Posted by: Mark Nielsen | January 5, 2009

Modern Maturity? (AKA “George Bailey Lassos Life”)

I’ve been re-framing a lot of my learning, writing, teaching, parenting, politics, life experience and conversations lately through a lens I’ve called “maturity”, for lack of a better term.

It’s not necessarily an age thing. It’s about one’s ability to be a “grown-up”: to stand for something without having to tear something else down like a juvenile delinquent, to be structured without being rigid, to have fun and be relaxed without letting leisure addictively take over one’s life, and hopefully to make life more fun or safer or more meaningful for others. So maturity is generally outwardly focused, whereas by contrast a toddler can’t help but be self-involved.

I think this spiritual but mostly non-religious framework is one of the main reasons why Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life has become the much-beloved classic that it is. (It’s my favorite movie — and while I realize that sounds cliche, I don’t care… another benefit of becoming mature is defining oneself more, and not letting others do it for you.)

As George’s father tells him early on, he was “born older” — meaning he has always had (or found, or been granted from above) the inner strength and maturity to be helpful, responsible, patient and loving, yet without being a doormat or resentful or falling into life’s traps. The incomparable Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey struggles with doing what he knows is mature and unselfish, and yet he does it, time and again, when the chips are down. He shows quiet courage, the kind that can’t be proven on some battlefield when you’ve got a gun to hide behind. It’s all those small victories, and the way that the community rallies behind him when he’s faltering, that deliver the big payoff at the end of the movie

… just like consistency and unselfishness will pay off for all of us, if we can keep from sliding back into those toddler-like temper tantrums and dependent states of being. George (and Frank, and his co-screenwriters Goodrich & Hackett ) teach us that interdependence is essential, whereas codependence and immaturity are eventually lethal.

On the other hand, despite saying above that age doesn’t matter much, sometimes it does actually help. Because age humbles us… and humility generally leads to wisdom, depth of character, and that outward, less-narcissistic focus on others. For instance, the tiny but huge decision I made this weekend to admit my 43-year-old eyes ain’t what they used to be, so it’s actually okay to be less vain and pick up a pair of $10 Walgreens reading glasses for the increasing number of occasions when I need them. It’s not the end of the world. It’s simply a biological reality of the human body. So I can model maturity/lack of vanity simply by changing my habits when it comes to reading. (But don’t ask me to get bifocals… I’m not that mature!)

I’ve also had some humbling, potentially disillusioning experiences recently where I’ve had false idols torn down. I’ve had to admit stuff like “It happens to the best of us”… “There but for the grace of God go I…” and so forth. All people make mistakes, so forgiveness is as close to a universal, non-religious “commandment” as one can get. Conversely, lack of forgiveness is one of the main ways people get stuck, stay immature, or become addicted , as they keep their wounds medicated/hidden, instead of allowing their scabs and scars to show, …wounds that perhaps make them uglier on the surface, but wiser and more beautiful overall.

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