Thoughts about Dependence on My Grandson’s First Independence Day

This morning I found myself thinking about my grandson’s first Independence Day: how he is growing, keen to learn and master the world, but also how he will react to the dazzle and display of fireworks. Thrilled, I’m sure, whenever he can stay up late enough to watch. And, I couldn’t help but wonder about an implicit trade-off as children begin to master the world, but perhaps lose some of its magic in the process.

My free association took me to a 1956 nighttime baseball game my uncle promised to take me to — take me to watch the great center fielder Mickey Mantle. I fairly burst with anticipation to monitor Mantle in a contest under the lights, the latter still a novelty for the adults and a first-time experience for me. I continue to enjoy baseball and have traveled to nearly 20 cities for games in ballparks old and new. But I’m not anymore the nine-year-old boy blown away by the idea — the impatient, invisible, excited expectation of attendance — or the youngster of a similar age on another occasion who was stunned by the color green and the expansive daytime beauty of Wrigley Field as I walked up to the concourse from the shadowy underworld of the old stadium, feeling as if I were in a better place — as if the gates of heaven opened for me.

We become more experienced, more confident, and wiser while losing a bit of the thrill of accomplishment. You notice the growing security in any small child and the tenacity and curiosity driving it, but he can’t yet imagine his adult self who will be more used to things, less overwhelmed; a person who, having “seen it all,” won’t get as excited, stimulated, and intoxicated. Perhaps, in part, that’s why we drink or drug to mimic the feelings of a world from which the cellophane wrapper has just been removed.

The little one is so desperate to get away. Yes, he checks over his shoulder to assure himself that the parent has his back, but eventually no longer checking and no longer wanting to be checked, supervised, reigned in. Freedom and competence and recklessness rule. Later come maturity and jadedness, too. We are like toothpaste out of the tube, pristine for a moment, then losing something hard to define. The rewards of the life of one who has broken free are different, more dependable and therefore more essential, but less remarkable and joyous. The colors are duller.

Perhaps, as adults, some of us go places not seen and seek the thrill of a fresh relationship with a younger body to recapture the old intensity: an unconscious effort to touch an uninnocent-innocent in the hope her relative newness will rub off.

Our mature challenge is to make the day new, a bigger effort than for the 10-month-old for whom it simply is new.

But, little boy, I’m sure you wouldn’t be happy as a forever dependent oldster, even for all the moments of untarnished delight joined to your present dependency. Yours is the wonder of a life of constant enlightenment and unfolding, but there is no profit in perpetual incapacity, of reliance on your parents. You must know this deep down because you work so hard to escape it and enter an existence full of mastery achieved at the expense of routine.

One of the happiest memories of my life took place after being taken to a drive-in movie by my parents. It was not only the first film I’d ever seen and the first outdoor movie I’d ever attended, but 3-D to boot! You had to wear special glasses to get the effect, of course. (The trailer above displays an over-the-top promotion of said entertainment: The House of Wax).

I possess little memory of the video. What I do recall is the ride home in the family Chevrolet. The horizontal, seven-year-old version of myself drifted into that Neverland between waking and sleep on the pre-seat-belted bench behind my parents. I was as content as I have ever been, fully confident of having mom and dad to myself (since my two little brothers were back home with a sitter) in the days when I still thought of my elders as Zeus and Hera, god and goddess of the universe. I was sure of being taken care of: safe, serene, and inexpressibly happy, as though a fairy god-mother had touched me with her wand.

I have no advice for the little guy who will visit our home today: it would make no impact on his not-yet-perfected word processor-mind. But if my experience would make a difference, I’d say this:

Don’t grow up too fast, tiny man. Your parents will never again be so young, handsome, and wonderful. You will never be loved with more self-sacrificing intensity. The sparklers on this still dependent Independence Day will never so astonish you.

Seize the day, now and forever.

Lost and Found: A Different Way to Think About Your Life

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A very old question asks you whether you think of your glass as half-full or half-empty. But permit me to make a suggestion: think of your life in terms of what you’ve lost and what you’ve found over all the years you’ve spent on the planet.

