As children we cannot wait to grow up. Time is the enemy. Our pint size and inexperience — not to mention our elders — tell us that we are not ready yet; ready for all the things we’d like to do.
Soon after our chronology reaches double-digits we want to drive and drink and date. We want to be independent. We want to be taken seriously; to do the right thing, to flee the coop.
Time stands in the way, like an implacable Big Ben, blocking our path. Its clock-faces look down like some sort of gigantic, elongated, menacing owl, hovering over our air space. Well, nothing we can do about that. But what can we do to achieve maturity? Surely, just waiting to get older isn’t enough. And age, by itself, is no guarantee of wisdom.
Joseph Conrad’s novella The Shadow Line: A Confession deals with just that: the kind of experience without which one remains innocent of oneself and the world no matter what your age; the kind of experience that is informative and transformative of one’s character. In other words, that brings maturity.
Conrad’s narrator is a young man, a seaman, with no one to look out for but himself. He is impulsive and makes important decisions without quite knowing why. He is easily offended and uncertain of his proper place in the company of others. He wants to get on with things, at the point in his life where:
…one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind.
What he will confront — indeed, what he needs to confront — is a crisis at sea with an enemy no less implacable than Time. It is Mother Nature he will face, and the things that can happen when water and air and all the uncontrollable elements conspire to frustrate the lives of men. And he will feel much older because of it:
It seems to me that all my life before that momentous day is infinitely remote, a fading memory of light-hearted youth, something on the other side of a shadow.
In the space of three weeks Conrad’s unnamed protagonist is changed by his match with adversity. But what if you are not a seaman challenged by the Godless waters? What might you do to hasten maturity’s arrival? A few things come to mind:
- Try things that are new and difficult for you. Will you suffer? Yes. Will you fail? Sometimes. But if you keep at it, you will grow from the experience. Keeping only to the tried and true will teach you little.
- Question authority. No, this doesn’t mean throwing rocks and breaking the law. It means asking yourself whether you should believe all that you’ve been “told.” For example, is your religion the one and only “true” religion? Are your parents good models of how to live? Does your political party have a monopoly on truth? Does material wealth bring happiness? Is technology making your life better? Remember, the crowd isn’t always right.
- Reflect on yourself, your character, and your behavior. Take an unflinching look at yourself, who you are, and who you want to be as a person rather than as someone of a certain rank or job title. Ask yourself why you keep doing things that don’t work very well. Look at how much of your decision process and conduct is performed on auto-pilot, fixed on a course that was set long ago.
- Compete, especially in team sports. It is said that “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” thus referring to the character-building that can happen in team sports played in places like Eton College, an independent boarding school. Pulling for and working with a team of almost any kind is an opportunity to grow as a person. You cannot become mature as a solo-act.
- Be open to experience and what it can teach. This means you have to be prepared to have your attitudes changed by what you observe (especially of yourself) and what you participate in; and that you have to go out and “have” experiences (including passionate ones), not just read about them or watch them on TV or simulate them via the computer. Beware of electronic signals and noises, cell phones and computer screens that tweet and squawk and bother and bewilder you with things that usually aren’t important. Rather, as Epictetus suggested, be a spectator of yourself and achieve understanding that way.
- Be open to others. Allow yourself to become close to a few others, not so defended against what they might do to you that you are marooned in a fortress of your own design. You will be fooled and sometimes you will be hurt, but it is hard to mature without the experience of intimacy. And without the joys that come with human contact.
- Take responsibility. Don’t always be a follower. Develop a sense of leadership and be willing to accept at least some responsibility for your failures, in or out of leadership positions. As Cassius said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
Men at some time are masters of their fates.The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our starsBut in ourselves, that we are underlings.
- Alter your default tendencies. If you are prone to act impulsively, slow down and become more reflective. If you are prone to looking back, try to look forward. If you anxiously await the future, set yourself the task of living more in the moment. None of this comes easily, but the practice of mindfulness meditation can often help.
- Determine what is most important in your life, commit to it, and “live it.” I have an old friend with whom I sometimes differ on political questions. Nonetheless, I admire him enormously for “living” his beliefs. For example, he is a staunch advocate of the sanctity of life, a position founded on a deep religious faith. He not only defends this position, but has spent much of his adult life taking unwanted children into his home and sometimes adopting them. I am in awe. He has committed to something much bigger than himself.
- Supplement your experience with reading. I’m talking here about the women and men of great ideas who lived in a quieter world: Virginia Wolfe, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Plato, Epictetus, and others. But be aware that however great their writing, you will not appreciate them (and learn from them) nearly so much until you have done some living. Their words are dead until they are infiltrated by the events, motives, and meanings that you know first hand.
A young man or woman will profit if he looks at life like a funnel. Begin at the wide end, taking in everything, investigating many things. Sample the riches that nature and civilization have provided for you. Once you have begun to establish your values, what is important to you, and what you are good at, narrow your focus. Make some choices. Concentrate on perfecting your chosen craft and devoting your time to fewer things in greater depth.
At some point you will have to discover whether “God is in the details” or “the devil is in the details.” But if your approach to work is slapdash and casual, I doubt that even the devil will care. Discipline matters and you cannot be mature unless you both know its importance and “show” that you know by putting it into practice.
One final thought. If maturity, aka wisdom, is your aim, be aware that you must never stop learning, never stop growing, never stop deepening the capacities of head and heart. Life is rich. Spend your time well. There is never enough. Once over “the shadow-line,” you are free to roam.
The top image is a 2004 photo of Big Ben at Dusk by Andrew Dunn, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.