Maturity and Adaptation for the Post-Modern Adult


Like the branches of interconnecting trees in a forest, the adult mind is interwoven with ideas and associations. The mind’s network is buttressed by behavior and habitat that support intention. The progress toward maturity is marked by a process of accumulation of ideas, skills and habits, relationships and responsibilities, and things. Wisely selected and articulated, the accumulation is coherent, consistent, and harmonious. Mind and environment are like concert master and players. The aim of the conductor is realized in congruous interaction with the musicians.

Benefits of an Established Habitat

Like mature forest groves, the benefits of mature mind and setting are stability and predictability. Such a setting provides sustenance to established habits and buffers the shocks of change. The established habitat promotes a measured and continuous productivity. The mature environment supports the long-term project, the opus magnum, the effort which requires sustained attention and depth of reflection. The mature habitat serves the scientist, the philosopher, the poet, the writer, the artist, the composer, and the seeker of articulated vision.

Major Vectors that Impact upon Habitat

The mature habitat is a place shaped by experience and wisdom to provide conditions which facilitate a desired result. What is desired depends upon the socio-historical milieu, occupation, interpersonal relations, and personal factors.

Social and Historical Change. Social-historical milieu is put in the first place because it is over-riding in importance. For example, during the Cultural Revolution in China, large categories of science, philosophy, poetry, writing, art, and music were not possible. Social-historical change operates in more subtle ways too. The shift in contemporary culture to “multimedia” precipitates revaluation of older expressive forms and talented individuals may pursue computer applications instead of traditional writing or music composition.

Perhaps until more recent times historically, the individual could safely remain insulated from social-historical change. In contrast to contemporary history, change was more leisurely. Nowhere is change more evident than in science and technologies where the number of contributions to a discipline is geometrically increasing every decade and in some fields every few years. The rapidity of change in science and technologies ramifies in every domain of human endeavor from manufacturing through art.

baby-84626_640-2In today’s world, an individual of average means can afford technologies which a decade ago could only be afforded by colleges and corporations. With this technology, a person can self-publish, create interactive programs, design a house, write a symphony and hear it performed, and with appropriate interfaces and materials, create a computer chip and design textiles to wear. The technology of the computer folds into robotics and fewer and fewer people are needed to staff an office, build an appliance, or make a dress. The development of new energy sources promises the emergence of a vastly changed world of small enterprises and cottage industries, with the individual and the family the center of dynamic production. The population of the developed economies live at a watershed of socio-historical change between an old order dominated by manufacturing corporations and nation states to a new order unified by aggregations of interests.

Occupation. Occupation determines whether the person interacts with a predominantly open or closed system and how the person’s activity connects with the social and material world. A closed system depends for its result upon the actions and efforts of the individual  and is largely not determined by outer events. A mathematician, a scholar, and a traditional eccentric inventor inhabit relatively closed systems.  In Piaget’s terms, the stance of the individual is dominantly assimilative. However, no absolutely closed system exists as the example of the Cultural Revolution illustrates. An open system depends upon the outer environment to which the individual accommodates. A farmer, a stock broker, a policeman exist in an open system of relations. In Piaget’s terms, the individual is dominantly accommodating.

system-954972_640To the extent that a person interacts with dynamic systems subject to change in the material world or in the social world, he occupies an open system. The less intrinsically predictable the world (or the more the world is subject to change of rules), the more likely he is engaged in an open system. The predictable behavior of the computer provides an example of a relatively closed system; the vagaries of life on the Lower East Side of New York, a relatively open system. The academic scholar who immerses himself in textual interpretation operates in a closed system and the modern marketing organization, in an open system. The former can sustain fixed belief, and the later, no beliefs; the former requires no telephone, and the later demands a bevy of communication devices.

Closed systems afford more insulation from the external world and sameness over time. A completely closed system requires no external inputs and so requires little pruning for the sake of making way for the new. Pruning only occurs for the sake of consistency or perhaps aesthetics. In any case, the rules of editing are purely intrinsic to the system. A completely open system is maximally attuned to inputs from the external world. Any artifact of thought, belief, or habit must be ready for sacrifice at a moment’s notice because existence depends upon accommodation.

Interpersonal Relations. The individual’s social relations impact upon the sustained habitat in two ways: First, social relations may support a deeper involvement with projects through facilitation of effort. Just as the cohabitation of creatures in the forest may spur the well-being and equilibrium of creatures that occupy different niches, the philosopher or scientist relieved of food gathering, cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing, has obtained a net gain in time and lessened distraction from projects. If projects can be rendered remunerative, then the traditional division of labor within families produces a net benefit in time for both parties through reduction of duplication of effort. Second, social relations provide sustenance through emotional support and a reason beyond the self for the expenditure of effort.

Organizations may operate like extended families to encourage or discourage adaptation. Organizations that operate to maintain the status quo can only operate through external support. Institutions such as the established Churches and academic universities act as repositories of rituals, attitudes, and values which possess a privileged social status. These institutions serve to sustain a continuity of tradition and belief from generation to generation and provide a common ground for social identification. However, organizations who behave as if they exist in a partially closed system are increasingly subject to reorganization, down-sizing, and upheaval. Economic change even impacts the stalwart guardians of social values and beliefs.

