Growing Downwards

Growing Downwards - Patti Spencer

A great deal of growing, is growing downwards. . . Sooner or later the process of growing smaller starts, and it is painful at first until you get used to it.
– Donald Winnicott


We learn from Dendrology and the root structure of woody plants the importance of growing downward. The spread and depth of the root system of a tree are just as big, if not bigger, than what protrudes above ground – which we call a tree. Only by growing down, can the tree grow at all.

Fully 9/10th’s of an iceberg is the ice mountain is under water. The power and the menace of the iceberg come from what’s underneath.

Or does Winnicott talk about “growing down” as opposed to  “growing up?” By growing downward, he seems to mean becoming smaller. Does he mean becoming more childlike? As Lewis Carroll shows the difficulty of growing up in  Alice in Wonderland? Drink me. This one makes you smaller.

What is omitted by the ellipsis? “If I live long enough I hope I may dwindle and get small enough to get through the little hole called dying.” Not until a few paragraphs after that, “Sooner or later the process of growing smaller starts, and it is painful at first until you get used to it.”

The idea of dwindling and getting small enough to get through the little hole called dying is troubling. I can assure you, whether you think you have dwindled or whether you have gotten smaller or not, when death comes it ends life. One does not have to try to get through a little hole. You will find yourself on the other side willy-nilly.

When my parents died, a year apart, I felt old. They say when your parents die, you finally know that you are an adult. Even though I was a caretaker, and their mental capacities had dimmed, I still kept alive the hope of having the love of my mother and father the way I always wanted it. When they died, I finally had to give up that hope. Is that a growing smaller, a growing downward?

Letting go of hope is a diminishment. Yet it also a freeing from continual longing and disappointment. Isn’t that growing up?

Winnicott knew he was dying, which is a gift not given to all, and he both struggled to keep living completely and to master his death. When Winnicott talks of approaching death and growing smaller, he seems to mean losing his professional standing and skills. He says in the same first paragraph of the David Wills Lecture, “I do not need to go far to find an inflated psychotherapist.  There’s me.” In the months preceding his death, struggling with his weakened heart, he continued writing, speaking and seeing patients. He also made a note to himself: “Prayer: May I be alive when I die.”

The growing smaller seems to recognize diminishment in life, in work, in stature. But needing to be alive when he dies illustrates his need to triumph over the reality of decay and disintegration. These are paired concepts – a Hegelian Dialectic. As a child struggles between independence and dependence, so the dying man faces impossible and necessary death.

My parents died and diminished me; yet, they finally set me free.

One thought on “Growing Downwards

  1. Nothing can provoke thought like death and dying can. It’s hard to fathom and explain, and your post touched on the complexities of the process. Is it an end? Or a beginning? Does growing down mean realizing and accepting the reality of what it means to live, and die?

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