18 January 2010
We seem to be living in a society where more and more people are showing less and less willingness to act as grown-ups. I’m talking about adults. The human psyche is a supple thing, and one can choose to fix oneself in what is essentially an adolescent frame of mind long after chronological adolescence has been left behind, and someone in his sixth decade can choose to think and act habitually as if he were still in his third decade. All in all, this reluctance to act one’s age on the part of so many people is a very strange phenomenon, and, needless to say, not at all a healthy one.
Perhaps the most prominent characteristic of immaturity is the studied disinclination to accept, when it is altogether appropriate, even imperative, to do so, responsibility for one’s freely chosen acts. We may not deny outright that we actually did X, but we nonetheless do not want to be held accountable for the act. One ploy which has become quite popular these days is to seek refuge in the comfortable status of victimhood. There are, as the good Lord knows, many real victims in this world. But there are many artificial victims as well, self-styled victims, people who claim victimhood as an evasive tactic, a convenient way of escaping personal responsibility. Such attempts are of course completely futile. We can deny our responsibilities all we want, but if they represent real obligations which we have a solemn duty to meet, they are not going to go away.
The almost obsessive concern for rights which is so pervasive today is, I think, another sign of our immaturity. There is something remarkably puerile about being so preoccupied with what is owing to me – be it real or imagined – that I become virtually oblivious to what I owe to others, not to speak of what I owe, on a larger scale, to the common good. And now we have reached the point where, not content with what may in fact be legitimate rights, we have decided to start manufacturing entirely fictional ones, and sometimes of a peculiarly perverse kind, such as, for example, the “right” of two men to marry. A sure indication of a deeply entrenched immaturity is the inability to recognize absurdity as absurdity.
As for the causes of the immaturity that seems to be a dominant feature of our society, doubtless there are many, but a major one, in my opinion, is the decade of the 1960’s, a decade which has left a deep and severely damaging imprint on our culture. This was the decade in which irresponsible, juvenile behavior, on the part of people who were old enough to know better, was given almost universal sanction, and even held up as a norm worthy of emulation. “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!” it was then loudly proclaimed, and many of those doing the proclaiming seemed to believe that they themselves were never going to reach that age. In fact, many of them never did, in terms of ever becoming full-fledged adults in their thinking. The Sixties are now a matter of history, but the spirit of that disoriented decade lives on, vigorously, thanks to the extensive influence of the flower children of yore who now occupy prominent and powerful positions throughout our society – in the universities, in the media, in politics, and, yes, even in religion.
If wide-spread immaturity is the problem, what is the solution? Well, that’s easy enough to answer. It’s simply maturity, true maturity. And what might that be? What are the signs of a truly mature person? Again in this case, there are any number of things that could be cited, but among them three things are of central importance:
Firstly, if a systematic shirking of reponsibility is one of the salient marks of immaturity, the ability to accept responsibility, to embrace it even, is what chiefly characterizes true maturity. But here some important distinctions have to be made. One must avoid being distortingly selective in meeting one’s reponsibilities. Not all of our responsibilities are on the same level. Some are inherently more weighty than others, and therefore have a more imperative claim on us. There would be no virtue in meeting a lesser responsibility, say, dutifully paying your monthly electric bill, while habitually neglecting your wife and five children. And just as we can manufacture fictional rights, we can do the same with reponsibilities. Manufacturing fiectional responsibilbites, and then putting a lot of time and energy into meeting them, only deters us from meeting our real responsibilties, and has the effect of throwing our whole life out of kilter.
Secondly, the truly mature person has the abilbty to suffer. That might sound very odd, to make the abilty to suffer a signal mark of maturity. All of us have to suffer. It is simply part of life. We have no choice in the matter. This is true. But we do have a choice in how we are going to suffer, in the attitude we will assume toward suffering. A mature person suffers efficaciously. Someone might be able to bear up under pain, in whatever form it may take, physical or psychological, with a kind of stoic endurance, and yet be lacing in true maturity. The person who can suffer efficaciously, the truly mature person, is someone who has a lively sense of the positive aspects of suffering. The muture person penetrates to the depths of suffering, can see in it the most dynamic kind of affirmation, where others see only pure negation. In a word, the mature person grasps the whole redemptive dimension of suffering.
Thirdly, the truly mature person perseveres, never igves up, never abandons the effort to pursue virtue and to eschew vice. He never despairs of the triumph of the truth.
We can see that in the final analysis true maturity is essentially a spiritual matter. An immature person is at bottom a spiritually impoverished person, someone who, though perhaps chronologically well advanced in years, has never managed to grow up to God. The truly mature person, on the other hand, albeit pherhaps chronologically quite young, has arrived at spiritual adulthood. St Thérèse, one recalls, was, even as a girl, astonishingly mature.
D. Q. McInerny, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary