February 1, 2011
I was having a conversation with a friend the other night about maturity and social connection. We tossed around the question of what it is to be “mature”. According to Wikipedia, maturity is “how a person responds to the circumstances or environment in an appropriate and adaptive manner…. Maturity also encompasses being aware of the correct time and place to behave and knowing when to act appropriately, according to the situation”.
I have trouble with that definition, as I don’t believe that maturity is driven by the results of one’s decisions but by the cause. As I get older, I look around and I see striking differences between what drives the actions of those around me. A lot of my friends act in a way that would be considered incredibly mature – they’re stable, responsible, and stoic. They pay their bills on time, they manage to raise their kids not to become sociopaths, and they go to work every day. They have faithful long-term relationships and they save for retirement and for a rainy day.
Yet I see a difference in what’s creating that behavior. Some of those friends are driven to their “mature” behavior by personal insecurities and fears that aren’t much more sophisticated than the six-year-old who is terrified of the monsters under his bed. They save money (for example) not because they want to be profitable and well taken care of in their old age, but because they’re terrified that tomorrow, someone’s going to take it all away from them. They’re faithful to their wives not because they’re building a relationship that will be fulfilling in the long-term, but because they’re afraid of the horrors that will befall them if they cheat.
And I have a problem with the idea that maturity is all about social norms of behavior… because some of the most mature and wise people I know are ones who defy conventional definitions of “being a grown-up” at every turn.
So, I’ve been playing around with a different definition in my life and trying to see how that definition affects the way that I live. Maturity, in this working definition, is a sliding scale – not a state to be achieved. The scale is simple: maturity is directly proportional the timescale that we consider in making the decisions of our day-to-day lives.
If we think about the least mature among us (e.g. the above-mentioned six-year-old), it should be obvious that most of his/her decisions/thoughts are made on a short time-scale. I’m hungry now, so I eat. I’m not happy with you because you won’t give me ice cream, so I hate you forever. (The psychologists call this an inability to delay gratification.)
If we look at those who we consider the most wise and the most mature, we see a different time-scale in action in their behavior. As an example, I looked up some quotes from the Dalai Lama (who I would think most would agree to be a pretty mature guy). What amazed me about that page is the number of quotes about the future – and not just his own personal future, but the future of our species. He thinks about the world not in terms only of “when I grow up”, but “when I’m no longer here”. As an example:
“If you must be selfish, then be wise and not narrow-minded in your selfishness. The key point lies in the sense of universal responsibility. That is the real source of strength, the real source of happiness. If we exploit everything available, such as trees, water and minerals, and if we don´t plan for our next generation, for the future, then we´re at fault, aren´t we? However, if we have a genuine sense of universal responsibility as our central motivation, then our relations with the environment, and with all our neighbours, will be well balanced.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately – how would my life be different if, in each moment, I was making decisions with an eye not toward what feels good now, but what would be the best for me in 10 years. Or 20 years. Or what would be best for those around me on the day of my death. Or 100 years after I’m dead. How would each decision I make be different?
And I’ve been finding that it leads to a different way of looking at my life. One that I’m beginning to quite like. (Although, I have to say, it starts to make most US political debates look pretty ridiculous, given that the time scale of their thinking is never more than about 2 years long… which probably maps pretty well to the time scale of the “average” American these days…)
As a reader, do you think about what time scale you make decisions on? How do you make decisions around your finances, your relationships, your health and your career?