Take all the victories and failures, the things you can do and the things you can’t anymore, the friendships you’ve lost and the ones you’ve gained and put them in a basket. Don’t forget to include what you’ve learned over the course of your life — learning in terms of knowledge found in books and the knowledge that only comes from experience. Add your greatest joys and your worst moments. Be sure to fill the bushel with physical skills and abilities too, talents you had once upon a time and all those you still possess, including the new ones.

If you do this, I’ll bet you find that your container includes some of the following:

  • That you are wiser than you used to be, in some small ways and maybe even a big way or two. Perhaps this is part of what is called Maturity.
  • That, especially as you approach mid-life, you are less easily rattled by some of the things that used to overwhelm you. To some extent, you’ve probably learned to cope or even mastered fears you thought you never could.
  • That you might not be as spry or as fast in a footrace, but that you care less about it than you did in your youth.
  • That you act more like the tortoise and less like the hare because you know (most of the time) that “slow and steady wins the race.” Or maybe just because you’re not quite as fast as you used to be and have figured out a strategy to deal with that, kind of like a baseball pitcher who loses his fastball and still wins by dint of craft, guile, and perhaps developing a new pitch.

Glass_half_full_kind_of_day

I’m sure, as you reach for things to put into the basket, that you will remember how much some of those that are gone mattered to you, and how some still do. But, I’ll bet you’ll be surprised to see that you’ve replaced a number of them, perhaps with people or activities or skills that compensate for many of those that have disappeared. Maybe not all, or, just maybe, just as much or more than what you’ve lost.

What we are talking here is about adaptation. Adapting to life and to aging. Grieving and moving on. Licking your wounds and coming back to find out what the universe still holds that is good for you. And that sometimes what is good for you is also good for others around you, in part because of the feeling your generosity gives you.

Not everyone can do this. If we’ve had too many losses, some of us don’t even go to the “Lost and Found” Department to find out whether what we value is there. Part of the problem is that no one told us that the “Lost and Found” Department of Life isn’t like the one in school or in a department store. In those places, if you are lucky, you find exactly what you lost — the thing itself.

No, life’s “Lost and Found” Department is different. It holds every one of the things you’ve lost and doesn’t usually give those exact items back, all precisely as we left them or as they left us. But if you go there and look hard enough, you just might find objects or capacities — people or experiences — as good as what you lost, a few better, a number worse. And if you travel there with the right attitude, you can find things that are priceless. One of those surprises is not actually a thing. It is the knowledge that it is often possible to adapt to those that are truly gone.

It’s a little like the way a heart breaks, a love is lost, and one finds that it heals or someone else enters your life or other people and activities compensate you. The “Lost and Found” Department of Life doesn’t work perfectly, of course. You must be willing to make the best of it. But, there is one thing that is essential if you are to give it and life a chance.

You have to go there and see what it contains. Without that, there is no finding what you’ve lost; or something new; or something better; or something that will do.

No guarantees, not even safety. But life is full of surprises, as I said. It might be time that you forget about looking at glasses half-empty or half-full, and look instead beyond what’s been lost and see what you can find in that new place, the yet to be discovered things in life’s “Lost and Found.”

Good luck to you. Good luck to us all.

This article was inspired by Frank Bruni’s February 1, 2014 New York Times essay on the subject of Peyton Manning and aging, called Maturity’s Victories.

The top image is the Lost Properties Office symbol at a railway station in Poland. The author is Mohylek. The second picture by Pete Unseth is called Glass Half Full. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Youth vs. Experience and Maturity: Who Has the Edge?

What would it be like to couple a youthful body with the wisdom of age? It is largely the subject of movie comedies, partially because a serious look at the question would be difficult. Still, everyone seems to be wishing for that imaginary combination whenever they say “Youth is wasted on the young.”

My short response to that statement? I think not. Youth is exactly where it needs to be; age as well. But, just to make sure, let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of youth and experience and why they can’t easily be combined, even conceptually.

To begin, what benefits attach to youth?

