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All created things have their degree or stage of maturity. The period of maturity in the life of a tree is the time of its fruit-bearing. The maturity of a plant is the time of its blossoming and flower. The animal attains a stage of full growth and completeness, and in the human kingdom man reaches his maturity when the lights of intelligence have their greatest power and development. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 9.
Just as Abdu’l-Baha writes in the passage above, we all go through the natural process of maturation.
Unfortunately, mine was rushed along with the harsh command “Grow up!”
I heard that admonition often as a child. My father, a stern, hard-drinking ex-Marine, didn’t much like the energetic enthusiasm of children. Most of the time, he found their antics and their giggling and their mischievous behavior somehow grating or offensive. My siblings and I usually had to play out of the range of my father’s hearing, so we wouldn’t annoy him with the sound of our laughter.
Whenever I laughed in his presence, I could usually count on hearing “Grow up!” from my father.
He probably got that attitude from his own father, a Norwegian immigrant who suffered terribly as a child, and who had very little frivolity or play in his life. My grandfather—sold into slavery as a young boy in the late 1800s because his family couldn’t afford to feed him—developed a very hard outer shell, which few people penetrated. I knew my grandfather long into my 30s, but I rarely, if ever, saw him smile. His difficult life had taken all his smiles away.
Or maybe my father got his disdain for our childhood laughter from World War II, where he fought in the Pacific, on Iwo Jima and Tarawa, and experienced horrible things he never spoke about. Perhaps our laughter reminded him of the innocence he had lost there.
Or maybe a tragic event that happened a few years before I was born robbed my father of his ability to feel joy or appreciate it in others—my mother and father lost their first child three days after his birth.
At any rate, because my father and his father had such an influence on me, I grew up with many mistaken ideas about maturity. Deep into my own adulthood, I thought maturity meant dead seriousness, a complete loss of the playfulness of childhood, a lack of fun and delight and joy, a suppression of emotion and a stern, humorless view of the world.
I was wrong.
It took me a long time to figure that out, though. The process truly began when a publisher asked me, two decades ago, to write an introductory book on the Baha’i Faith—which turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted. (In fact, I’m still working on it, twenty years later…)
Maybe I found it difficult because I love the Baha’i teachings so dearly; or maybe my quandary involved trying to decide what to put in the book and what to leave out; or maybe it had to do with the vastness and majesty of the subject and my tiny capacities. Whatever the cause, I found the prospect very daunting, almost impossibly challenging, and I searched long and hard for a way to structure and frame the book that would work, and that wouldn’t duplicate the fine introductory Baha’i books already written. Finally I settled on the topic of human spiritual maturity, which led me to a whole new field of research—the science of psychological maturation. For ten years, I read everything I could get my hands on about how we humans grow, develop and mature.
Here’s the shorthand version of what I learned: human growth and development, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, always progresses through a series of stages.
Our sequential maturation begins within the embryo, continues after birth and then fits a pattern of normative development, progressing from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Just as we grow up physically, we also mature intellectually, psychologically and spiritually. Our spiritual growth, its stages detailed for us by the mystical traditions of the world’s great Faiths, also unfolds in stages as we mature. We move through those stages at our own pace and as a result of our own initiative—but the sequence itself usually progresses along a predictable path. In my study of the holy books of different Faiths, I learned that identifying and comprehending those stages allows us to better understand and direct our own spiritual journey.
I gradually learned, too, that adult life doesn’t have to mean leaving laughter and joy behind.
In this series of essays, please follow along as we seek to understand the new scientific and spiritual findings about human maturity, from the remarkably complementary and parallel perspectives of developmental psychology and the Baha’i teachings. We’ll explore some of the most influential and insightful maturation theories from scientists and philosophers like Jean Piaget, Abraham Maslow and Urie Bronfenbrenner, who coined the intriguing term “human ecology.” We’ll look at the compelling Baha’i view of the course of our inner spiritual development, outlined by two of Baha’u’llah’s most mystical books, The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys. We’ll ask: what is maturity? How do we get there? What character traits and virtues define a truly spiritually mature person? Which maturational steps and stages can we follow that will help our souls grow, develop and mature? In that process, how do we find joy?
Please join us as we take a walk on the seeker’s path.