I have been reading a book called “Mindset” by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. After many years of research on how and why people learn, and why some accept challenges whereas others shrink away from them, she found a very simple explanation. Dr. Dweck discovered that there are two categories of people, those with what she called a “fixed mindset” and those with a “growth mindset.”
Those of us with a fixed mindset have a pattern of believing and behaving as if we are born into who we are. I am either smart or I am not. I am either good at something or am not. I am a gifted athlete or I am not. For those with a fixed mindset failure is devastating. Why? Because if I am good at something, yet I fail to achieve my objective, there is no hope left. I have not only failed, I am a failure. I failed to live up to what I am suppose to be and this is unacceptable and wounding. With this mindset the result is typically despair and often self-abasement.
Interestingly, Dr. Dweck found that those who see through the prism of a fixed mindset believe that success should be easy, at least in areas they are gifted in. Effort is the enemy! Things should come easy. These folks approach challenges as just one more event in which they must prove they are already capable. Thus there is great pressure to perform up to standard. She also found they tend to seek success for the sake of receiving affirmation. “See, I really am smart!”
The researcher found that another set of people responded to life much differently. People with a growth mindset believe that we develop and grow into who are are. We become smart or not depending on our efforts. We become a better basketball player by learning, practicing, being challenged, failing, and improving. They are not surprised by failure when they meet a real challenge. Indeed that so-called “failure” can be invigorating for the growth mindset-er because it is an opportunity to figure out how to be better. In this paradigm, effort is an essential and expected part of everything.
Dr. Dweck writes about an experiment she did with children in which she presented puzzles that got increasingly more difficult. The fixed mindset children commented about how easy the initial puzzles were. They were very proud of themselves at completing the task. As the challenge became more difficult at some point they simple gave up. “I can’t do that. That’s too hard.” They refused to try. To do so would bruise their ego. Then there were children whose eyes lit up when the next puzzle looked impossible. They said things like, “Wow, I can’t wait to try this one! This will be so cool to figure out.”
On the fourth Sunday of Great Lent we Orthodox Christians celebrate the memory of St. John Climacus (“of the ladder”). St. John is known best, and is named, for his work called “The Ladder of the Divine Ascent.” In it he presents the Christian struggle as a climb from more basic spiritual disciplines and virtues to the more perfect. He enumerates thirty-three steps, each with its own challenges and pitfalls.
Orthodox Christian spiritual life is clearly not a fixed mindset proposal. It is a ladder of never-ending challenges and progressive steps toward God-likeness. It is progress, not “perfection.” Even the Saints that we consider and call “perfect” regard themselves at the bottom of the spiritual rungs since they have the vision of God and see themselves in comparison. Yet this is not an occasion for despair but for awe and greater challenge and joy.
The Saints strove for perfection, but they were not “perfectionists.” The perfectionist sets unrealistic standards for himself and then stews in prideful disappointment when he does not meet them. “I am better than that!” Instead the Saints relied on God’s grace and expected failure when they strayed from that reliance. They were not surprised by sin as they understood the spiritual life as a bloody battle against the demons. Their hope was not in themselves and their own strength, but in God, in humble-mindedness, and in the process of repentance.
Most of us are familiar with the story of the elder that was asked about how he lived. He said, “I fall down and get back up. I fall down again and I get back up again.” One of the desert fathers was asked by a disciple about how to approach his spiritual life. He told him, “Each day when you wake up, say to yourself, ‘Today I am making a new beginning.” A mindset of repentance is about growth, getting back up, and new beginnings.
I have occasionally met Orthodox Christians who have found the lives of the Saints to be an occasion for despair and depression. Recently I have made it a practice to ask catechumens to read the life of St. Porphyrios, “Wounded By Love,” so that they might begin to taste the ethos or “phronema” (mindset) of Orthodox spiritual life. One such person came back after a short time, handed the book to me, and said, “I can’t read this.” When I asked why, the answer was something to this effect: “It’s not fair! He had loving and pious Orthodox parents. He got to live on Mount Athos with good spiritual elders from an early age. It’s depressing! He had all kinds of advantages over me. I’ll never come close to where he got to spiritually!”
Depending on how we see things, it certainly is a temptation when reading the lives of the Saints to become overwhelmed and even despairing at how far we are from their level of purification, illumination, and “perfection.” How could we ever catch up to that? Why even try? We’ll never reach those heights anyway!
The Gospel reading for the fourth Sunday of Lent is the story of Christ returning from His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor to find his nine remaining apostles unable to heal a demon-possessed boy (Mk. 9:17-31). The boy’s father gets Jesus up to speed: “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” Remember now, these were the men chosen by the Lord Himself, mentored by Him, following Him daily for three years, and spending most every waking moment with Him. According to the Scripture they had performed healing before (Matt. 10:5-9). And yet they were not able to cast out this demon. The Lord’s response was, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” Notice the need for effort, spiritual exercise and labor. Even the apostles weren’t there yet! There was a lot of prayer and fasting and suffering (going through the Lord’s Passion) left to do.
We also just celebrated the Great Feast of the Annunciation. Even the Theotokos had to grow in faith and virtue. Even she did not fully comprehend the Lord’s ministry and her relation to it in the beginning. She was not immaculately conceived (born without the fallen human condition), but had to expend effort and will to remain faithful to God as she grew up in the Temple. She was tempted but kept forcing her nous back into her heart and thus did not break her communion with Him. Yet even with her this was a process of growth. It was through prayer and fasting that she was purified and then, and only then, was able to receive the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation.
I would imagine that even if we were one of St. Porphyrios’ siblings we might not have been the obedient and joyful child he was, unless, that is, we chose to develop and grow in that way. If we were on Mount Athos with him would we have lasted through one week of the spiritual regiment he went through? Could we have borne one week of the harsh instruction or rebuke of his elders?
This is not to say that we aren’t born with different talents. We are not saying certain people don’t have natural gifts of intelligence or particularly sweet dispositions. Some are also born with more advantages and opportunities, with more nurturing families, better psychological and spiritual environments. But whatever advantages or disadvantages we are never fixed entities, we are never stuck where we are, especially in regard to virtue and grace. No matter where we began, we can always acquire more than we started with — more humility, more meekness, more mercy, more love, more gratitude.
In the Parable of the Talent (Matt. 25:14-30) the Lord gives ten to the first, five to another, and only one to the other. But when the Master returns he does not expect ten from the one who was given five, nor five from he who was given one. He only expected each one to increase or double what he was given. It seems we will not be judged in comparison with others but rather in comparison to ourselves! We will be judged according to how the Lord finds us in the end compared to what we were given at the beginning. It appears we will not necessarily be judged or measured in comparison to St. Porphyrios, at least not based on the spiritual advantages he enjoyed, but according to what we did with what we were dealt, according to our own growth into God.
This is a cause of consolation for me. In the meantime, our job is to adopt an Orthodox mindset, a growth mindset, and to climb the ladder of the divine ascent as vigorously as we can with hope in God and His mercy.