Think back to your teens. You probably assumed that your fear, confusion, and sense of vulnerability would disappear when you reached 40 or 50. But maturity should never be confused with age. The two are not synonymous. Plenty of individuals undergo physical ageing yet remain emotionally stunted. This is especially apparent when normal restraints disappear. Most have witnessed the pitiful sight of a group of drunken, middle-aged men at an office party, making crude jokes and behaving like oafish teenagers. And most have encountered young people who have reached astonishing levels of maturity.
Young people are trying to work out who they are. As they grow, they try different identities. One moment they are a gloomy goth, then an angry, defiant punk. Parents often find this tiresome and irritating, but it is natural and should never be ridiculed. Of course, adults occasionally change their style as well. But there is a difference. In youth, these identities are serious. Being an adult means knowing who you are beneath the various styles and masks. If you do adopt a new one, adopt it with a sense of irony and self-awareness.
Of the identities or poses adopted by the young, perhaps the most common could be labelled the "doomed romantic" or "gloomy romantic" pose. This has often been described by artists. Holden Caulfield, for example, the hero of J D Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye, despises the "phoney" adults who surround him and regards himself as an outcast. The Smiths' song There Is a Light That Never Goes Out is another good example, perfectly capturing the raw, intense, melodramatic feelings of youth through lyrics such as "to die by your side, the pleasure, the privilege is mine." Such a romantic view usually rests on an adolescent mix of self-obsession, raging hormones, and feelings of immortality. Maturity means accepting just how fragile, fleeting, and insignificant your life really is. You should have seen enough suffering and pain to know that this pose isn't cool, neither is it preferable to a life of simple contentment and happiness.
Young people are often idealistic. They seem to believe that their generation alone understands what is wrong with the world and how it should be put right. Of course, idealism is fine up to a point. Believing in such abstract concepts as justice, liberty, and equality motivate people to do much good in the world. And it is hardly surprising when the young grow weary of their parents' cynicism.
The problems begin when idealism replaces tolerance and compassion; in other words, when abstract concepts mean more than real people. In Vasily Grossman's novel Life and Fate, about the war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, there is a scene in which a German officer smiles at an elderly Russian peasant, removes his hat and wishes her good morning. She returns the greeting. Grossman's point is that just for a brief moment they forgot their loyalty to class, rank, nation, fascism, or communism and met as real, vulnerable human beings. This is why those attracted to political extremes, or easily swept away by emotional rhetoric, tend to be immature. People are not pawns in a great game. Mature people value courtesy, manners, kindness, and respect more than grand utopian visions. In other words, they cherish the ebb and flow of civilised life and resist the childish urge to smash things up and start afresh.
Such idealism is often mixed with intolerance. The immature expect too much of people and are intolerant of weakness. Being mature means accepting difference and tolerating the views of those with whom you disagree. As you age, you begin to realise that certain people will never agree. The world is composed of different personalities and temperaments; some people are dominated by reason and intellect, others by fiery emotion, and so on.
Nothing reveals someone's level of maturity more than their relationships with other human beings. Mature people find it easy to love. They give it freely and unconditionally. But they are also self-sufficient and aware that they could be content on their own. Because of this, the quality and depth of their relationships is much better. Other people need not fear upsetting them all the time, nor do they have to adjust their personality to reassure them. In romantic relationships they do not idealize clinging and dependence, nor the suffering that inevitably follows. And because they know they could survive on their own, they do not seek to break down or control their partner.
A mature individual would never say "you are the only one in the world for me." They know that this is simply not true. They also know that all relationships are ultimately temporary. This may sound hard and callous, but in fact such people tend to have deeper, more intense, and longer lasting relationships because their romantic affairs are not based on fantasy or pretence. They love the real person for who and what they are. Others sense this and return the love. Thus the bond that forms is deeper and more authentic.
The mature do not live in denial. They face up to the brief, transient nature of life. Many people cannot do this. Rationally, they know that they and the people they love will die one day, but subconsciously they refuse to accept it. When death occurs, mature people grieve deeply and suffer profoundly. But they are also able to recover and move on. Instead of responding with bitter outrage and self-pity, they feel immense gratitude for all the love and happiness the deceased brought into their lives.
Maturity involves many things, but if it had to be reduced to one thing that would be realism. Everyone carries a model of reality in their head. In a mature person, this internal model closely resembles actual reality. They are self-aware and realistic about both their own capacities and limitations and those of other people. Life is hard and most people use some kind of defence. The immature either escape into fantasy, play the victim, or project their suffering on to others. Mature people are too realistic and self-aware to fall for this. Their defence is outward looking, and they cope through irony, humour and compassion.