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Crises refer to experiences that challenge people to examine their values and beliefs. They prompt people to ask, "What matters? What do I believe, and why?" If crises are deliberately embraced and engaged, they can be opportunities for tremendous spiritual growth. Although the term "crisis" can refer to emotionally traumatic events, it usually does not. Used in this general sense, a crisis can include anything that challenges people to examine what they believe and why. Examples of crisis can range from something as simple as dialoguing with someone who holds a differing viewpoint on an important issue such as the death penalty, to something as serious as divorce of one's parents, physical or emotional abuse, or critical illness. Spiritual growth develops in two ways: in dramatic spurts of rapid growth and in longer periods of slow, steady growth. The former, more dramatic type of growth, can result when persons who are in the middle of a life crisis do not try to avoid or escape from the challenges presented by the crisis, but intentionally respond to, and address, the salient issues.
The latter, more gradual type of growth develops through regular and sustained practice of traditional spiritual disciplines (i.e., prayer, meditation, fasting, and the study of sacred scripture). Both ways typically complement one another and work together in tandem to eventually produce spiritual maturity.
Although crises can lead to deeper levels of spiritual maturity, crises are not pleasant to experience. Rather, they are fundamentally unsettling. Indeed, the Chinese word for crisis refers to both danger and opportunity. Crisis denotes struggling and wrestling with fundamental life issues. Because of this, many people try to avoid dealing with crises and only truly wrestle with hard questions when pressed by serious and unavoidable life circumstances. For example, people sometimes reorient their lives in terms of what is of lasting value after experiencing life-threatening illnesses such as cancer. Many who have reported near-death experiences often do the same. Such times of crisis offer unprecedented opportunities for profound growth in a variety of dimensions, including spiritual, emotional, cognitive, moral, and psychosocial identity development. Paradoxically, the times of greatest struggle can also be the times of greatest growth.
A classic example of crisis stimulating spiritual growth is found in Saint John of the Cross's classic work, The Dark Night of the Soul. In this work, the 16th-century Spanish mystic describes crises as times of spiritual desolation. Such "dark nights" of desolation are essential for the more profound levels of spiritual insight and maturity.
One need not experience the crisis personally. Often, crises occur through watching a friend or loved one go through a time of struggle. Similarly, reading classic works of literature can be powerful stimulants of growth. Readers have the opportunity of stepping into the shoes of persons from another time, place, or culture, and indirectly encountering the wide variety of dilemmas that people or literary characters have confronted.
The experience of crisis alone is not sufficient to stimulate growth. The crisis must be embraced and genuinely engaged. To do so requires virtues such as honesty, courage, and integrity. In order for development to occur, one must not only have been exposed to a crisis, but have actively wrestled with issues and ideas that are relevant to them, and ways of thinking that are different from their own. If spiritual growth is to occur, one cannot merely turn to religious belief for temporary relief (sometimes referred to as "foxhole" religion), but must deliberately and critically examine beliefs and values. In other words, in order to experience profound spiritual growth, one cannot compartmentalize one's spirituality from ordinary daily life. Instead, one must reorient and integrate spirituality, beliefs, values, behaviors, and lifestyle into a unified whole. In rare individuals, this can occur in a distinct moment of time.