The Stages of Adult Maturity
When someone grows into a human who is able to help the world, what is it exactly that they have done?
Each of us has a place in this world. Taking that place, I have come to feel, is our real job as human beings, we are not generic people, we are individuals, and when we appreciate that fact completely and allow ourselves to embrace it and grow into it fully, we see that taking our unique place in this world is the one thing that gives us a sense of ultimate fulfillment
Bantu tribesmen, it is said, sneak into the rooms of their children as they sleep and whisper in their ears, “Become what you are.” To take our place is to mature, to grow into what we are.
Taking our Places by Norman Fischer
Sometimes, I feel like we’re living in a world run by children — a world where we pretend global warming doesn’t exist if we don’t think about it, or a world where the needs of the many are dismissed in favor of the personal gratification of the few. We live in a world of celebrity, where a significant percent of the population is emotionally invested in the silicone content of Kim Kardashian’s ass. Many of our role models’ primary defining feature tends to be their complete commitment to the world of appearances. In the US, we spent 16 billion on plastic surgery in 2016, and that number has been increasing every year.
And, like, thats fine in a sense — I myself fantasize about the day I have enough disposable income to blow a few grand on butt implants so I can look like Kim Kardashian from the waist down— but it still leaves open the question of, like, is this it? If I look good enough, party hard enough, eat all the drugs and endangered animals, like, have I won?
I spent a year in the woods, and got dropped back into the world of tech, and venture capital, and… indulgence for lack of a better word, and like, I’m worried. In the woods, there was nothing to do and I could get lonely at times, but there was also a deep contentment at the base my experience. I knew my friends were living these kind of, high income, possibly drug fueled lives — with the most extreme excesses funded by the mega wealthy who exist as shadow characters of my social awareness, somehow mysteriously streaming money into things — and I gave zero fucks on missing out on that. Truthfully, I never really planned to leave the woods and go back, but I did because I fell in love with some guy. (It did not work out.)
If I had to describe the experience of re-entering tech society, the primary emotion I felt was FOMO, aka, the fear of missing out. As soon as I landed, I realized I wasn’t pretty enough, or rich enough, or well connected enough, and omg, I definitely wan’t young enough. And, it took some time to see it, but I think maybe it had always been that way. Since college, (which for me, also means since facebook and the internet) existing in the world had always meant existing in this space of never feeling like enough, partly in the eyes of others, but mostly in this weird, internalized narrative of who I was “supposed” to be.
It reminds me, actually, of this comic I used to read Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (yes, I was goth, shut up.) Anyway, in one comic, Johnny dies and goes to hell, and hell turns out to be basically the world we’re living in now — except that there’s a giant eye in the sky instead of the sun. And, as one of the damned explains to Jonny, everyone in hell keeps acting like an insane weirdo because everyone thinks the eye is watching them.
Thing is, we’re all carrying around our own eye in the sky. When I talk to people about my hatred of capitalism, it is difficult for me to convey just how deep that hatred goes, and how depersonalized it is. I don’t hate any person or institution for succumbing to the capitalist system, I hate that so many of us — virtually all of us — have learned to despise our true nature because this perpetual dissatisfaction makes us efficient consumers. And it’s no one’s fault, it’s just that systems that last do so because they found a way to perpetuate themselves, and consumer capitalism perpetuates itself through the vehicle of our own dissatisfaction.
That fucking FOMO. When we feel FOMO, most people don’t connect it to the narrative “I’m being oppressed right now,” but I think it is deeply connected to oppression, and we are all oppressed. Even rich white men, who are trapped by the perpetual feelings of dissatisfaction in their own mind, are oppressed by this. These are the same men who will bankrupt the world in an effort to not feel the FOMO of some imagined perfect opulence, and they will never succeed, because — as far as I can tell — even being President doesn’t make those feelings of dissatisfaction go away.