Like the traditional family, the vast plurality of organizations embrace role specialization’s to streamline effort and efficiency. The adaptive organization appears to gear itself to results and not the mere maintenance of defined roles. Persons (and teams) are given responsibilities and within that definition may recommend new procedures and aims. The adaptive organization is oriented to innovation.

Sometimes, organizations may operate like dysfunctional families. Dysfunctionality occurs when the institutions’ aims are blurry, miscommunicated, or inconsistent; when realities are distorted, disassociated, and not admitted; when persons engage in the self-oriented exercise of power and personality-cults and otherwise act for aims which are contrary to institutional adaptation.

Personal Change. Personal factors that influence desire describe characteristics of the self that arise from gender, age, and temperament. For example as a child ages, he becomes less interested in make-believe and more interested in his sexuality. His shift of interest eventuates in new pathways of thought and conduct, along with new preoccupation’s and intentions. With these changes, the child gravitates toward new environments. With age, adults change as well. Unfortunately, a well-documented change is senescence which afflicts approximately one in three older adults in the United States.

Gradual and Rapid Change in Life Style Adaptation

Necessary change occurs with maturity in at least three forms: First, the world and its technology and norms transform; Second, personal relations refashion because other people change or die; and Third, persons constitute new aims. Consequently, a person’s claims, expectations, habits and possessions require frequent readjustment, but unfortunately, the very success of previous patterns creates demands of time and attention which tend to sustain these patterns and leave little energy for their adjustment.

As with the forest which becomes laden by its history to overgrowth, so mature persons become laden by past claims and expectations, habits, and possessions. The personal overgrowth reduces adaptability to change because the overgrowth requires attention and energy to maintain. Just as with the mature forest, the individual may obtain a steady- state type of existence where all the person’s energy is directed to the maintenance of the status quo. When all the person’s energy is invested in sustaining the present form of adaptation, then no room exists for adventure, serendipitous play, fanciful exploration, or philosophical reflection.

From the periodic fire, the forest and nature is replenished by new growth. Although the uncontrolled fire clears the way for renewal, the uncontrolled fire may envelop bountiful assets. The assets, if saved, might promote regrowth and heighten biodiversity. Fire may be controlled. By means of controlled fire and the pruning of over-growth, assets may be marshaled and spaces prepared for enhanced and enriched development.

Pruning for Optimal Adaptation

Overgrowth occurs due to the accumulation of deeds, titles, responsibilities, roles, relationships, and the lessening of resources to sustain growth. Overgrowth results in too many sectors of responsibility and too many projects. Overgrowth strains personal capacity and decreases efficiency. Overgrowth decreases the free time necessary for consideration of the big picture and readjustment. A downward cycling spiral may result.

The correction of over-growth requires a realistic appraisal of aims and resources. What is one trying to do? What are the principle sectors of one’s life? How many projects are involved. What resources are required for completion of these projects? Are projects congruent? Can projects be integrated?

Major Sectors of Individual Endeavor

  Personal Hygiene & Health Social Relations Occupation Community Relations Material Status
  Sleep Children Occupation A Project

 1, 2, 3

Church and Civic Groups Earnings
Subsectors Nutrition Significant Other or Spouse Occupation B Project

 1, 2, 3

Clubs and Memberships Retirement
  Exercise Friends     Material Possessions

Note: New subsectors may be added. Each subsector may be further differentiated. For example, the category “Children” is composed of individual children, each child with individual needs and time demands. Insofar as different needs of an individual child may be addressed in terms of some rational contribution by the parent, an individual child may have different projects attached to her. For example, Alice may need a new school or a music teacher which require investigation and application. Projects differ from day-to-day responsibilities in that projects have a specific term.

The major sectors of adaptation are personal hygiene and health, social relations, occupation, community relations, and material status. These sectors derive from William James’s distinctions of the various selves. In accord with his scheme, the spiritual self would be included as a major player in adaptation. In the present scheme the spiritual self is included in the community sector under “church and civic groups”. However, this categorization may mislead about what is most important in human motivation. The spiritual self may encompass aesthetic and visionary experience, the fruits and experience of meditation, and transcendence. These facets may be leading organizers of life purpose and direction. So this self may be viewed in hierarchical relation to other selves.

What sector or projects within sectors are most important to the self and in what sense? Maslow believed that basic needs must be met first before persons were free to engage in higher motivations. Perhaps this is so, but spiritual needs often seem to shoulder aside more pragmatic needs, even for food and shelter. What is important for the self often arises from cultural prescriptions and beliefs. For example in contemporary industrial society, older citizens are often concerned about material status in the form of retirement. Is there some sector or some project with which the person deeply identifies? What is its source? Is this a function of past definitions, current adaptation, something unique and vital to the individual self?

Do sectors conflict? Do projects conflict? If too little time is available for existing projects, can some projects be dropped? Can time be managed more effectively? If too many demands within too many sectors occur, can some of these demands be collapsed into a single project? Can help be obtained or hired?

The risk of sectors, projects, and the like is that the person may lose all spontaneity and what is most precious in the encounter with life. Tasks, aims, and projects can rarely be pruned too much. The more space, the more sunlight illuminates the ground. But wisdom suggests that the vital supports of productive endeavor be sustained.

The author, Leland van den Daele, is a psychoanalyst, clinical psychologist, and teacher.