Stoicism: The Cure for an Epidemic of Immaturity

Steven Gambardella

We’re Mired in Self-inflicted Unhappiness

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(Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash)

If you are reading this article then congratulations: you’re a winner of the cosmic lottery.

You likely own a connected device and have an internet connection, unlike more than 50% of the planet’s population. In fact, you are likely to be in the top 10% richest people in the world, a privilege that requires a net worth of $95,000.

Around 100 million Americans are in this privileged position. Being in the top 10% of the world makes you richer than almost seven billion people.

Throughout the history of mankind, billions more people lived in a less developed world than the one we live in now. Just a few generations back, our ancestors struggled with the elements in a way we couldn’t comprehend, further back they likely would have tolerated the feeling of hunger more than we do now. We get “hangry” and buy a sugar-laced snack, they looked for work.

Diseases we barely give a moment’s thought to would have been a threat to their lives, as they are to many people alive in the world today. We get vaccinations. We go on vacations. What a treat!

Self-Afflicted Unhappiness

And yet, the internet is polluted with industrial quantities of self-afflicted unhappiness. Social media is full of it: grown human beings throwing virtual muck around like toddlers — whining and complaining, hissing and yelling about their first-world problems.

Children can rightfully express themselves in this way. Children will whine and cry about not being allowed candy, or being told to sit still. Kids will do that forever because they are immature. Life is a novel experience for your first dozen years, and your less developed mind is going to flip out with indignation if it doesn’t get its way.

But all around us — and especially on the internet — we see adult immaturity. Worse still, it’s encouraged by a society that tells us that we must indulge in our fantasies and wildest aspirations.

Immaturity in adulthood comes in three principal forms: entitlement, self-pity, and fear.

Of course, there are legitimate causes for these emotions, especially self-pity and fear, that absolutely must be taken seriously. We are in the middle of a global mental health epidemic that’s hurting a lot of souls.

We also live in a fundamentally unfair world where people live under a glass ceiling because of their gender, race or class. So yes, those people are entitled to feel frustrated about life chances being shut down in plain sight.

But in the spectrum of normal emotions and situations, these are forms of adult immaturity. We can all slip into these emotions. We may be spurned by people we desire, we may lose out on a promotion we thought was ours, we may fear change or difference.

But we’re no longer children, and there’s no adult around to tell us to stop being a cry-baby. So we whine, complain and run away from responsibility.

Seneca and Maturity

During the Roman Empire, young men were ceremonially inducted into adulthood by being gifted an adult toga in a public square. This was the moment when the child became a member of the public with civic responsibilities and obligations to their household, family and country. The word “public” actually shares the same Latin origin as “puberty”.

In a letter to his friend Lucilius, the Stoic philosopher Seneca evokes the joyful feeling of a child being inducted into the adult world. He wrote, “I’m sure you remember how happy you felt when you put off your boy’s toga for the man’s toga, and were taken to the forum.”

Adulthood is a juncture many children look forward to, yet when we pass through the threshold of maturity we are often left wanting. Adulthood is frightening and often mundane. With its freedom comes expectations.

Seneca shows that to be made an adult citizen is one thing, but to mature into that role is quite another. For this kind of maturity, it’s essential that we find wisdom. There’s joy in learning and growing your mind, and that’s for the best, because we can’t naturally grow out of an immature mind as we can an immature body. He wrote:

“You can expect even more joy when you put off the mind of boyhood and when philosophy has enrolled you among men. For it is not childhood that still stays with us, but something worse: immaturity.” (L.4)

This condition, Seneca reminds his friend, is all the worse since we possess the authority of adulthood together with the follies of immaturity. Seneca’s warning is all the more pertinent in the twenty-first century. A child is harmless, an adult can cause a lot of harm.

Maturity has been downgraded by a media industry obsessed with youth. In our ageist culture, aging is seen as a decline. But aging is a process of becoming what we really are as long as we learn along the way. Youth is wonderful, but the patina of experience — the wear and tear of living your life fully — are the marks of your flourishing.

Fear

When we succumb to the immaturity of fear, it’s easy to see how our childhood fears transfer to our older terrors. Children fear the dark, adults fear the unknown; children fear ghosts, adults fear death.

Seneca noted that a stalked animal will run away but then settle to graze again, but human beings live with fear constantly. “There are more things,” Seneca wrote to Lucilius, “likely to frighten us than there are to crush us. We suffer more in the imagination than in reality.” (L.13)

Fear is an immaturity that spreads like a virus. Fear breeds fear. Like a shoal of fish or a grazing herd, it takes one frightened animal to unsettle the rest. And so fearmongers will spread fear maliciously or not, to cause others to worry.

