Emotional Maturity

posted on February 19, 2017

I might have mentioned that I was very sick when I was in third grade, and was confined to bed for the better part of five months. The following year, I had a relapse and was sick for about a month – and during all that time I grew quite a bit, but without the exercise needed to help me grow strong.

As I was entering fifth grade, it was very important to my father that I have good, sturdy shoes to support me. But I wanted loafers. I made a fair bit of fuss, but I was shoe shopping with my dad – a rare event – and I had to acquiesce. He was gentle, but firm. We left the store with a pair of red oxford tie-up shoes.

I was sure my friends, who were very cool, would make fun of me. I headed them off at the pass by saying, “Look at the stupid shoes my father made me get.” They sympathized.

But by the time the spring came, and I had outgrown those shoes, they had become dear to me — so comfortable and sturdy.

I told my father, “How funny that I hated these shoes when you made me buy them, but they are so comfortable now and I hate that I’m growing out of them.”

I will never forget the look on his face. He was obviously very pleased and proud of me, that I was mature enough to tell him he had been right, after being so obnoxious when he first made me get those shoes. I can see his smile even today.

The first criteria for emotional maturity — in my opinion, anyway — is the ability to admit when you’ve been wrong. Whether it’s about something small or something big, when a person is wrong he ought to be able to admit it, and apologize if that’s’ called for.

Closely related to the ability to admit when you’ve been wrong is the capacity to deal constructively with reality. No matter how much we might wish things were different from what they are, we will never change things for the better if we can’t deal with things as they are. It’s a whole lot easier to reframe our own attitudes than it is to change reality.

I’m reminded of a story about a holy man who was accused of being the father of a young woman’s child. The people of the village brought the child to the holy man and said something like, “Here – you fooled around and now this baby is yours to care for.”

And the man said, “Is that so?” And he took the baby in and raised it.

Years later the baby’s mother acknowledged that she had said the holy man was the baby’s father because she thought he would love it and give it a good home. The villagers went back to the holy man and said, “We now know you’re not to blame.” And the holy man said, “Is that so?”

This story points to a way we can manage hard times. We can calmly, non-anxiously respond, “Is that so?” – particularly when we’re not at fault for creating the reality that obtains!

Not all reality is easy to deal with constructively. And I’ve managed sometimes to mess up dealing with positive reality! But it’s a sign of maturity when we can look reality squarely in the face and do what needs to be done without creating unnecessary drama.

A third criterion for emotional maturity is a well-developed capacity to adapt to change. I think we overlook this criterion at our peril. The capacity to adapt to change is what keeps all life alive. The organism that can’t adapt to change is bound to die because change is the one constant in the universe. People who resist change become crusty and stale.

Senator Bob Dole told a story about adapting to change that speaks to the point.

“When Theodore Roosevelt refurbished the White House in 1902, he discarded his predecessor’s potted palms, not to mention the ornate Tiffany screen installed by President Arthur. Moose heads took up residence in the State Dining Room. Among the more valuable trappings sold at auction was a beautiful old sideboard, once presented to Lemonade Lucy Hayes by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Ironically this monument to sobriety was sold to a saloonkeeper on Pennsylvania Avenue, prompting bitter attacks on Roosevelt by publicity-seeking Congressmen.

“[Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon] took the floor in TR’s defense. ‘Tradition tells us that on rainy days Dolley Madison used to hang the White House washing on an old-fashioned clothesline in the East Room,’ said Cannon. ‘My God, where is that clothesline?’” (Great Presidential Wit, p. 59)

Some changes are very hard to adapt to. There are losses and injuries that can bring us to our knees in despair. I don’t say adaptation is a cold and instantaneous reaction to change – I do say we adapt, or perish, but not without pain, not without grief, not without sorrow. It is good, however, if we can adapt to change without bitterness. Hardship can make us bitter, or generous, more capable of compassion.

Adapting to change requires that other capacity – the ability to deal constructively with reality – to be well-developed.

The ability to admit it when we are wrong, the ability to deal constructively with reality, the ability to adapt to change — these are all characteristics of an emotionally mature person. And there are others.

The emotionally mature person is not threatened by being challenged but is able to listen to what others are saying — not simply waiting for his turn to speak and certainly not interrupting but truly listening for the substance of the other’s speech, and responding to what is said in a thoughtful and careful way.

Another criterion is the ability to sublimate — to direct our instinctive hostile energy into creative and constructive outlets. Now, sublimation is tricky business. It means to modify the natural expression of an instinctual impulse in a socially acceptable manner. In other words, it requires us to dissemble a bit, to hide or disguise the real nature of feelings or motives. Put plainly, it’s darn close to lying.

But let’s look at this situation: A warrior approaches a sage and asks the sage to explain heaven and hell.

The sage says, “Why should I speak to you You’re dirty and you smell awful! You’re stupid and backwards! Go away from me at once!”

The warrior is furious. He raises his sword to strike the sage down. The sage says calmly, “This is hell.”

The warrior sees at once what the sage has done, and comes to his knees in tears, begging forgiveness. The sage lifts the warrior to his feet, embracing him.

“And that,” he says, “is heaven.”

The sage demonstrates the principle with keen insight — if one’s hostile energy can be redirected, it can be transformative.

I’m not going to take the time today to connect the dots to what we have witnessed in the highest office of the land. Suffice it to say that an emotionally mature person can tolerate being criticized, admit when he or she is wrong, deal with reality, and adapt to change. And also, she or he can sublimate their own hostility into something creative and helpful — which the world sorely needs. The emotionally mature person can listen, truly listen to other people — listen in loving kindness to anyone who wishes to speak – because the final sign of a mature person is their capacity to love and be loved.

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