Personal Maturity and Complexity

Adapted from Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future

Cultural Maturity’s implied developmental metaphor helps make more understandable both how what we see with regard to complexity might be possible, and why we are seeing it. The concept of Cultural Maturity proposes that the relationship between personal maturity and the maturity we must bring to the tasks of our time is more than just metaphorical, how it in fact reflects something fundamental in how we humans grow and evolve as a species. But the basic recognition that maturity in our personal lives alters our relationship with complexity—and in ways very similar to what will be needed at a cultural scale—provides a place to start.

Maturity in the second-half-of-life sense—not just becoming an adult, but becoming a mature adult—provides the defining metaphor for the concept of Cultural Maturity. Such maturity in our personal lives marks a unique hinge point in individual development. With adulthood we leave our home and parents physically. With mature adulthood, we do so symbolically. It is here that we really “grow up,” re-owning our projections  and reconcieving the mythologized imagery—whether it is of parents as ideals or parents as the source of all our problems—that until this point has protected us from the full impact of life’s complexities and responsibilities.

With these changes we tend also to see a new willingness to question our past belief systems, to examine where pieces may be missing. Not everyone reaches this stage of reflectiveness—our later years can instead produce a “hardening of the categories” in which we cling even more strongly to our old beliefs. But if we have the fortitude to engage the timely developmental tasks of life’s second half, we see a deepening and maturing of perspective. At the least, the accumulated experience of a life well lived makes it less likely that we will fall back on simple-answer solutions. But there is also something in the developmental tasks themselves that makes newly encompassing perspective increasingly possible for us.

With these changes, our understanding becomes not only more complex, it becomes complex in a deeper sense than just things being complicated. Mature understanding involves more than just greater knowledge. It is always about wisdom as well. I mean wisdom in a particular sense. Often we idealize the notion of wisdom or equate it with the more spiritual or poetic side of things. Ultimately this cheapens what wisdom is about. Real wisdom is more ordinary, and also more significant. In fact we can think of wisdom and a fully deep engagement with complexity—in our “complexly complex” sense—as almost one and the same. Wisdom is about better grasping the big picture and its many intricacies. Wisdom brings distaste for the simplistic. It also finds delight in understanding that captures the complex in particularly elegant—we might say simple—ways.

A closer look lets us be more concrete. One of the most striking aspects of midlife is how it puts before us parts of our psyches that prior to that time we have kept hidden, even from ourselves. We can miss this, but in my work as a psychiatrist I find it one of maturity’s most obvious and defining characteristics. It is key to the developmental tasks of life’s second half.

A person who has been highly extroverted may suddenly begin paying attention to more inner aspects, or an introvert may suddenly discover her more gregarious side; a person who has been more intellectual may become more attentive to feelings, or the opposite. Parts that before have been dismissed and often projected onto others become newly acknowledged. Such newly recognized parts may at first seem to conflict with the elements of ourselves with which we’ve most strongly identified. But central to wisdom is learning to accept, and even appreciate, such greater complexity.

Various people respond differently on first encountering a before-neglected part. One person may vigorously push the new part away—a very logical person may find new, more emotional impulses a threat. Or we can see just the opposite. The person may idealize the new part—a very down-to-earth, nuts-and-bolts sort of person might make newly felt spiritual inclinations the answer, the new all-encompassing truth in his life. In time we recognize that the task is not about choosing between parts, but about holding a larger picture, about acknowledging and embracing our contradictions and multiplicities. The result is a deepened and, paradoxically, more solid and coherent experience of identity. If anything defines maturity, it is this more complete embrace of our inner narratives. I like the words of Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself”: “I contradict myself, very well then, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.”

In drawing on the word maturity, the concept of Cultural Maturity proposes that the significance of this point in human history is similarly pivotal. We are engaging the possibility of “mature adulthood” at a cultural scale. If we wish, we can place this observation within an extended developmental picture. But the important recognition is simply that if personal maturity and the tasks of our times in fact have parallels, greater sophistication in the face of complexity is something we would expect to see. As with personal maturity, we should witness a new appreciation for “how we contain multitudes.”

With personal maturity, we become able both to better step back for greater perspective on our complex natures and to more deeply engage all the many facets of our complex natures. With today’s needed “growing up” we see something analogous on a cultural scale. These changes manifest in individuals, but are expressive of this particular development time in our human story. When we reincorporate projected aspects of ourselves and leave behind the mythologizing of experience, we not only better appreciate nuance and interrelationship in our internal experience, we come to more clearly see the complexities of everything around us. That we do is nothing particularly mysterious or exceptional. What mature perspective offers simply is that we better see things for what they are.