Spiritually Mature

The Most Mentally and Spiritually Mature Among Us Will Not Grow Old Mentally

“Many of the cases (not all, because biological factors are also important) of the so-called senile dementia are a fatal extreme form of mental and spiritual immaturity.” Morgan Scott Peck

Potential for transformation

Our ability to change—our potential for transformation—is so extraordinary that other times when I’m asked what human nature is, I jokingly reply (because it’s only one side of the paradox) that there is no such thing. For what distinguishes us humans from other creatures is not the placement of the thumb, nor the amazing arrangement of the larynx, nor the enormous cerebral cortex, but the striking relative absence of instincts—inherited, proven patterns of behavior that make the nature of other creatures a lot more constant.

I live in Connecticut, on the shores of a large lake. Every year in March, when the ice melts, a flock of seagulls arrives, and in December, when the lake freezes, the seagulls fly away, probably south. I don’t know where they’re going, but soon friends told me they’re going to Florence, Alabama. (My ornithologist friends say there are no migrating gulls, but that’s because they haven’t seen mine.) Anyway, scientists who study migratory birds have found that with their little bird brains, they actually manage to navigate by the stars so that each time with unfailing accuracy they end up in Florence, Alabama. The only problem is that they are relatively loose in this regard. It’s either Florence, Alabama, or nothing. They can’t say, “This winter I want to go to Waco, Texas, or Bermuda.”

But because of the comparative absence of instincts, we humans are distinguished by unusual freedom. We are free (if we have enough money) to spend the winter in Alabama, or in Bermuda, or in Barbados, or to stay at home, or to do something absolutely unnatural and drive in the opposite direction in the middle of winter, to the northern part of Vermont, and skating down the icy slopes on some awkward pieces of wood or fiberglass.

There are also those who believe that our freedom, our ability to exercise control over our behavior and environment, is a gift from God. Others believe that it is the end result of thousands of years of evolution. It is possible that both are right. And our ability to change is most visible precisely in the successive stages of spiritual growth from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. But then, if not the ability, then at least our desire to change becomes more and more difficult to see, because we get older and our habits become more and more rigid, we are more and more convinced of the rightness of our opinions, we are less and less interested in new things, we are becoming more and more limited. When I was young, I thought it was normal to be like that. I watched as the adults around me entered their fifth, sixth, seventh decades of life and seemed to become more and more rigid in their “nature.”

But at the age of twenty I spent the summer with the famous writer John Marquand, who was sixty-five at the time. This summer turned all my ideas upside down. Marquand was interested in everything, including me, and never before such an important sixty-five-year-old man had taken such a genuine interest in my insignificant twenty-year-old persona. We argued late almost every night and sometimes I actually won the argument. I managed to convince him to change his mind. I saw him change his mind for one reason or another several times a week. Towards the end of the summer I realized that mentally this man had not reached his limit. In fact, he’s even rejuvenated, he’s become more flexible, developing psychologically faster than most youngsters. And for the first time in my life I realized that mentally we do not grow old. Physically – yes: we age and our bodies turn to rubble. But mentally, spiritually – no.

This brings us to another interesting paradox. It is the most mentally and spiritually mature among us who will not age mentally. On the contrary, many of the cases (not all, because biological factors are also important) of the so-called senile dementia are a fatal extreme form of mental and spiritual immaturity. We often say that those suffering from senile dementia have entered a ‘second childhood’. They become moody, pushy, manipulative and selfish. But usually this is not because they have entered their second childhood, most often they have not come out of the first at all. But the thin veneer of maturity has worn away.

Therefore, psychotherapists who work to bring people closer to adulthood know that many who appear to be adults are emotionally children dressed as adults. This is not because their patients are more immature than average. On the contrary, those who sincerely accept the humble but dignified role of the patient do so precisely because they are called to free themselves from their immaturity, because they can no longer tolerate the impasse and, although they do not yet see a way out, they want to change.

A teacher of mine, an Irish Jesuit, once declared to me in his charming accent, “Ah, Scotty, the old man is a wonderful thing!” He meant, of course, that the old man is a being to be admired because it is rarely encountered. However, this relative lack of grown-ups is no reason to despair. The facts show that the number of those seeking to grow up has increased rapidly over the past sixty years. In any case, real adults are those of us who have learned to continuously develop and exercise our capacity for change. Because of this, their progress along the growth path gets faster and faster the further they go. Because the more we grow, the more capable we become of opening ourselves to the void – of letting go of the old so that we can let in the new and change.




The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Values, and Spiritual Growth” – Morgan Scott Peck