02 Apr Feed My Sheep
My cousin told me when she was pregnant that after it would rain, she could smell soil in the air and would literally crave eating dirt. She said it was a weird but unmistakable craving. When the rich smell of minerals wafted past her nose she wanted to just stick her muzzle in the moist earth and devour it by the mouthful.
I don’t know that she ever indulged her impulse, but her craving makes intuitive sense to me. Soil bears all the nutrients that grows our food. In modern city life our food supply tends to be more processed, so we don’t end up eating the traces of soil that used to be rich in our diet. The result is that we’re lacking in nutrition that we might not even realize we’re missing. But the rains fall, the smell of earth floats up through the damp air and some intelligence in our body, deeper than knowing, knows what it wants.
We have similar cravings spiritually. They feel counter-intuitive because in our mind, we know what we need for spiritual nourishment. Our culture has taught us what a proper diet looks like: read scriptures, go to church, pray, lose yourself in service to others. Repeat. Of course there is true sustenance in this formula. In Mormonism, it’s a bit like the spiritual food pyramid. And yet, we know more about developmental nutrition now than ever before. There are modifications in our diet that can lead to exhilarating growth spurts. There are different kinds of nutrients that we crave during different phases of our spiritual becoming. There are foods we need that we might not realize just how much we need.
A Custom Spiritual Diet
There is a whole branch of research that looks at how adults develop and considers what kinds of experience they seek and crave in order to continue growing in a healthy way. The following is a quick look at some of the main nutrients at each stage of development. As you read, you can consider if you’re getting everything you need to grow. Perhaps you’re well fed in one area but need to supplement in another? Also note that even when we grow beyond a certain stage, we still need the specific nutrition it provides to support the health of later stages.
The Diplomat, which we can regard as the first stage of adult development, feeds on belonging to a particular community and serving a specific role there. When we’re primarily identified with this stage, we care a great deal about fulfilling our role in the group, fitting in, and taking care of our reputation amongst the other members. It is also nourishing for us to strictly observe whatever rules we value collectively within that group. This stage is foundational and critically important to later development. Without a strong base here, we remain subject to our more selfish impulses throughout the rest of our lives.
As we continue to feed on belonging and group service, many of us will naturally grow into the next stage of development, which some researchers call the Expert. The Expert is fed by opening up to new kinds of knowledge and deepening his understanding in a chosen area. The Expert enjoys knowing what he knows and feeling the confidence that comes with that. You might say that certainty is the super-vitamin of this stage. We study diligently and align with other experts to know what we know. We care less about working to understand others’ points of view here and spend more energy asserting what we already know.
The Achiever gets nourishment by making choices about how she will express her values and priorities in a way that feels true to herself. This “cafeteria” approach of piling up on one food and passing on another actually becomes more of a developmental requirement as we mature. Nutrition comes in wider varieties at this stage than it ever has before. Whereas previous stages will largely agree on what faith (or doubt) in their chosen religion means, no two Achievers will fix themselves the same plate of food–we naturally go heavier on what we find to be most nourishing.
The Achiever also grows and gets nourishment by bringing the full force of their reason and intellect to the life of faith, laying the groundwork for faith and reason to eventually unite and transcend in a synthesis that goes beyond both. To some people at earlier stages, the Achiever’s probing can look like an unhealthy skepticism. All the soul-searching and investigating that is natural to this stage can feel like unnecessary troublemaking to others. And of course it can become that. But if we remain open to guidance and inspiration, reason can and will lead to a faith much more robust, much less insecure than the faith of the previous stages.
The Individualist starts to see through the many assumptions that we have more or less taken for granted up till now. Being aware of more and more of the shaping influences in life, we develop a passion for discovering new contexts that invisibly shape ourselves and society at large. Dr. Bill Torbert, a prominent developmental researcher, calls this stage “redefining” precisely because our central motivation is to reexamine everything, see the world from new points of view, and consider what perspectives we have been inherently blind to prior.
What is the experience of a single woman in the modern church? What about a transgender male? Do we all have an opportunity to meaningfully influence the culture, or are some of us simply at the whim of those in power? The Individualist intuitively knows that our backgrounds and upbringing deeply inform what we believe to be true about the world. She often names what is uncomfortable for many to discuss and in the act, proposes a new social order that allows the disempowered members of society a more dignified seat in the banquet hall.
In short, contexts are this athlete’s performance diet. The more contexts she can discover, the more nourished she feels by the possibility of redefining cultural practices and moving toward greater justice and dignity for all.
