How toxic ideas about maturity become a barrier to human virtues like understanding, acceptance, forgiveness, kindness and charity.
Every culture on Earth has some version of the concept of becoming an ‘adult’. However those concepts vary wildly in what life event(s) mark this transformation. Where some cultures consider landmarks of the physical development of the individual, others cite intellectual or spiritual growth as a deciding factor, while yet others assign an arbitrary time based on individual age or annual local customs. Where some females are considered to have ‘come of age’ upon reaching their first menses, regardless of age, other cultures legally prohibit ‘adult behaviors’ for people in their early to mid twenties.
With some exceptions, cultures bound by laws tend to have later entry points into adulthood, where cultures bound by ritual often have earlier ‘advancement’. As law-bound societies replace ritual-bound ones, the maturity finish line gets pushed later into life. While there may be some good reason to be critical of the stunting of adulthood, it might actually be better if we abandoned the concept all together.
What might be universal about becoming an adult is it marks a point in life when the individual is no longer considered vulnerable and is expected to get their shit together. I submit to you that this never actually happens, and that the belief that it does allows us to discount our vulnerabilities instead of recognizing and responding to them with the best that human beings have to offer.
The first thing one needs to understand when considering other people is that there are no ‘bad guys’ in the world, there are just people reacting to their own vulnerabilities in ways that compromise themselves and others. This is indeed an unfortunate circumstance that arises far too often, but it is not intrinsic to human individuals or humanity in general. We are not stuck in some unbearable situation, and there are choices we can make to break the cycle and work towards greater amounts of harmony.
One of the most important choices to make will be to transform our response to deviance from punitive and vengeful to restorative and rehabilitative. If somebody is acting out in ways that hurt others, it is almost certainly because they themselves have been hurt. Whether it was an explicit attack, or whether it was being conditioned towards fears and insecurities by their environment, those who do damage are mirroring the damage they have experienced in some way. And judging the validity of their damage in no way works towards understanding and repairing it. You must accept that whatever turned someone to such behaviors is very real to them and is at the foundation of their toxicity.
We are pretty good at doing this with children. If a child is abused at home and acts out against other children, we understand that they need help to get past what is making them react so corrosively, so that they can once again become happy, healthy and productive. However if you happen to have crossed the age of adulthood, you are no longer a broken being in need of help, but a problem to be dealt with. Then in the course of being dealt with you are broken down further, and if you are lucky, set free afterwards to potentially express your damage against others again.
The ‘tough on crime’ attitude that begs for responsibility and accountability of every individual poses as a pragmatic response to human deviance, however by ignoring the roots causes of the deviant behavior, it fails to get to the most practical and sustainable solutions available to us. A culture of blame is not one which encourages productive results, but rather which reinforce and validate our own reactions to our own vulnerabilities, causing the damage to continue to ricochet and hurt others.
Obviously it would be a mistake to disregard individual responsibility and accountability altogether, and I am not suggesting that we do. However those concepts are so enmeshed in our culture and institutions that they really require no defense at this point. To work on strengthening our empathetic options we must give a hard push of the pendulum towards the other side and explore what has become our weakness, which is the recognition of vulnerability and the ways in which to productively address it.
One of the easiest ways to get into this mindset is to start viewing your fellow humans as if no such thing as an adult exists, and that instead we are all frail children wearing a front to protect ourselves. Once you begin to do this it begins to appear that, rather than being surrounded by shitheads, assholes and motherfuckers, you are surrounded by a bunch of people trying their very best to hold their shit together in light of their circumstances. Sometimes they fail, but so do you. Who are any of us to judge?
If that doesn’t work, then I have also been using another perceptual filter to help correct my negative attitudes and judgments against others, which might also work for you. Every time you see somebody who rubs you the wrong way, and turns that little voice in your head into a mean-spirited jerk, envision this person dying before you. They are scared and alone and the look on their face says they just need you to hold and comfort them while they try to make their journey peacefully. If you are able to be blindly critical to someone after doing that, then I hope somebody less damaged than you can help you find your way back with love and compassion, because you my friend must be in some serious pain yourself and I am deeply and genuinely sorry for whatever happened to you.
“[U]nder the present brutal and primitive conditions on this planet, every person you meet should be regarded as one of the walking wounded.
We have never seen a man or woman not slightly deranged by either anxiety or grief.
We have never seen a totally sane human being.”
-Robert Anton Wilson
As for myself, I have always been the same person I was from the time of my first memories. At no point did my sense of self ever transform into something new, like a butterfly from a caterpillar. I am still that same child with new layers always being added, but fundamentally at my core I am no more or less an adult than I ever expect to be. And the more I am able to acknowledge my own frailty, vulnerability and weakness, the more I am able to see those things in others. The clearer they become, the more understanding, accepting, forgiving, kind and charitable I become, which not only gives me the tools to care for and honor others, but to care for and honor myself. The result is a sense of serenity, peacefulness and joy that is worth it itself. You are the world you were born to make better, so live every day for the rest of your life trying to be the most well-adjusted child on the planet.