… If you are asked what are the characteristics you would regard as marks of maturity, or having grown up as a human being, what would you say? Let me try a few suggestions. The human adult I imagine is someone who is aware of emotion but not enslaved by it. A human adult is someone who believes that change is possible in their own lives and the lives of those around them. A human adult is someone who is aware of fallibility and death, that is who knows they are not right about everything and that they won’t live forever. An adult is someone sensitive to the cost of the choices they make, for themselves and for the people around them. An adult is someone who is not afraid of difference, who is not threatened by difference. And I would add too, an adult is someone aware of being answerable to something more than just a cultural consensus – someone whose values, choices, priorities are shaped by something other than majority votes; which is why I add – in brackets, but you’d expect me to – that I think that an awareness of the holy is an important aspect of being an adult, however you want to phrase that.
Now I think that without a working definition of maturity, whether it is that one or something like it, we can’t even begin to understand the process of formation. I’ll say it once more because it is worth saying: if we don’t know what it is we are ‘inducting’ people into when we try and help them grow as humans, we cannot be surprised if chaos results.
But if we begin with working definitions of maturity of the kind I’ve suggested, that gives us a way of looking quite hard, and sometimes quite painfully, at the things in our environment that push us away from being adults. If we start from that kind of list of features of maturity we might come up with a list something like this, identifying the things that stop us growing up. What if we live in a climate where our emotions are indulged but never educated? That is to say where we never take a thoughtful perspective on how we feel, that brings in other people and their needs. What if we live in an environment where apathy and cynicism are the default positions for most people on issues of public concern? What if our environment is short on dialogue and learning and self-questioning? What if it is characterised by a fear and a denial of human limitations, by a fundamentalist belief in the possibility of technology in solving our problems for example? By the constant bracketing or postponing of the recognition that we have limits and that we are going to die. What if our environment is passive to the culture of the global market, simply receiving that constant streams of messages which flows out from producers and marketers? Because one of the things that implies is that the world ought to be one in which difference doesn’t matter very much because we are all flattened out, as you might say, in the role of consumers. What if our environment is characterised by intense boredom and an addiction to novelty? Or characterised by an obsessive romanticising of victim status, and a lack of empathy? What if it is characterised by secularism, that is to say by an approach to the world which is tone deaf about the sacred and the mysterious?
Well I don’t really need to put all those ‘what ifs’ in because I think you will probably recognise that this is not a million miles away from the environment we, in fact, inhabit. But I think we need a sharp-edged diagnosis here, to help us identify that these things are not just ‘problems’ in a vague way, they are actually the things which stop us growing up. When we live in a debased environment of gossip, inflated rhetoric, non-participation, celebrity obsession and vacuous aspiration, it’s not surprising that we have a challenge in the area of formation, human formation. …