I’d include a fresh, eager perspective on things; enthusiasm and boundless energy; and a great capacity for getting excited (in every sense). Remember the enkindling experience of a new great song or a new love? You are likely to hear more wonderful music over time, and probably have later loves, but they don’t quite feel the same to you if you are mature when they happen.

Add to the period of life’s early gifts an openness to new experience, intellectual flexibility and the relative ease of molding yourself into a new shape; quickness of mind and body; great beauty and strength. Finally, youth is more innocent and finds it easier to trust, not yet having been so fooled by life and the people in it to assume that appearances are always the real thing.

On the down side, there is the self-consciousness that particularly afflicts the young and can make it a painful time. If some Eastern religions are correct, freedom from suffering and peace of mind are found in a state called “nirvana,” certainly not to be experienced while self-consciously finding your path in life. And, no, I’m not referring to the band “Nirvana.”

We tend to learn more from pain than pleasure. Thus, early life — the period in which we learn the most — is a painful time, of necessity. “The School of Hard Knocks” doesn’t award you a diploma, but perhaps it should.

Most of us do not enjoy the youthful stress connected with not knowing a thing and having to learn large quantities of procedures, skills, and information rapidly. It is no fun being behind all the bigger, older, and more learned competitors and authorities. But this gives way to a more gradual — less “all at once” process of learning as one ages. Routines are acquired. Practice makes perfect. One discovers “the tricks of the trade,” even though baseball great Vernon Law warned that “Some people are so busy learning the tricks of the trade that they never learn the trade.”

Still, experience does tend to make lots of things easier, so that each day is not quite so challenging as it was when we were growing up. And with that experience and the knowledge acquired along the way comes, one hopes, fewer of the errors that are a part of any learning process, thus serving to increase one’s feeling of self-confidence and security; and perhaps even allowing for less self-consciousness.

The young usually have a greater sense of “possibility” than the mature. It is easier for them to turn around, retrace steps, and start over. They are usually less encumbered by things like spouses and children, mortgages and other debts. However much one loves the spouse and children, they are also a responsibility that constrain you. As Francis Bacon said, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.”

The fresh mind is more comfortable with change than the stodgy and stuck older person, as anyone who has looked at the effect of technological advances on these two groups. Indeed, one danger of aging is to gradually feel more alienated from the world in which you live, partly because it is no longer the world you knew.

Of course, the fuzzy-cheeked have more time ahead of them in most cases, and much less behind them than do the mature. What is more, the “sense” of time passing is different in the novice and the old hand; the latter can feel it passing with a speed that his junior cannot, even though the clock is the same for both.

I don’t wish to suggest that all the best of life is to be found in youth, but the rewards of the mature time of life are certainly different. If you can avoid becoming frozen in your ideas and jaded by having seen (and suffered) too much, you just might appreciate things more when you are older, not take them so much for granted.

My wife tells me that she never saw the moon in the old days, when she slept through every night. A bit older now, we both find that a trip past the skylight “into that good night” reveals the glorious moon shining down on us, the beauty of which is some compensation for sleep that is not as sound as it used to be. Just so, the love a mature person has its own, perhaps less urgent biological necessity, having to do with knowing that nothing lasts forever, a feeling that is often hard for a young person to fully grasp, even though he knows it to be true intellectually.

The more seasoned individual should have become more comfortable in his own skin, even when that skin undergoes its own unwelcome changes; less concerned with what the crowd thinks (although, obviously, this isn’t true for professions like politics)!

In real maturity there is a steadiness and calm: you’ve seen worse before, you’ve lived through a lot; so you know that not everything is a matter of life and death. Or to quote a famous basketball coach’s advice to his young players: “If every game is a matter of life and death, you’re going to have a problem. You’re going to die a lot.” And so the mature person “dies” less often than his youthful counterpart and is at least a little better at taking on difficult challenges. The man with seniority no longer sweats so much of the small stuff.

If he is more than just chronologically mature and has actually learned from time and experience, he has begun to accept some things — doesn’t rage so often and so easily at the unfairness that is a part of any life. Not surprising, then, that revolutions are usually for the young. Not that they aren’t worth fighting even by those who are older, but somehow the older man is no longer “that person” who is capable of the kind of energy and passion and idealism that fuel most revolutionaries. Life finds him less intense, not so easily worked up. Just look at the way young orchestra members sit on the edge of their seats, while seasoned musicians look more “laid back” and you will know what I mean.