The Strategist feeds on development itself. There is perhaps no other stage of adulthood that is as preoccupied with continued growth.
At this stage in the journey of our unfolding humanity, it is evident to the Strategist that she has already transformed numerous times, passed through multiple worldviews and stages of development. Naturally, the Strategist realizes that there are many transformations to come. She embraces them. She gravitates toward communities that support developmental transformation and offer growth practices such as meditation, mindful movement, shadow practice, voice dialogue. All of these and more are important sources of nutrition for the Strategist who eagerly exercises body-mind in an effort to continue growing. In addition to personal growth, the Strategist is fed by helping to create environments that allow others to develop, too.
The stages that follow Strategist are statistically quite rare (where just 1-2% of adults will arrive if they ever do at all). We’re still learning a lot about what human life looks like from these altitudes. Perhaps one thing we can say that is common to the later stages is that awareness itself is the new food. In this range of development, for the first time in human life, we are more identified with the simple fact of awareness than with our body or our mind (personality, beliefs, etc.). We can draw sustenance at these stages by continually letting go into a greater Will that nourishes us and moves us in ways that the smaller self and personality can scarcely imagine.
These are just morsels–a few samples of the different kinds of food that adults might require as they continue to grow. There is much more to say regarding how adults go about finding nourishment at each of these very unique stages, but you can start to see the progression at play. For so long, we’ve just assumed that adults uniformly need the same spiritual nutrition to grow and fulfill their potential. We know better now.
For some adults, belonging to the collective and focusing on strict obedience is their lifeblood. For others, excessive focus on the letter of the law leads to spiritual atrophy. Not that those adults stop being obedient to principles and deep spiritual truths, but there is a new need to source wisdom from within, to follow one’s inner authority, while still aligning with the wisdom that comes from our leaders.
Certainty and knowing without a doubt are other kinds of nutrition that can feed some members, helping them stabilize in their own autonomy, while that same certainty can feel like spiritual junk food to others. At certain stages of adult development, we start to develop intense cravings for ambiguity, uncertainty, even doubt.
The trouble we get into as a community is when one person insists that the nutrition they derive from one stage of development is adequate to nourish everybody everywhere. It is natural to believe that what feeds us will feed others, but the science tells us something very different. What nourishes us in one phase of growth can quickly become toxic at the next stage’s unfolding.
Feed My Sheep
It is a touching scene on the shores of Galilee when the resurrected Christ feeds his apostles a simple meal of fish and bread over a coal fire. His exchange with Peter is one of the more poignant moments in all of the New Testament. “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.”
Traditionally, we’ve interpreted this to mean, “Preach my gospel. Spread the good news.” But how? Our experience of the modern world tells us that while some people can’t consume enough of this spiritual feast, others are repulsed. Why does the Ecuadorian farmer drop everything he is doing to invite the missionaries to spend the afternoon at his home while the industrious German can’t be bothered for 30 seconds on her commute to work? We have cultural interpretations of the humility of the South Americans and the secularism of the Europeans. We say that because the former are poor they’re more humble and receptive to the Spirit. While I don’t discount that, I would suggest that something much more subtle is going on. I would suggest that we have yet to truly adapt the good news to the nutritional needs across the spectrum of development.
Bearing testimony of the Atonement to one will be all the food they need to enter the waters of baptism and commit to a new life in Christ. In a different setting, another will be enticed by the message of social justice in the New Testament and our Christian calling to love men, women, people of color, and the LGBT community alike.
Ultimately, the Spirit is what feeds us all. But our metabolic needs shift during development. We can’t always digest the food that’s put on our plate. It might not even look like food to us. An understanding of how humans grow gives us insight into how we can offer one another food that is appropriate for our spiritual metabolism. When we offer people spiritual food that they can readily identify and digest, we never have to force feed. They will voluntarily and joyfully return again and again to sup with us.
Like my pregnant cousin whose body craved something totally different than what her mind told her was reasonable, we all have cravings for different kinds of nutrition that our spirits most need to grow and to flourish.
We can trust our nose.
What we’ve been taught to eat our whole lives does not always square with our deeper nutritional needs. What we try to feed others does not always nourish them. In the words of Mary Oliver, we can trust our soft animal body to love what it loves. We can trust others as they find sustenance, too. When we do this, we find food in unexpected places, springing up from the unimaginable generosity of the Divine, and filling our storehouse so full that there is not room enough for the bounty.
Learn more about the stages of adult development here.
Illustration by Gloria Pak