Mosaic Part 3: getting stuck
1. The important part of maturing is not how fast we go or how far we get but that we keep moving (or pause briefly enough that we can get started again).
2. Fear can make us resist the complexity of the world, or the pace of change can overwhelm us, and then we need to slow down at least for a time.
3. We need to exercise the integrating muscle that holds complexity together by individually and communally telling stories and engaging in practices that help us acknowledge and accept the diversity of life, inside and around us. This model helps us assess the health of our communities by their ability to help us with this crucial task.
The model of maturity that I’m trying to describe is not focused on how fast people are maturing or even the degree (or stage) of development that they reach. The focus is on a journey that keeps moving forward – that people are able to keep integrating the very real complexity of the world around and within them.
This is partly because there is no universally ideal pace. The best pace is what fits a person given their genetic makeup, their early life experiences and the opportunities that their present lives afford them. The important thing is that we don’t pause the process so long that we bog down and get stuck – unable to grow even when we’re ready. And, unfortunately, people who get bogged down seem to prefer those around them to get bogged down too.
By my definition of maturity, things can get blocked in two ways: by refusing/denying the complexity or through an inability to hold things together. Clearly these two are completely tangled together, but I’ll look at them separately to make things simpler.
The chief enemy that makes people refuse or deny the complexity of life is fear
There is never any lack of actual complexity – so running out of complexity (we might call it the food of maturity) is not likely to be the issue, though a very routine life with unchanging and limited social opportunities would certainly offer less. But it’s almost certain that the chief enemy that makes people refuse or deny the complexity of life is fear. It takes courage to stay open to life in its fullness and the continual change that will be a part of that.
At the same time, it is very appropriate that we have a brake pedal when it comes to the pace of increasing complexity. We are easily overwhelmed when change comes too quickly and options multiply. Slowing this down or pausing for a rest are entirely healthy options. Here is one of the places where the linkage with integrity is crucial. If the pace is so great that we are struggling to hold ourselves together, to find a centre, then we clearly need to slow things down.
Integrity requires a certain kind of psycho-socio-spiritual muscle that we need to keep in shape. If that muscle gets flabby, we’ll be unable to hold ourselves together
Fragmentation or splitting are two words that have been used to describe what happens when integrity eludes us. Integrity requires a certain kind of psycho-socio-spiritual muscle that we need to keep in shape. If that muscle gets flabby, we’ll be unable to hold ourselves together.This muscle, or this centre, needs to be strong and resilient. We need resources beyond what we find in ourselves. We need communities that nurture a strong, integrating centre by acknowledging and accepting the huge range of diversity that exists internally (“our many selves”*) or externally (within and beyond our communities). We need spiritual stories and practices that help us exercise the muscle inside of us that holds all of the complexity together.
Without this centre, any increase in complexity will not help us as there will be no form to it. Without a meaningful connection we tend to chop off the unintegrated parts (or try – they are not usually that easy to be rid of).
If, through an inability to find integrity or a fearful resistance to the complexity of reality, we have been stuck for some time, growth and maturity will no longer feel like a smooth process. What we need then will feel more like a conversion. At some point our resistance becomes futile, and we give up only to find a surrender that is the breakthrough to new life. Or we unexpectedly find the missing puzzle piece that enables a greater integrity or at least the grace to cobble things together in spite of missing pieces.
This perspective on how maturing gets stuck can help us to assess the health of our communities and faith traditions at any stage of our development. Do they provide the resources that enable us to make sense of the complexity of real life? Or do they make us turn away in fear? Do they strengthen that resilient muscle that helps us hold together a large and generous self? Or do they make us try (in vain) to chop off the bits and pieces that don’t fit?
*A book by that name, by Elizabeth O’Connor, is one of several good books on this important understanding that we have a diversity of “selves” within us – and that this does not have to be a threat to our integrity.