Personal and physical growth isn’t easy, but it all counts

I don’t subscribe to the idea that life’s hardships ultimately make us better and stronger humans. Sometimes there are just crappy moments, seasons and years. Hard knocks are hard, or worse. I don’t need to give a laundry list of life’s many possible low points; anyone reading this will likely immediately reference their own experience.

I do, however, believe that life is very long, full of seasons and chapters, and opportunity for change and growth.

Those two concepts are related and coexist rather perilously. One the first extreme, we have toxic positivity. The second is about what grows from ashes. There’s truth to them both and in between, but not a whole truth in either. You can’t have growth without pain. And pain doesn’t exist in a vacuum, either.

These days I find myself thinking about all of the life I’ve packed into my body. It’s almost incomprehensible that I’m the same human that I was 10, 20, 30 years ago. In some ways I’m not — I get the whole “cells changeover ever seven years” thing. But also, the essence of me is the same, and she’s both come a long way to grow while simultaneously digging down to support and reveal her core.

Truly, I love being in my 30s. I feel more solid than ever.

I had a college boyfriend remark to me that the cool girls always had it rough in middle/high school. The girls who weren’t hot, he said, had to be funny. It developed character. I remember blinking at him. He was giving me a sideways compliment, I think, but it stung. As a preteen, I wanted nothing more than to fit in but I didn’t. I was out of school most of the time, and even when I attended I had puffy and pimply prednisone face from medication and too much time out of commission.

My dad has carefully noted that my childhood asthma was, in some ways, a propeller into other arenas in my life. I know he would never have wished all those days spent at home, periodically hospitalized, hooked up to a nebulizer, and back to the emergency room again with another attack, etc., on me. But, in retrospect, he is right that a lot happened during that time that is directly connected to who I am now.

I’ve been running faster and hiking higher recently. This is who I am in Alaska.

That younger person that I was — and am — didn’t dream of Alaska. There’s a nostalgic origin story I could conjure up of me sitting on my childhood twin bed, light streaming in on magazines and books I was poring over featuring mountains and the far north. The truth is though, those magazines were Seventeen magazine with the 1990s “Got Milk” ads. The light streaming in was from daytime sitcom television. I played pinball for hours on the desktop computer, and fought with my mom over using the dial-up internet versus keeping the phone line free.

What I craved more than anything else in those days was connection, although I didn’t have the word for that then. I found some semblance of connection via AOL Instant Messenger. I chatted most frequently with my cousin who lived in Maryland, and eventually my long-distance boyfriend in Maine.

The seeds for Alaska were, in retrospect, planted in a couple of different ways:

I read Phillip Pullman’s seminal young adult novel, “The Golden Compass.” It featured compelling descriptions of a wild far north, with aurora borealis spinning through the sky and, more than just backdrop, a critical part of the story.

My parents used to vacation near Acadia National Park. We spent days at the beach. I loved exploring the rocky terrain just above the shoreline and smelling blueberries dotting the open, sandy landscape. The Atlantic crashed repeatedly and reassuringly to shore down below.

When my asthma disappeared seemingly overnight after I switched school environments, I found myself looking around at what other people do with their lives. I noticed how people inhabited their bodies. They moved. They did things like run and hike.

Meanwhile, I’d been doing a lot of nothing for so many years that on the one hand, it was daunting to have such a gaping blank slate and absence of meaningful purpose and hobbies in my life. On the other hand, I had nothing but opportunity to curate and define who I was and what I wanted. I was 13.

When I say I took it step by step, that is literal. The first time I hiked post-asthma, it was a question about whether I’d make it to the destination. I was supported by patient, if also a tad wary and concerned, school trip leaders and other participants. When I was at the top of the mountain, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, I had the distinct feeling that my own shaking legs had brought me there one grueling step by step. That meant anything was possible.

That feeling served to be indelible, and translated over into every other aspect of my life. It still does. Everything still happens for me step by grueling step. It doesn’t stop being hard. I just have more confidence in myself, because I have greater muscle and mental memory now.

See? Thirties are awesome.

There is no snapping of my fingers into change. I bristle when I come across seeming promises of shortcuts, or the warm glowing invitation — often on social media — to magically step into a better life; a better way of being and thinking. I get it, that sounds so inviting. I wish it were true. It is a comforting idea to believe in.

But my life has taught me both that it will shape me and make me better, capable of things I never dreamed of, and only with and through at least some level of difficulty. I will tell you what: it makes me grateful. I can say with absolute sincerity that I don’t take a step for granted. Even when it’s hard, I find it miraculous that I’m here doing any of these things, at all.

Alli Harvey

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.