Marks of Mature Thinking
26. But it is so very hard to be an on-your-own, take-care-of-yourself-cause-there-is-no-one-else-to-do-it-for-you grown-up.
(from Sheldon Kopp’s Eschatological Laundry List)
One of my earliest posts on this blog, back in November 2007, was The Mark of Mature Thinking. The point of the post is that mature thinking is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously–freedom and discipline, for example–and see the merits of both. I think this is a good definition of mature thinking. But I also think it is not the only one. Mature thinking has many aspects–and isn’t it ironic that in a post on mature thinking, I considered only one of them?
I’m happy that my own thinking seems to have matured somewhat.
Actually, this isn’t the whole story. The original post was the result of something I’d read; it wasn’t my original idea, I stole it–and “stole” is appropriate here, because I can’t for the life of me remember where I read it. At the time, it made sense, and it still does. Like so many truisms in life, it’s just incomplete (or at least it is the way I presented it, anyway).
So, here are some other “marks” which seem to keep coming up in my daily life and my writing.
- Internal value system. I write a lot about having an internal value system, a “moral compass” which a person arrives at through his own critical thinking and evaluation process. Without this moral compass, we are left to rely on external authorities to light the way. This is problematic because external authorities rarely have people’s best interests in mind (and we often don’t know until it’s too late!), but more importantly, because lack of a moral compass leaves us unable to think for ourselves–and there is no one in the world who has our best interests in mind more than we do ourselves; not even our moms. Sure, these interests can be obscured by depression, by addiction, by residue from an unhappy childhood–but these are all issues we can only “fix” for ourselves; like values, no one can do it for us. For more on values, you can peruse the posts in my Character/Values category.
- Empathy. Empathy is, of course, the capacity to put yourself in another person’s place and identify with how they’re feeling. Young children are not able to do this, as it is something we aren’t born with but must develop. So empathy is quite literally a mark of mature thinking–people unable to empathize with the plight of others are like those young, as-yet-undeveloped children. Inability to empathize is a characteristic of many undeveloped (immature) behaviors, including child abuse, spouse abuse, and much criminal activity. Some people have concerns about over-empathizing, as in excusing abusive behavior, but I believe this is a separate issue more related to self-esteem or simple ignorance due to an undealt-with past. Empathy is what makes the world a better place, and I doubt there is such a thing as too much of it.
- Rational rather than emotional approach to learning and ideas. As I’ve said many times in many places, mature thinking is just harder. It is much easier to see the world in black and white terms and make decisions based on emotions, hunches, instincts and friends’ opinions without subjecting them to the scrutiny of our analytical mind–like children do before they know better. Many adults know better, but fall back on emotions, hunches, and instincts anyway. It’s simple mental laziness. We all do this sometimes–who can be 100% vigilant?–and sometimes it’s not that important. But a daily habit of mental laziness is like a constant diet of sugar and potato chips, and does to your mind what junk food does to your body. Emotions have their place, but they are not a valid replacement for critical thinking. Here’s a post I wrote on this topic.
- Honesty. Lying to avoid an unpleasant (but necessary) conversation, or to make yourself look good, or to avoid taking responsibility for your actions is tempting. But giving in to that temptation doesn’t feel good, it harms relationships, and it erodes people’s respect for you. We all lie sometimes; much kindness and social obligation depends on it. But lying your way out of a tough situation is avoidance; it is a child’s escape.
- Self-forgiveness. I’ve written a bit about forgiving yourself (here, for example) and I think it is an essential characteristic of mental and emotional maturity. (Actually, I think it is an advanced spiritual principle, but I won’t get into all of that here.) Beating ourselves up and berating ourselves for our shortcomings and mistakes solves nothing; in fact it is a primary obstacle–perhaps the primary obstacle for many of us–to moving forward in life. It is a child’s unwillingness to accept the nature of reality. Which is that we are human. We make mistakes. We hurt the people we love. We fall short. Rather than beating the crap out of ourselves for all of this, it’s far better to take accountability, apologize/make amends where necessary, try to learn what we can from the experience–and for the love of god, move on. See also my Forgiveness archives.
I’m sure there are other marks of mature thinking, and if my thinking continues to mature, I may come up with another post about it someday. This is it for now.