Reflecting on my career as a therapist, I think that a few of my patients might have done better with the older than with the younger version of me: the seasoned psychologist who had “seen it all before” and could therefore make faster and more accurate diagnoses and more apt therapeutic interventions; the man who was more secure and more able to keep an appropriate psychological distance from the patient: not too close and not too far away.

But, it is possible that some of my patients would have benefited more from my younger self, one with more energy and a need to prove himself. That less experienced version of me, of course, sometimes had a hard time keeping the right therapeutic balance because he was prone to caring too much. But, sometimes enthusiasm and energy carry the day despite other shortcomings. “Swings and roundabouts” (offsetting gains and losses), as the British like to say. You are who you are at whatever age you are and you try to better yourself. A good therapist and, I should say, a good person should be forever looking to improve.

You would not want it otherwise if you were, as you will be inevitably, the patient of some medical or therapeutic practitioner. Experience does count. You wouldn’t want a surgeon, no matter how talented and bright, who has done the operation you are about to submit to only once before. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want a once great specialist who was worn down by routine and time.

Ideally, whether it is a therapist or a physician, what I think you’d want is someone with a good deal of experience but who approaches you with a fresh attitude; trying to recapture, if possible, that awareness and enthusiasm for the job that we usually associate with “the first time.” The very greatest scientists and lovers, teachers and musicians, friends and therapists “make it new.”

Victor Mature, a famous movie actor of the mid-twentieth century. Was he mature? He was married five times.

Back to the question of whether youth is wasted on the young, can you imagine going back to your childhood or teen years with the knowledge and experience of someone 30 or 50 or 70? How could you possibly fit in? And look at those middle-aged, well-seasoned folks who behave and dress like twenty-somethings. Same problem.

We are stuck with who we are, but there is a lesson in this, I think. No, it is not to spend the rest of your time regretting what you had and lost; or never had and wishing you could go back and try again, armed with all that time has taught you. Rather, the lesson is in living life fully at whatever age you are, because, in part, you will never be that particular version of yourself again. We need to stumble to learn, as we do particularly in our youth; and we need the losses that come with experience in order to appreciate what we have.

As much as change is frightening, it does make the experience of living more interesting. As Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said 2500 years ago, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”

Embrace the new river and the new version of yourself, at whatever age.

On the subject of maturity, you may find this of related interest: Signs of Maturity: What Does It Mean to Grow Up?

The top image is called Old and Young by Mbjerke. The second one is a New Zealand OFLC Poster. Both of these are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Dave Barry ad photo comes from Amazon.com

When the Lover is Ready the Soul Mate Will Appear

Mel Nudelman and Sally

I’ve read or heard two different meanings attributed to the Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready the master will appear.” The first suggests the universe is ordered in such a way that things happen when they are supposed to:  knowledge will be offered by events in the universe (or God) at the right time. If I am allowed to amplify the meaning slightly, the saying would also refer to the idea that when you are ready, the right person for you might also appear, not just a teacher, but your future love.

I prefer, however, another, more psychological way of thinking about this aphorism: there are always available “masters” or other persons who might be important in your life, but the “student” doesn’t notice the presence of those persons until he is ready. Or, to look at a different aspect of this notion, important knowledge is always or almost always available to us, if only we are open to it, prepared by experience or mind-set to receive it.

In other words, we must be ready to learn, to think and feel differently than we have before in order to recognize there is something important to be learned.

Those in life who have all the answers — certain of everything — will never learn anything new. Those afraid to do new things are unlikely to learn, since in order for the “master to appear” one must have one’s eyes open and actually get out of the house — the master being unlikely to call you to make an appointment, unsolicited.

But if you are humble about what you know, humble in the knowledge there is always more to learn, you might just learn something. Branch Rickey, the baseball executive, said “luck is the residue of design.” I’d add to that, so is learning the residue of design. And part of the “design” or preparation is to put yourself into situations where it is possible to be enlightened, whether by people or events or your actions; by books or theater, music or child-rearing or romance.

