I was going to start this piece with the line “I used to think that older people were more mature than me,” but I realised that this could have given two wrong impressions: 1. That my opinion is that older people are immature. This is not true. 2. That I in fact think I’m the most mature person I know. Again, very untrue.
So what would I have meant by this un-thought-out opening line? Specifically that as a young lad growing up, the way that I perceived anyone older than me was that they were wiser, more mature, more learnèd, than I – simply due to their age relative to mine.
For this reason I always felt a little intimidated by those ever so slightly older than me, and felt a grateful sense of authority (it was probably pride) around my ‘inferiors’.
Several life changes over the past few years have forced a reassessment of this position. For example, university life blurred the lines between age distinctions, where you could forget that one peer had had a gap year while another had not; indeed one guy I lived with was several years older than me but because we were in the same year group, no difference occurred to me. Then I would have revelations that one person I perceived as more mature was in fact younger than another, and this began to shake up my simplistic model.
Now of course, I realise like perhaps many readers, that maturity isn’t an age thing. There are 20 year-olds who have seen more than their share of life already and are perhaps ‘mature’ for it; and then there are probably 50 year-olds who are still immature.
So it’s an attitude thing, not an age thing.
Nor is it quantifiable. Again, I used to perceive those older than me as ‘ahead’ of me, further down ‘the road’. Now in some senses this ‘road’ metaphor might not always be unhelpful, especially if you know what the goal is and the steps required to get there. But there isn’t a defined ‘length’ to the road any more than there is to a piece of string. The point is whether you are equipped, ready and willing to make the journey.
The thing about maturity is that it isn’t a formula for making everything work. “If you would SIMPLY just be MATURE about it, everything will work out!” Er, no – it’s not usually as simple as that.
Because the difference between the mature 20 year-old and the immature 50 year-old could be the difference between the two outcomes of a decision made at the age of 18. A decision to deal with the things life throws at you with wisdom rather than folly, head on rather than ducking away, grappling with life rather than letting it take you just anywhere your mates want to go on a Friday night. The 50 year-old isn’t more mature by virtue of the fact that they have likely had more ‘life issues’ to face. One is called ‘mature’ by the attitude they take towards something.
Maturity isn’t even a strive for objectivity against subjectivity. This has been one of the biggest lessons for me, a particular fan of dealing with issues rationally, reasonably, sensibly… But often trying to take in all of the above can too easily leave out sensitivity when another in the room is having an emotional difficulty with the situation in hand, not just a practical one. Maturity is learning that not everyone thinks and works like you, and learning how to go with that even if it’s not your natural mode. It’s learning the difference between gender, age, race, and knowing how to work with those frameworks rather than to ride roughshod over them. It’s not trying to get everyone to think like you, but learning how everyone else thinks.
It’s not pride, as I indicated at the start. My mistake in my youth, in thinking that if I was older than someone it meant that I was more mature, probably led to a little bit of arrogance and pride, even if I successfully managed to hide it most of the time. This is false maturity. True maturity walks hand in hand with humility, acknowledging that there are a great many unknowns. It’s how the unknowns are addressed which illustrates the difference between someone who is mature and someone who is immature.
Nor is there an exam you have to pass. There’s not a textbook, a set ‘level’ of knowledge to which you have to attain in order to be classed as ‘mature’. A professor versed in all the Chinese proverbs ever written could still easily be considered less mature than an illiterate poverty-stricken man from a remote African village who finds ways to feed his family and keep a farm going, against all the odds.
But indeed, just as maturity walks hand in hand with humility, on the other side is wisdom. There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom as much as there is a difference between a computer and a human. Wisdom is knowledge applied with love, discretion, understanding and discernment – all ideas which if we had the space could use further unpacking in and of themselves, but I am sure the reader is capable of that.
Do you want to see someone who is mature? Don’t look for the massive library, the ivory tower, the greying hair (though mature people could be and are connected with any one of these, but only by chance not by definition). Look out for humility and wisdom. Look out for someone who takes the things life throws at them head on, rather than shying away from them. Look out for the person who can give grace to others, who knows how to be happy for others who are happy even when their own circumstances are challenging; who knows how to share the burdens of another even if their own life doesn’t demand or require it. Look for the person who understands that it’s not all about them. Look for the person who is teachable, not most taught; reachable, not most aloof; sensitive, not most objective.
Ultimately, I think, look for the person who loves, and you will be pretty close.