Ours is a notoriously immature culture. One could even go so far as to say we pride ourselves on our adolescent ethos. Youth is king; juvenility is cool. Our president was not offended when he was portrayed as a comic-book super-hero on the cover of the satirical German magazine Der Spiegel. He was flattered.
Our mass obsession with physical youthfulness has been widely noted; the very word “mature” has become a euphemism for “no longer young and beautiful”. But far more insidious is the damage our cult of immaturity has inflicted upon the non-physical aspects of our beings. As a group, we lack a maturity of mind and soul.
Maturity is not the same thing as intelligence. Americans suffer no lack of intelligence, if only in the classical sense of the word: access to education and information, of which we have a surfeit. If we do not read deeply enough in our newspapers, behind the puff pieces and beyond the infighting of national politics; and if we do not listen between the lines of the blaring television lead stories to see patterns of meaning, that is a problem of maturity.
The American mind suffers from a deadening superficiality. Our religious institutions have calcified into bureaucratic dogmatism, as institutions will, and have lost their ability to engage the numinous imagination. Church theologies do not help us to form the questions that would lead us deeper into our soul-lives; instead they offer pat answers to only those questions church fathers say should be asked. Religious seekers are not encouraged to seek at all; we are supposed to learn our answers by rote, as children recite the ABCs.
Theology in its most simplified form is fundamentalism, which one can find everywhere except in a social context informed by spiritual maturity. Were we encouraged from childhood to develop our spiritual selves, to cultivate our own unique cosmologies with increasing subtlety and artistry as we aged, the notion of a literal, static Paradise would find no takers. Such a reductionistic picture of the infinite inter-cyclic universe would be seen as a bizarre attempt by clerics to keep people in arrested development spiritually.
If philosophical maturity were valued in this country, a policymaker would be hired for the subtlety of his or her ideas. An elected official would be laughed off the podium if he came out with the kind of absurd black-and-white pronouncements that we have recently been hearing under the auspices of authoritative decree. Bad-guy/good-guy characterizations would be confined to kindergarten discussions, just as stick-figure drawings are appropriate at only the very beginning levels of making art. For a leader to declare that the rest of the world is “either with us or against us”, or that his enemies “hate freedom” (this, from a government that is starting to detain peace activists at airports!), would be considered insulting to the intelligence of his listeners.
Were political maturity valued in our civilization, pundits would be judged on the basis of their critical thinking. Government spokesmen would not dare to tell journalists to “watch what they say”, as if they were naughty children at a dinner party. Were ideological maturity the goal in public discourse, sound bites would be relegated to selling chewing gum, not used to sum up world affairs. Historical complexity would inform what was written on the Op Ed page. Any mention of Saddam Hussein’s current weapons capabilities would logically be accompanied by at least a fleeting mention of the fact that the Reagan/Bush administration helped him plan and execute chemical weapon attacks against Iran in the ’80s. As it is, information-vendors blatantly indulge the public’s alarmingly short attention span, instead of doing their job: expanding our understanding by providing intelligent context.
It is no accident, of course, that TV commentators do nothing to challenge the public’s ignorance. The American telecommunications industry has fundamentally changed over the past few years. A few immensely powerful conglomerates now control all the major media outlets, and the industry’s ties to Washington have never been tighter. Consumers of the evening news who imagine that this will not skew the information they are receiving have not heard the one about the fox guarding the hen house.
And what about consumer maturity? In a capitalistic society, free-thinkers are a liability. They are less likely to follow orders as to what to consume. Fashion, whether in clothes, tech toys or foreign policy, depends upon suggestibility and conformity; and both are more likely when the self is insecure or undeveloped. Blue jeans manufacturers may insist that by buying their jeans, purchasers are making a wild and crazy statement of uniqueness; but the truth remains that self-aware individuals are less likely to throng into Macy’s to acquire the latest self-image prop.
Youth is by definition a phase of life with a shaky ego-structure, and it is to youth that most of the advertising in America is directed. When we are teenagers, our relative identity-lessness and yearning to fit in with our peers make us a Madison Avenue gold mine. By the time we reach chronological adulthood, we have theoretically developed the requisite ego cohesion to be able to say, “That may be a nice pair of jeans, but I do not need them in order to have an identity.” It is the mature buyer who is more likely to beware.
However, in a cultural milieu where chronological age does not guarantee true maturity– indeed, where most forms of maturity are suspect at best and despised at worst– it is questionable whether this discernment ever fully develops. Without discernment, we are left with insecurity. And we buy, blindly.
As I write these words, the clique of oilmen who run this country are trying to bully us into war, despite immense and obvious moral, financial, international and even military counter-indications. Beginning their big media push the day after September 11th 2002, the president’s viziers made no bones about trying to “sell” the war, blandly admitting that their timing was “a centerpiece of the strategy”; that is, the strategy to exploit the fear and grief of the citizenry. Mention was made of the conventional marketing wisdom to delay the introduction of a new product until after Labor Day.
Being targeted, pitched at, and gulled is so much a part of the life of the average American consumer that as we listen now to our businessmen-cum-politicians smugly discussing the details of their plan to sell us a campaign of massive death and suffering, we are almost numb enough to accept it. The movie “Wag the Dog”, which presented as laughable just a few years ago a situation very similar to what is happening now, would fail as satire today because the scenario has lost its giggle of implausibility. The perversely ridiculous has become the perversely unremarkable.
It is time to reclaim our adulthood. We must summon up an emergency dose of intellectual maturity in order to expose and denounce the appalling onslaught of propaganda polluting the mass media, and to inform ourselves through alternative means, for example, the international press, as to what is really going on in the world. We need emotional maturity, too, an example of which would be to modify our recent 9/11 mourning rituals to reflect the reality that throughout these months of American bombing, the Afghani people have suffered as a percentage of their population more than twice the deaths we suffered that dreadful day.
Spiritual maturity would mean refusing to be infantilized by morally bankrupt leaders. We must try, like big girls and boys, to rein in our fear and reactivity, and opt instead to follow a planetary vision bolstered by a genuine curiosity about what is going on outside our country’s borders. Such maturity would mean rousing ourselves out of denial and credulity, and taking stock of what our government is doing in our name. It would mean using our thinking minds independently, grounding ourselves in the facts while centering ourselves in the heart.
It is urgently necessary that we grow up now. Within every one of us at birth is a magnificent potential, a maturity designed to be grown into, to be lovingly cultivated as we age. We must take another look at our particular version of adulthood, re-interpret it, embrace it and put it into action. If we do not, we will suffer, and cause suffering, like lost and dangerous children.