A good therapist is enlightened by his patients. He experiences a whole world, the world of the patient, seen through the patient’s eyes. His patients also inform him, directly or by their response to him and to the therapy, what works and what doesn’t.

People in less formal relationships than therapist and client teach us too, and enrich our lives. For example, some people believe there is only one person who represents our romantic destiny. When the person comes along they might say, by the first definition I gave you at the top of this essay, the universe or God put this person in our lives at just the right time. There is a Yiddish word that captures this notion nicely: “bashert” or “beshert.” In other words, to be “fated.” It is used when someone tries to say an event was “meant to be,” and is often employed with respect to a reference in the Jewish Talmud that God has chosen your soul mate.

My own opinion, however, is that most of us might have met, fallen in love with, and married any number of good people and had equally good lives as we have with the person whom we did marry; different, certainly, but just as good, more or less. That we didn’t marry someone else might have been due to a lack of maturity when the “other” person appeared, poor judgment about the value of the qualities in a person, or fear of rejection and heartbreak, to name just a few possible reasons.

If you protect your heart against the poisonous arrows that can harm it, you also might prevent Cupid’s arrow from reaching it.

One must be open, then, for the right person, for the master, for whatever knowledge or experience might enrich us. Vincent Van Gogh wrote the following to his brother Theo in 1880:

Many a man has a bonfire in his heart and nobody comes to warm himself at it. The passers-by notice only a little smoke from the chimney, and go their way… I am drawn more and more to the conclusion that to love much is the best means of approaching God. Love a friend, anyone, or anything you like, and I tell you, you will be on the right road to learn more. You must love with a high and intense determination, with your will and your intellect, and seek always to deepen, expand, and improve your knowledge. …”

Which makes me think of my late friend, Mel Nudelman. Mel was an old friend in both senses of the phrase — I’d known him since the ’70s and at age 87 he lost his wife of 50 years and was devastated. But, to his credit he fought through and grieved his broken heart to the point of making a new girlfriend! (A lovely woman, by the way). And so, Mel lived as he always did, learning, taking classes, counseling others, being with his children and grandchildren, making friends young and old; ever curious about politics, music, sports, medicine, and the world. All this until near the end of his days in his 90s.

Put differently, Mel was open to life and whatever it would reveal to him.

My advice then, to you and to myself, is to keep learning and keep being open to “possibility,” including the possibility there are things yet unseen, unexpected, or unacknowledged to enlighten us if only we keep our eyes open and look.

We are all students of the greatest teacher of all: life.

The photo above shows Mel and Sally Nudelman.

Forgiveness: If and When?

Much is made, especially by the religious, about the importance of forgiveness. But the topic is worthy of some discussion before one gives a blanket endorsement to forgiveness of everyone and everything. Should all acts be open to forgiveness? Is apology essential before there is any forgiveness? Are some offenses unforgivable? Are some people permitted more leeway to act inappropriately and exempt from the expectation of apology?

First off, who has the right to forgive? Only those who have been injured. I have no right to forgive your mistakes unless you have done me harm in some fashion. Certainly, this right might include an injury done to someone I love, if I too will have suffered pain due to the harm done to the other person. The idea that I can’t forgive you for an injury you did to someone I don’t know, for example, is allied to the notion of legal standing. I can’t bring a law suit against you unless the court agrees that I have a stake in the matter. As the old saying goes, “I don’t have a dog in this race.” That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about what happened; rather, it means that in matters of injury, compensation, or apology, I’m not directly involved.

Another consideration is whether the injury is ongoing. If someone is in the process of playing practical jokes on you day after day, to take an example that is relatively small, would you forgive his poor taste or judgment? He’d probably laugh at you if you did, because that individual sees nothing wrong with what he has done. Better to get him to stop or get out of his way, than to consider any generosity of spirit on your part that is likely to go unappreciated.

