Originally in American Thinker, February 12, 2010.
Believing what’s always felt good comes easily. But growing up requires accepting truths that our younger selves denied. Toys don’t arrive via air-sled from the North Pole. I am not major league pitcher material. And there indeed are people determined to do nothing positive with their lives.
Growing up is hard work.
Because the path to maturity has no end, it’s wise to focus on journeying well. Along the way, emotionally healthy adults achieve the profound awareness that they do not know far more than they do know. The realization serves as an indispensable ally.
Maturing requires seeing easy street as a dead end. Rather than obsess with making love in the green grass behind the stadium, grown-ups make love last. Grown-ups find balance. Effective parents view the shaping of youngsters’ attitudes as a moral imperative. Effective people understand that trying to control other people’s thoughts is morally loathsome.
Many milestones mark the way to adulthood. A major inflection point is reached with the recognition that “helping” people by supplying answers breeds dependency on supplied answers. No skill is transferred, no accountability engendered, no lasting help provided. True grown-ups counsel without scolding, lead without showing off, and teach without preaching.
Reason, emotion, fact, and fallacy, the human brain processes all four. Decisions emerge. With each decision, people grow-or not. The willingness to learn how to blend emotion with reason and make good decisions is a prerequisite for growth. To grow is to replace fallacy with fact and resist too-good-to-be-true illusions in order to prevent too-horrible-to-endure consequences.
Grown-ups understand that some choices can feel wonderful at first, yet carry staggeringly bad long-term consequences. Surrendering to certain urges may bring short-term pleasure, but divorce, heartbroken children, and financial ruin are high prices to pay for marital infidelity. Weak thinkers may feel warm and fuzzy about paying a single mother of five to remain unemployed and working on number six, but grown-ups see a half-dozen more Welfare cases in the making.
Acknowledging the likelihood of awful consequences is a mature trait. Almost cruelly, good judgment requires growing up even as growing up requires good judgment. Some “adults” are remarkably incapable of fathoming this Catch-22.
Judgment and maturity play central roles in deciding when and how to help fellow human beings. Using taxpayers’ money to rescue lenders that made irresponsible loans to irresponsible people illustrates one brand of help. Taxpayers freely donating money to improve the lives of the mentally ill or cognitively deficient illustrates another. Grown-ups understand the difference. Childish idealists don’t see a difference.
On the spectrum of human motivation lives a continuum of possibilities. At one end, the digital logic of yes or no, agree or dissent, do something or do nothing. At the other, impulses born of delightful, horrific, heartwarming, heart-chilling emotion. Grown-ups carefully navigate the spectrum, embracing blacks, whites, and passionate reds in the combinations needed for life’s decisions. Even the most ideologically-tainted cynics catch fleeting glimpses of a fundamental truth: neither the left nor right end of the spectrum holds all answers.
Choosing between left and right lies at the core of an age-old societal challenge. Kind-hearted clear thinkers acknowledge the challenge, as defined by two questions.
- Should “society” try to improve the lives of its witless, unskilled, and mentally unstable members? Society’s achievers generally want to help, but without coercion from government busybodies too willfully blind to comprehend the power of the free market to channel the help.
- How does society decide whom to help? Grown-ups acknowledge that given access to opportunity, capable people must make their own way. Negligent slackers must live with the pitiful results that crummy decisions and laziness invite.
Even should exploring such questions produce methods for helping society’s most exposed members, a more fundamental question will remain. Is our species clever enough to achieve the balance between logic and emotion vital to averting economic and cultural messes? America’s most recent hundred years suggest an answer. Social engineers from John Dewey and Teddy Roosevelt to John Goodlad and John McCain, from Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Sanger to LBJ and Hillary Clinton, and from FDR to George W. Bush, Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama have placed fallacy ahead of fact, feeling ahead of logic. As a result, Americans have suffered educational degradation, natural economic downturns unnaturally intensified by government intervention, moral decay rivaling the decadence that collapsed past civilizations, and an accountability-destroying nanny state.
Human history’s message is transparent. Wisdom is not the norm.
Two simple truths live at the heart of the struggle to grow up. First, used wisely, both logic and emotion play key roles in good decision making. Second, schemes based on pie-in-the-sky hypotheses are hatched by minds that fail to grasp the first truth. To be sure, fools in powerful positions have abused feel-good illogic to drive entire societies into decline. For “intellectuals,” growing up is especially hard to do.
Self-anointed intellectuals don the costumes of politicians, professors, and preachers, cling to the notion of the perfectibility of the human animal, and promise to save us from ourselves. Our rescuers are consumed by a desire to use our wealth to bring their pipe-dreams to life. Some people never grow up.