The Shifting Balance Between Security and Growth



© 2015 Alan F. Zundel

We humans have a drive for security and a drive for growth. Sometimes they work together and sometimes not. I have found that personal happiness is largely rooted in honoring the shifting inner balance between these two.

The drive for security is the inner impetus to do the things necessary for maintaining and protecting yourself as a biological organism—access to air, water, food, warmth, shelter, and protection of our bodies. This often translates into concern about having enough money.

The drive for growth is the inner impetus to develop our capacities as a human being—physical, mental and otherwise—and then to use those capacities for some larger purpose in addition to that of our own security. This translates into having something “meaningful” to do.

Both these drives are fundamental to our human experience, but their relative priority shifts over time and circumstances. The drive to growth sometimes necessitates risking our security, and at other times the drive for security is warning us of danger in our attempts to pursue growth.

Our failure to cooperate with these inner shifts in relative priority causes inner conflict and thus unhappiness.

The Life Cycle of the Shifting Balance

Think of the human life cycle.

At first baby Alan is all about security, spending his time sucking down hydration and nutrition when he is awake.

But soon baby Alan begins spending more and more time on growth, exploring his environment and learning to move around. He leaves security to whatever parental figures there are, simply fussing and crying when his needs aren’t met. (Sometimes adult Alan still reverts to this tactic!)

As Alan becomes a child he still prioritizes the development of his physical and mental abilities, but part of his challenge is learning to provide for his own security—to feed and dress himself for example. As his brain develops he creates a mental map of his environment which helps him in this task—for example, knowing that there is food in the refrigerator.

This mental map grows more complex as he learns more, both from direct experience and what he is taught about the world by others. Moving into adulthood Alan is now taking care of his own security needs by relying on his abilities and acquired knowledge of the world, especially the social world. In early adulthood he continues to explore and learn and grow, now balancing this against tending to his security needs on his own.

Then Alan gets married, has children, and settles into his working life. In both parenting and his work he wants to serve a purpose larger than that of his own security, while at the same time insuring his security and that of his family. The two drives are both strong.

Finally Alan’s children are taking care of themselves and again his inner self is saying to focus more on growth. This comes from knowing “in his bones” as he ages that he is going to die someday and so the security of his biological organism will ultimately be defeated. Growth in the form of serving a larger purpose becomes more pressing in preparation for the final letting go of security.


In an ideal world these shifts in priority would happen smoothly and easily, but not so in the world we live in. Conflict comes in a variety of forms.

Child Alan may have neglectful parents who are not meeting his needs, causing him to focus more on security to the detriment of growth. This can also cause an emotional pattern of excessive concern about security as he grows older.

Or young Alan may have over-protective parents who constrain his ability to pursue growth, causing him to overreact by excessive focus on growth later in life to the detriment of his security.

Teenaged Alan may develop faulty maps of his environment from people who teach him the world is more safe or less safe than it actually is, distorting his sense of his security needs. He may also learn an inadequate map of the social world which hinders him in choosing the right tactics for fulfilling his drives.

Adult Alan may be unable to find work that both provides for his and his family’s security and gives him opportunities for growth, causing him frustration. He may have to choose the fulfillment of one drive over that of the other, even though both are strong.

And old man Alan may continue to hang on to security rather than listening to his inner impetus to growth, finding at the end of life that he has missed his chance to find fulfillment and happiness in his last years.

Finding Happiness

Unhappiness is usually due to some blockage in accurately sensing and acting on our own internal messages about how much attention to devote to security and how much to devote to growth at a particular time in our life. Emotional pain and mental confusion are the symptoms of this mismatch between our inner messages and our thoughts, feelings, and actions related to pursuing the two drives.

Finding happiness requires us to dig down into our psyche, clarifying our various thoughts and feelings, to find the place where the messages about security and growth can be heard and acted on.

This is not a simple task, as the mental maps and emotional wounds which distort these messages can be complex and, because they touch on security needs, they can often be terrifying to examine. But it is a necessary task. The tools of the spiritual life—meditation, prayer, reflection, spiritual direction—are oriented toward clarifying these internal messages so that one can act on them.

Happiness comes from developing your abilities and tending to your real needs because you are finding alignment with your own inner nature, a nature given to you by the universe which gave birth to you. Ultimately you are being prepared for a shift in the drive for growth from developing your abilities to using those abilities for some higher purpose, one that has been mysteriously implanted in you.

Happiness at that point, you could say if you are theologically inclined, comes from doing the will of God.


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