Then there is the question of apology. Let’s assume the joker just mentioned has a moment of self-awareness, or perhaps has been persuaded that his actions are rude. What must he do to apologize? According to Aaron Lazare’s book On Apology, he should acknowledge what he did to hurt you, say that he is sorry, and attempt to compensate you in some way. In the case of public humiliation caused by the practical jokes, for example, it would be appropriate (although perhaps impractical) for the prankster to make a public admission of his foolishness in front of the same people who were present when he embarrassed you. Moreover, he must do his very best to make sure that his boorish behavior isn’t repeated. Simply saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Nor is it sufficient to state, “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you,” a turn-of-phrase we hear from public figures, but one that is absolutely inadequate. According to Lazare, it is crucial that the transgressor be precise in admitting what exactly he did that caused harm, leaving no ifs, ands or buts, and making no excuses. This is the same sort of thing that happens in court, when, after a plea bargain, the accused admits exactly what he did without excusing it away, and recounts the consequences that followed from that behavior. In legal terms it is called “allocution.”

With respect to the question of some offenses being unforgivable, that is for the injured party to decide. Murder, rape, torture–all terrible–still permit the possibility of forgiveness if it is in the capacity of the afflicted to give it. The same answer would apply to the question of having a different standard for the behavior of one person than for another. We all do this in practice, accepting the failures and misbehavior of those we love when we aren’t so generous with a stranger who does exactly the same thing; and we often let things go without apology.

Forgiveness, however, is not the same as forgetting. If you have been injured, it is most often worth remembering who did what to you, lest you put yourself at risk of being hurt once again. Nor does forgiveness require that you continue your relationship with the person who harmed you; it is sometimes good judgment to forgive the person at the same time that you end the relationship with him.

Relationships are messy and we all can do better and be kinder. Many people have trouble telling others when their actions have caused an injury. The victim can suffer silently or in grumbling discontent, and passive-aggressively try to pay-back the injurer in some indirect fashion. Often, the hurt that the injurer caused is inadvertent and might be easily remedied if the one who has done the harm is told gently but firmly that he caused unhappiness.

Of course, some relationships, if they regularly cause injury, can be quickly dispensed with at little cost. But for those closest to us, we usually will suffer more and longer before limiting contact or severing the bond with that individual. And contact with parents or siblings, for example, cannot be replaced. So, for most of us, we will usually put up with some measure of unhappiness in order to keep a place in our lives for even the unrepentant relative. And, in part, it depends on how much one is willing to put up with.

There is at least one additional very important and useful reason to forgive. It follows from the old Italian expression, “If you want revenge, you should dig two graves (one for yourself and one for the object of your revenge).” The point here is that carrying anger is costly and letting go of that anger might allow you to be happier and more at ease in the rest of your life.

But, be careful not to let go automatically and too soon. Anger is often a necessary part of getting over an injury. While it doesn’t always have to be expressed at someone else, neither is turning the other cheek invariably the best policy for your psychological well-being. Writing about your feelings will oft-times help, and talking to a friend or counselor can be useful. But once you are through the stage of anger, forgiveness is at least a possibility.

Still another reason for accepting an apology and forgiving is that the relationship can be continued and sometimes improved by the act of mutual understanding that is involved. Life is full of disagreements and differences, in addition to unintentionally hurt feelings. Those parties who can survive conflicts, communicate about them, and come to a point of acceptance, understanding, and appreciation often are bonded together more strongly by the experience.

It takes maturity to know when to ignore something and when, instead, to confront the person who has injured you. Most things probably aren’t worth the trouble of a conflict, lest one always be fighting and accusing others. Best to wait for a cool and calm moment to decide whether confrontation is worth it, than to act in the over-heated instant. That is nothing more than common sense.

But, as a wise man once said, common sense is rather uncommon.

Signs of Maturity: What Does It Mean to “Grow Up?”

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“Oh, grow up!” Is there anyone who didn’t hear some version of this humiliating admonition as a kid? Often voiced by another kid, or some chronologically mature person who probably needed to “grow up” himself.

Still, it does raise an important question: what does it mean to grow up? What qualities are present in those people we respect for their maturity?

