see. Bad news for dying people, that is, especially those who thought they could learn how to die. But it's one or the other, proliferate or perish, for the growth addicted. It's something like that morose menace we ascribe to sharks, who must drive water through their gills by forever going forward, or die for want of momentum. Personal growth is the psychologization and interiorization of the world. Ectopic victory over the vagaries, monotheism without God. The age of the Anthropocene.

Consider the tumor. I am no anatomist or oncologist, but it strikes me that the tumor might best be understood as growth. Not "a growth," which is a common way of referring to it, but growth itself, both the essence and the incarnation of growth. Now, unchecked and untreated, the tumor is likely to proceed, consuming as it goes about its mandate of growing. To what end does it grow? you could wonder. When has it grown enough, so it can finally just be a tumor and stop growing towards being one? The only answer I can think of that is consistent with the tumor's way of going about its business is this: there is, ideally no end to the tumor's growth, in either sense of the word end. This means that there is no termination foreseeable or permissible. It could also mean that there is no purpose that either legitimizes or employs the growth. A tumor is the relentless incarnation of growth for the sake of growth. A tumor is growth untethered to, ungoverned by, the consequences of growth. The end result? A tumor loses by winning. It kills what it draws its nourishment from. It grows itself to death.

Growth untethered to its consequences strikes me as something like artificial intelligence. It is ingenuity unburdened by conscience, utterly unaccountable, sociopathic. Naturally, the smart money in a growth-addicted culture is on disembodied, homeless intelligence.

Growth for its own sake seems to be the mantra of the self-improvement industry in North America. It has enjoyed unimaginable growth from the 1970s through to the present time and has done so during precisely the same time that genetic manipulation of the food supply and remorseless fracking-style extraction have been engaged in, Brave New World style. Years from now, these may come to be recognized as developments, or growths, that were joined at the hip."

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