Limits and Personal Maturity

Adapted from Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future

Our analogy between Cultural Maturity and maturity when reached in individual development helps clarify what inviolable limits ask of us.  It also makes the potential rewards for engaging them more understandable.

In a person’s individual development, life’ first half is appropriately heroic. With most all limits we face—those presented by limitations of strength or knowledge, those that manifest in self-doubts or emotional failings—the task is to defeat them if at all possible. With second-half-of-life developmental tasks this picture changes. The key to full maturity in an individual life is a new and greater ability to appreciate what is possible and what it not. The lessons we learn when we run up against life’s limits are often not initially celebrated. But such lessons are essential to a healthy and purpose-filled life.

No theme more pointedly defines life’s second half than new limits, and limits that cannot be overcome in any traditional sense. Midlife, and the second half of life more generally, presents layer upon layer of new constraints. We face new physical limits—to our strength and agility, to how young and beautiful we can appear. Life demands that certain of our dreams, often dreams closely tied to our sense of identity, need to be, if not surrendered, at least tempered. And ultimately of greatest consequence, midlife places before us, with an immediacy that would have overwhelmed us prior to this moment, the fact of our mortality. Most of us have before reflected on death, but midlife is the time when we first really “get it,” first fully grasp our own death’s inescapability.

This sudden barrage of new limits can seem to present no good options. Deny their implications and our lives become increasingly absurd—thin caricatures of youth. Neither should we do the opposite—give up life’s good fight. To do that is only to become defeated and cynical. Neither side of the hero’s traditional story—neither victory nor surrender—captures what is required.

So what do the inescapable limits so prominent in life’s second half ask?  We don’t have good words to describe what is needed—an expanded sense of proportion and perspective, a new humility, a fresh appreciation for contradiction, a deepened connection with the unfathomable, a better sense of the big picture.

Personal maturity’s new limits can at first feel not at all welcome (and many often never do). But if we can meet such limits creatively, they add to who we are. Confronting limits to our physical strength teaches us about more subtle and ultimately more important kinds of strength. Confronting limits to youthful beauty reveals to us more enduring kinds of beauty. And confronting what may not be possible reminds us about what is essential.

Wisdom is the term that best captures the task of life’s second half. In limits, we find wisdom’s greatest teachers. The second half of life is as much or more about growth as the first, and it is limits that often lead to the greatest growth.

We can extend these observations to the way human formative processes work more generally. We see something similar with the mature stages in human change dynamics of all sorts—in a simple creative process, with organizational change, in the common steps through which love grows and matures. For now, this further recognition addresses a valid objection and, in the process, in another way supports hope. A person might appropriately argue that much in this linking of our developmental metaphor with limits ties to phenomena that are particular to a human lifetime—predictably diminishing capacities and the inescapability of death being the most obvious examples. Fortunately for our species’ future prospects, neither diminishing capacities nor death (at least in a literal sense) accompany the mature stages in other formative processes. A more generic creative picture helps put inviolable limits within a larger frame. In so doing, it both eliminates certain less positive associations and invites a more explicitly generative interpretation.

The mature stages in any human formative process bring a new kind of relationship to ultimate limits. Inviolable limits become more consciously accepted. Eventually they become embraced. With increasing maturity, we appreciate that truth—the real stuff—makes no real sense separate from limits. While fantasy and wishful thinking appropriately ignore limits, conclusions derived from such sentiments are trivial at best. In the end, truth that moves us is something else. It is about seeing what is more clearly—including life’s ultimately inescapable constraints.