Although it may not be very humble to do so, let’s start with the quality of humility. And its important to remember that humility is not identical to a lack confidence. Rather, it involves the recognition that in the big picture of the universe, you are a very, very small part. That is to say, unless your name is one that ranks with Einstein or Beethoven, virtually no one will know your name in a hundred years.

As Goethe put it, “Names are like sound and smoke.” They disappear that easily. Humbling indeed. You probably aren’t as important as you think you are.

Which means, of course, that your problems, at least most of them, aren’t that important either. The ability to recognize that most problems are transitory and only temporarily bothersome is another sign of maturity. Now, I’m not talking about brain cancer here, but the more garden-variety ups and downs of life. It sometimes helps weather them to realize that you will care little if anything about those difficulties in five years or even five months.

No, as the saying goes, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s all small stuff.” Or, at least most of it.

Another important quality of being a grown-up, I think, is to have a balance between your head and your heart. We all know people who are way out of balance — those who claim to be imperturbably logical like the Mr. Spock-type Vulcans from Star Trek and others who come apart at the smallest disappointment or frustration, letting their emotions whip them around like a passenger on a “tilt-a-whirl” amusement park ride.

Emotions are there for a reason; the pain of them needs to be attended to, lest you leave your hand on the stove’s burner because nature didn’t inform you to remove that hand. Equally, your head is required to have good judgment and learn from experience, to be cool under fire, and to forge ahead in spite of fear.

In other words, balance is a sign of maturity. Balance of head and heart, work and play, action and contemplation, passion and repose. Socrates said that one should be grateful to old-age that the passions rule us less. But do not live a life without passion, especially when you are young enough to enjoy it! He also said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And so maturity requires some thought about your life, where you’ve been and where you are going, why you have done what you’ve done, what worked and what didn’t, and what lies ahead. It requires an unflinching look in the mirror and the intention to improve.

That means, of course, that being a “grown-up” demands that one has learned something from experience and continues to learn more as experience unfolds. My friend Henry Fogel has said, “I like to make new mistakes!” Meaning, naturally, that there is no point in repeating the same old ones.

Another friend, Rich Adelstein, once told me that he thought that if he were able to figure out the solutions to his then-current problems (he was 50 at the time), he believed that he could simply keep living in the same fashion, using the same solutions to confront whatever was ahead of him. But, he rightly realized, that there would be new problems requiring new solutions, and that the version of himself that faced those new problems would be older and different, and therefore might see things quite a bit differently than the 50-year-old version.

This is an example of maturity, along with a signpost to some of its characteristics, including the need to change, the ability and willingness to be flexible, and the awareness that learning along the way is required. Rich was able to change, and to change his mind about the need to change.

What other qualities might be present in the mature, “grown-up” person? Confidence and the capacity for self-assertion, certainly; the ability to laugh, and to laugh at yourself, not at the expense of others; to take risks and do things that might be hard or embarrassing or scary or frustrating until you master them; to be independent in thought and deed, not to follow the crowd or require a caretaker or someone to make decisions for you; and of course, the capacity for intimacy and love, knowing all the while that embracing others makes you vulnerable to loss.

An additional aspect of wisdom that is usually related to age is having a sense of what is worth fighting for and what is not. There are more than enough battles worth joining in this imperfect world, but one cannot take on all of them without battling 24 hours a day, an exhausting and impossible prospect. And so, maturity requires sufficient knowledge of oneself and the world to make decisions about standing fast or standing aside; holding to principle or being willing to compromise. And accepting that sometimes we will be defeated.

So, yes, being a grown-up means accepting the world on its terms: that loss and disappointment, in causes and in people, are an inevitable part of  life, and that to defend too strongly against them deprives you of the most important and precious things that life has to offer: the thrill and camaraderie of fighting the good fight; and at a more personal level, love, closeness, tenderness, and the acceptance and affection that can only come from unguardedness. To live as if your heart has never been broken and never can be, then, shows both maturity and courage.

Responsibility-taking is another part of being mature, admitting that “yes, it was I who made the mistake.” We all heard the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree a long time ago, and it is entirely about responsibility-taking and honesty. And, as that reference might suggest, honesty is no small part of the “grown-up” life. As the sages say, it simplifies life enormously to be honest. Too many people justify their dishonesty by claiming that they are trying to spare someone else’s feelings. Don’t be deceived. Usually it is much more self-serving than that.

