The Art and Skill of Maturing

Chapter I: The Journey of Maturing…How are you going to Participate?

In this first chapter we look at people and parts of ourselves that seem immature. We see that maturing means not just having the appropriate response to a situation but finding the response that mirrors our potential. Finally, maturing is more than something that happens to us…It is an art and a skill that seeks our participation.

1 – People we all have met

There was something about my Uncle John that made him different. In many ways, he was just like the rest of the men in my family; working, driving car, buying a house, cutting the grass and in general fulfilling his duty to support his wife and children – the important tasks given to men in the 1950’s and 60’s. But when I was just a child, there was something that left me and my cousins wary of him.
One trait that set him apart from other adults was that he wanted to be involved in the games we played. At first we were excited because an adult wanted to have fun with us, but after a while we realized that what he really wanted was to win. He hated losing and because we were kids, his size and strength usually left him on top. And more than just winning, our play often ended with him mocking those he beat or hurt because of his intensity and size. Most of the time he behaved like a bully or a sore loser and our confusion as children was that we expected him to act like an adult, not a spoiled kid.
It turns out we children weren’t the only ones expecting him to be more mature. As I moved into adolescence and engaged in adult conversations, it was clear his behaviour put him at odds with his peers. I remember our family arriving at my uncle’s house one summer day and the grass had not been cut for weeks. More than that, the rift between my uncle and aunt was palpable, her upstairs preparing a meal and fuming while he remained in the basement sulking. The fact that company was coming did not impact either his demeanor or his behaviour, unusual in the world of adults. Children can be mad and not care about their social obligations but the norm for adults is to balance personal issues with larger responsibilities. Plain and simple, when it comes to social duties, adults aren’t supposed to sit in the basement and pout.
Even while we are still children, we are making decisions about the kind of person we will become, the qualities we seek to acquire, the characteristics we hope to avoid. Before we are even aware of it, we have already started to shape how we will mature.

2 – Dreams and Reality

One of the last times I saw my uncle was when I was in my early 20’s. I had stopped by their house for a quick visit and my uncle proudly showed me his latest purchase – a new car. He was not a wealthy man by any stretch, an unskilled labourer who, like so many men after the war, advanced in his job only as far as obedience would take him. I suspect he often felt inferior to his peers with their bigger homes and ongoing parade of cars. It was clear this new vehicle was an important statement of worth for him, an end to feeling second-class and poor.
But he was poor, that was the reality. He had half a dozen children, minimal income and an unflagging hope that one day the Irish Sweepstakes would land on him. Months after I helped him celebrate the purchase of his new car, I overheard my aunt telling my mother how difficult life had become. Finances were so stretched she had been without a washing machine for more than a year. When my mother asked how they could afford to buy the new car, my aunt burst into tears.
“The payments on that stupid car are killing us,” she sobbed. “He was so carefree when we got married, so much fun. But now, I just wish he would grow up.”
In the decades that have passed since I last saw my uncle and his new car, a litany of change has taken place. His children left home. My aunt eventually walked out and before she was old, died of cancer. I heard his life ended in a bottle. And while my aunt and uncle aged and died, I followed my own variation of what he and the other men in my family have done – worked, bought homes, cars, and supported a family. In our own way, each of us wrestled with the changes that came with our aging, facing these tasks with the hope that our choices would be satisfying, that our behaviour would make life better. I suspect neither of us gave it much thought, but the foundation of those choices had been acquired and nurtured throughout our entire lives. We were putting into practice all that we had learned in the art and skill of maturing.
For all of us, one critical measure of maturity is how much our life is in touch with the world as it is and how much it reflects the world as we wish it to be.

3 – The art and the skill

It requires a deft touch – an artist’s eye – to see, understand and appreciate exactly what is happening in us and in our world. The nuances of any situation are intricate and multilayered and it is truly an art to grasp the fullness of our reality. Our ability to grasp the entangled dance of who we are and what is happening is the place where our maturing is an art, evolving and developing as age and experience grows. And it is our art, our responsibility and task.
But more than an art, maturing is also a skill. It did not matter that my uncle and I differed in our understanding of how life worked. It did not matter that a great gap separated the various ways we each approached the world. In did not even matter that we were a generation apart in age, life tasks and family situation. For both of us the task of maturing was always the same: to respond appropriately to our situation. We may argue about how mature either of our responses was – my uncle turning to cars and alcohol while I obediently echoed the actions of my forefathers – but there is no doubt each of us was called upon to respond effectively to the world as it unfolded in front of us. Our differing experiences, dreams and fears did not change our common task: to read our situation accurately and to respond appropriately.
When I look at my uncle and the choices he made, questions arise about his maturing, about the maturing that unfolds within all of us. Did my uncle have to remain as immature as he was? I know he felt trapped in his behaviour and circumstances, but what skills would have enabled him to reach further in his growing up? Is the art and skill of maturing something we can develop, and if so, can it help us do more than just learning to respond appropriately?
If maturing is only something that happens to us, a journey we endure but cannot shape, we will inevitably experience life as a victim.