Every malignant force in society runs on fear. Luddites fear change, racists fear difference, dictators fear people, misogynists fear women. Courage, on the other hand, is the fuel of progress: courage to admit mistakes rather than sink into error, courage to embrace change and plurality, courage to share.

Fear follows you no matter how far you run from the object of your fear. It is fear itself that ought to be conquered, not the objects of fear.

To conquer fear, we must make use of our imagination, rather than let it make use of us. Seneca advises that we should rehearse our fears. He encouraged his friend to practice a little poverty or to think about death, for example, as ways of training ourselves to be immune to our fears:

“In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.” (L.18)

Self-Pity

The immaturity of self-pity is the feeling that we’ve been uniquely hard done by.

A child will sulk and complain if things don’t go their way, they’ll often feel that they are being unfairly treated. This is part of growing up, it’s part of the child being able to understand themselves as an individual. They think, “Why me?”

And that’s probably healthy. Under the age of ten, personhood is a novelty. Kids need to think “Why me?” to develop a sense of individuality and understand their place in the world.

But adults will all too often fall into this unnecessary indulgence when things don’t go our way. We think, “Why me?” As adults, we should know better than to think this.

We can wallow in grief for our predicament, or we can learn and move on. To self-pity is to belittle the suffering that others go through. Pity itself is a negative feeling towards something, the object of pity is robbed of dignity. This makes self-pity all the more grubby.

Self-compassion is the more mature way to face our problems. We need to want the best for ourselves and everybody around us. We need to listen to our body and ignore the noise of over-thinking. “Pain is slight if opinion is not added to it,” Seneca wrote. Be a spectator to the way you bear your problems, admire your own calm feeling to adversity.

Entitlement

Entitlement is the feeling that we deserve what is not necessarily or rightfully ours. Children are dependent on the care of others to survive. To be entitled comes naturally to a child.

The entitled person doesn’t understand that fairness is invisible to the eyes of fate. As much as we think we deserve something, there’s no “law of attraction” out there that’s going to give it to us.

When I get upset about missing out, I scare myself with how ridiculously lucky I am, then I consider that some people are just luckier than I am. I can’t emphasize this enough — when you are born you’re a roll of the dice, if you’re drinking clean water you won. It really is that simple.

Instead of whining and complaining, we should instead feel gratitude for everything that we have. And I don’t mean gratitude as a “life hack”. I read a lot of self-help and life advice that tells us that we’d be happier if we “practiced” gratitude. This is just selfishness clothed in magnanimity.

Practicing gratitude in this sense is a consolation — making ourselves feel better by focusing on what we’ve got. Considered in this way gratitude is just the flipside of the same entitlement coin — you’re saying to yourself, “I’m not really happy with what I’ve got, so I’ll force myself to be happy with it.”

Real, authentic gratitude is wishing for others what you have. Want to practice gratitude? Make the poor richer, the sick healthier and the ignorant wiser in whatever ways you can. Donate and vote. Give up time for those in need. March if you have to. Gratitude’s best companion is compassion. Generosity and activism feels a lot better than saying thanks to the universe while you’re taking a shower.

Seneca writes that those who expect gratitude in return for gifts and favors are wrong, since a transaction is not a gift. If you expect your favors to be reciprocated, then you have slipped into entitlement yourself. Be grateful, instead, of your own good deeds:

“The reward for all the virtues lies in the virtues themselves […] the wages of a good deed is to have done it. I am grateful, not in order that my neighbor, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act; I feel grateful, not because it profits me, but because it pleases me.” (L.31)

Adult immaturity is easy to fall into since it’s indulged so much by the consumer economy. Advertisements and the media fuel our indignation, our fear of missing out, and the feeling we’re entitled to riches and comfort. While these stoke our regressive instincts, social media allows us to vent them. The cure for this is wisdom.

Wisdom isn’t easy, but it’s the virtue of all virtues. As we get wiser we get stronger, braver and more compassionate. We can age without growing wise, and it’s a special kind of sadness that follows elderly people who are unwise. Such people lurched from childhood to adulthood without purging the immaturities with wisdom because wisdom isn’t easy. Yet the burden of fear, entitlement and self-pity gets heavier.

Life is like dancing on ice. It’s enjoyable with a bit of practice and a couple of bruised knees. As we get older the ice gets ever thinner under our skates, to quell that anxiety we should skate all the faster and more gracefully.

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