Back to humility, where we started. Part of being mature is having the humility to realize that you too might, “but for the grace of God,” be in someone else’s less advantageous spot, and that therefore they should be judged less harshly for whatever they have done or whatever has happened to them, or perhaps not judged at all.

Maturity means cherishing the quiet moments as much as the thrills. And, most definitely, it means living in the moment, mindful of everything, trying not to get caught up in hoping it were different (even though you might well be justified in doing so); allowing yourself to stay centered where you are in time, rather than to be looking back or forward while the irreplaceable, unrepeatable instant of your life passes by.

Look back too much and you will be caught in the sadness of  time-past and unfulfilled longings and regrets, while missing what is possible in the present. Similarly, living in the future tends to generate anxiety in anticipation of what may come, and deprives you of the same present moment that passes by those who are looking back at yesterday.

Accepting and liking oneself is a part of being a grown-up. Not that you don’t need to or want to change, but to appreciate what is good about yourself and to accept some of the inevitable limitations to which all of us are prone. Not to avoid self-improvement, but to avoid self-denigration.

To be a grown-up means living a principled life, one with a commitment to certain values, and to put those values to work, not just in words, but in deeds. As the AA crowd likes to say, “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.” And those principles, those values, must be informed by the fact that we are all mortal, all in-transit, but that the planet and the human race are here (we hope) for the long haul. We are “just visiting” as the Monopoly board reminds us when we land on a certain space. The game will outlast us and so will life on this planet, if we don’t mess it up.

In putting those commitments to work, we must actually do work. Freud was right when he pointed to love and work as the essential organizing forces in any life. If you are mature, unless you are aged or infirm, there is work to be done. Life is made more interesting and engaging by doing it, too. The mature person is not simply a spectator in the game of life.

At least one other quality should be mentioned in this pantheon of qualities in the house of maturity: gratitude. Appreciation of what you do have and appreciation of simple things: a beautiful day, the affection of your children, the ability to do things, a touching song or story, and good friends — all the stuff of life that is too easily dismissed.

Let the last words on the subject of being a grown-up (and much more) go to Adlai Stevenson II, in his 1954 speech at the senior class dinner of his Alma Mater, Princeton University. These 55-year-old words spoken by the 54-year-old Stevenson are as appropriate now as then:

…What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws — all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages — are as well-known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.

What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions — a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love — the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men; and perhaps, too, a little faith, and a little reverence for things you cannot see…

To my way of thinking it is not the years in your life but the life in your years that count in the long run. You’ll have more fun, you’ll do more and you’ll get more, you’ll give more satisfaction the more you know, the more you have worked, and the more you have lived. For yours is a great adventure at a stirring time in the annals of men.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/64/Whirling_Dervishes_2.JPG/500px-Whirling_Dervishes_2.JPG

On the subject of maturity, you may find this of related interest: Youth vs. Experience and Maturity: Who Has the Edge?

You may be interested in this topic, as well: Maturity: Ten Steps To Get You There.

The top image is Mevlevi Dervishes Perform, created by K?vanc and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. According to the Wikimedia site, the Mevlevi Order is a Sufi order founded in 1273 in Konya, Turkey. “They are also known as the Whirling Dervishes due to their famous practice of whirling as a form of dhikr (remembrance of Allah).”

“Dervish is a term for an initiate of the Sufi Path… The Dervishes perform their dhikr in the form of a dance and music ceremony called the sema. The sema represents a mystical journey of man’s spiritual ascent through mind and love to ‘Perfect(ion).’ Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth and arrives at the ‘Perfect.’ He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity (hence my use of the picture for this essay) and a greater perfection, so as to love and be of service to the whole of creation.”

The bottom photo is the work of shioshvilli and apparently depicts Whirling Dervishes performing the sema ceremony at the Sirkeci Railway Station in Istanbul, Turkey on June 10, 2006. It is also sourced from Wikimedia Commons.