4 – More than just appropriate

For many of us who take our own maturing seriously, it seems to be true that simply responding appropriately to a situation is not enough. We want more in our maturing, more than just being appropriate: We want our responses to reflect our potential. When most of us watch the maturing of our bodies, for example, there is an almost instinctive need to judge or evaluate how we look. The quest to diet, exercise, and reshape our physicality may be much more than just social pressure to look a certain way, it may also point to a deep-seated desire to be fulfilled physically, to realize our potential in the many ways we interact with the physical world.
We see a similar drive for potential in our relationships, an instinctive need to examine the dance of love with a critical eye. We are not satisfied with relationships being just appropriate. We want them rich and abundant in their full potential. Our need to measure and evaluate just about every aspect of our development suggests that one of our deepest desires in maturing may be to stretch into our potential, whatever that might be.
What then of my Uncle John? And what of the people we know who have somehow failed to mature? Not failed completely, mind you, but falling short nevertheless. My uncle grew tall and strong, developing skills enough to hold down a job and fulfill many of his adult responsibilities. There is no doubt he learned many of the social requirements that define what it is to be a man of his generation, but somewhere in the process he stumbled. The judgments of his wife, his peers, and even his young nephews and nieces indicated that he not only failed to meet his potential, he could not find the appropriate response to many, many situations.
A satisfactory life is so much more than survival. Or passing your genes on to the next generation, for that matter.

5 – Growing up as a choice

This past summer my wife and I were sitting with a friend, a government executive with a promising future and great potential. She is mature in so many ways and her employer has confirmed this by giving her promotion after promotion. On this particular day, however, she was full of tears, confused and terrified about her future, about going forward in life without her husband by her side. She wrung her hands and cried out: “My daughter and I, we don’t know what to do. He’s been gone for weeks now and every night we sit together on the couch, lost. We’re just two little girls, waiting for Daddy to come home.”
It was one of those rare moments when the veil of maturity slipped and we caught a glimpse into what her marriage meant to her. Mature and capable in so many ways, but in her most intimate relationship she was still very much a child. And perhaps this is much closer to how most of us are, mature in lots of areas of our functioning but immature in others, realizing our potential in some areas of life but failing to develop in others. It may be our emotional life, our relationships, our intellectual or even our spiritual life, the art and skill of maturing eludes us. Being bright, skilled, talented and funny is no guarantee of maturity. Even aging and going through many of life’s passages is no guarantee of maturing. And although we may not see ourselves as immature as my deceased uncle, success in some areas of our maturing is no guarantee that there are not others where we have stalled.
I suspect the different degrees of maturing we see in the people around us and in ourselves is a measure of whether or not maturing is a concern to us, a priority in our lives. Sometimes it is simply easier to justify what we continue to do rather than search for a more adequate or even fulfilling response. My memory of my uncle is that he had a ready explanation every time his behaviour was challenged. If maturing is an art and a skill, maybe our lack of maturing is something we need to challenge before progress can be made.
It is a temptation for all of us to look at a narrow range of successes in life and point to these as the mark of maturity. If we take maturing seriously, we tell the truth about our whole life.

6 – The invitation to mature

Maturing appears to be different for humans than it is for mountains, trees, animals and wine, different because we get to shape what our maturing looks like. Not unlike the mountains, trees and animals, much of our maturing unfolds as an inevitable path of biological change and social influence, but we have an additional influence: our active participation. In the end, the maturity we bring to our world is our creation, our responsibility.
Much more than a burden or task, maturing is an opportunity which seeks our engagement, an urging that pushes us to recognize that our choices solidify what we will become. Maturing is our creation – our responsibility – and perhaps that is the best news. For if we have responsibility in shaping our maturing, then we have a say in how close we come to fulfilling our potential. The art and skill of maturing…How are you going to participate?

How good it is to know that the pain of an immature life is not inevitable. We have a say in what we become.

In Chapter II, we will explore the steps that take us to the place where we become responsible for our maturing. What begins in early childhood as automatic and inevitable slowly transitions into something we consciously and actively shape. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us already have a rich experience showing us how to participate in our own maturing.