Anyway, maturing, right? Somehow, the idea of wanting to be mature came to be seen as a bad thing, as if being mature is synonymous with being old and boring. But actually, maturing is about shedding that bullshit that makes you miserable. It’s about letting that eye in the sky fall away, so once you stop pretending to be the person you think you should be, and you can just be the person you really are. And once you are that person, or if you can inhabit that space a reasonable amount of time (even just 5%) this perpetual pain becomes an intermittent pain, and you become a lot less trapped. The difference between perpetual pain and intermittent pain is like night and day, because you will naturally gravitate to the place of less pain — you will naturally pick up life habits that make you less miserable. But, you have to experience what not having pain feels like before you can move toward it.
But, some people have figured this shit out; old people. Well, more exactly, happy old people. Something I realized when volunteering in hospice, is some people make it to the end of their lives never knowing what it feels like to be free of the “eye in the sky” pain. When they die, they suffer immensely, because they have spent their whole lives craving something they never got, and they now realize they’re out of time, and they’ll never get it. And some people… are ok, and there’s not really much more to say about them. I wish I could tell you what they did differently, I wonder about it, but I didn’t know these people during their lives; I just knew them at the end.
However! As it turns out, other people have studied this; there have been a few lifetime studies of people from late teens to death, and some of them are summarized in this book Aging Well. As the title would imply, it offers a fairly optimistic interpretation of growing old, and for people who “age successfully,” life actually continues to improve up until very near the end.
Some may argue that the term successful aging is an oxymoron. For is not aging inextricably associated with loss, decline, and approaching death? Is not success inextricably associated with gain, winning, and a zestful life? Perhaps, but the fact is that the majority of older people, without brain disease, maintain a sense of modest well-being until the final months before they die. Not only are the old less depressed than the general population, but also a majority of the elderly suffer little incapacitating illness until the final one that kills them.
Aging Well by George Vaillant
Vaillant lays out the steps of maturity that people who “age successfully” tend to go through. Now, of course, not everyone goes through these steps — and, some people get stuck along the way, or will do them out of order — but he does note that people who get really stuck for a long time tend to suffer. For instance, there were people in the studies who did not achieve “identity” (the first task of maturity) by age 50, and that these people struggled to find meaningful work or find sustained meaningful friendship.
Anyway, to give a quick overview of the developmental tasks given to adults:
- Identity: This is, ideally, a task completed by the end of childhood— that by the time we leave home, we have a sense of our own tastes, values, politics, etc. that are separate from our family’s tastes. People whose lives are overly preoccupied with parental approval (or, the approval of people/institutions acting as parental proxies) may not have completed the task of identity. Not that it requires a disowning of family; rather, it requires knowing how your values differ from the values of your family or family-proxy, and being willing to act on those differences.
- Intimacy: Traditionally the task of living with an opposite sex spouse in an interdependent non narcissistic way, some women in the study mastered this task with close non-sexual friendships. In a more modern world, I expect the faces “intimacy” may expand to include close friendships, same sex partnerships, open relationships, etc. but fundamentally this boils down to the ability to both support the people you love and to receive love from others in substantial and material ways over the long term.
- Career Consolidation: Along with “identity” Career Consolidation can seem to be one of the more “self centered” stages of maturity, but is nonetheless necessary. Career Consolidation is, in fact, a kind of expanding of identity from personal tastes and values to role in the world. It’s worth noting, for the sake of this study, “stay at home parent” or “priest” or other unpaid “careers” are valid choices for mastering this task. It’s really about finding your identity within society at large, not making money, that’s the important part of this task.
- Generativity: Apparently, between 30 and 45, people’s need for personal accomplishment tends to become less important than their need for community. After that transition, people usually enter a “caring for others” stage (often from people’s 40s — 60s) where people support community by caring for other people, often younger or older generations. This can happen in careers where people enter a mentorship stage as opposed to “personal production” stage, or in volunteer work with community or church institutions.
- Keeper of Meaning: This task is kind of like generativity, but rather than specifically caring for individuals, it’s more about trying to guide groups or keep traditions or values going. It’s something that people tend to hit around 60-70, and it’s slightly less personal, and perhaps more like trying to create the framework for a productive society at large
- Integrity: The final task, ultimately, is about coming to peace with the fact that you’re going to die. Traditionally, I suppose, it happens when you’re old, but my experience with hospice and Zen leads me to believe it can happen at any age. It is often connected to finding spirituality, or reconnecting with a neglected spirituality, but it doesn’t have to be. I guess I’d phrase it as, to completely know yourself, you have to know and accept your own impermanence, and this task is about accepting the truth of your fundamental nature.
Now as I mentioned, though people often go through these in order, they frequently don’t — sometimes because of traumatic events. For instance, for myself, I believe I’m in developmentally “average” places for identity and career consolidation, but because of sexual trauma, I am less developed in the “intimacy” stage and more developed in the “integrity” stage than a typical 34 year old. This is why I’m reading a book on “aging well,” but am also emotionally unavailable when I go on tinder dates. And, like, that’s fine I think. While part of me mourns the years of missed connection, I also hope that as I age, a premature dip into “integrity” will give me the resources to support my friends and community coming to terms with some of the more painful truths of existence.
So, I don’t so much present these as marks of shame that you have to live up to, but more as informational areas you may want to pay attention to. And, it’s also worth pointing out, some people don’t go through any of these steps so no matter where you are, there’s no shame in that. Perhaps when you were reading through that list, a certain area jumped out at you — for me, when I first read about “intimacy” I felt this kind of wave of sadness — and maybe that’s an area to look at if you want to continue maturing.
I also think, as a society, we’re generally struggling with “identity” right now, so no matter where you are, it’s worth taking a look at that one as well. As I mentioned earlier, when I came back from the woods, I started to get the “FOMO” feeling. Effectively, I believe consumer capitalism perpetuates itself best when dealing with a population that is experiencing identity crisis because they will buy stupid shit to absolve that pain. So, we have developed societal mechanisms to stop people maturing beyond identity because, effectively, a society of emotional teenagers with the spending power of adults leads to the most efficient society from a consumer capitalist perspective. However, it is not the best from a “live a long happy life” perspective, so I think we want to change it.
Nelson Mandela is one of my personal inspirations when it comes to FOMO fighting, because the guy is a FOMO disaster. He spent 27 years in prison (he was originally sentenced to life) from 1962–1990 and finally got out at the age of 71. He went on to become the president of South Africa in 1994, and presided over the dissolution of apartheid in South Africa. Like, is there any doubt in your mind that this man lived a worthwhile and significant life? But years 45–71, prime years when most people are at the height of their professional power, were stolen from him.
And yet, so many pictures you see of him are of him smiling — like, really smiling. How the hell was he not a bitter and jaded fuck? I mean, I threw a fit when my friends kicked me out of their burning man camp, how do you get through 27 years of prison?
I don’t know. But, when Nelson Mandela came out of prison, he was a mature man. He was someone who knew his place in the world, who took the hard lessons of his life and used them to benefit society at large. Why are we so afraid of emulating that?
Donald Trump is admired by many for (not in spite of) his narcissistic displays of self involvement. These displays functions as a demonstration of his power. Trump is clearly broadcasting that he is so powerful, he doesn’t need to pay consideration to the needs of other people, and people who witness that like him because they want to emulate him. We all secretly fantasize about a world where we can have whatever we want without having to do the hard work of growing up, but you know what, I don’t think we’d like it if we got there.
Do you believe Donald Trump is happy? Do you think Nelson Mandela was in his final years? They both became presidents in their 70s. In spite of getting every advantage (including being born to millionaires) Trump always looks miserable to me. And, despite spending 27 years in prison, Mandela usually looks happy. I think it’s well worth investing the time in figuring out how to truly grow up, not because it benefits others, but because by learning how to help others, you find your own contentment and place in the world.