Of Note

On "Maturity"

(by Albert Schweitzer)*

The ideas which determine the essence and the life of a person are innate in a mysterious way. When we leave our childhood behind they begin to bud in us. When we are stirred by youthful enthusiasm for the true and the good, they blossom and begin to bear fruit. In our subsequent development the only thing that matters is how much of the fruit that started to grow on our tree of life in the spring reaches maturity.

The conviction that we have to struggle to remain as alive in our thinking and feeling as we were in our youth has accompanied me through life as a faithful mentor. Instinctively I have fought against becoming what is usually called a 'mature person'.

The word 'mature' applied to human beings was, and still is, somewhat uncanny to me. I hear within it, like musical discords, the words impoverishment, stunted growth, and blunted feelings. What is usually considered maturity in a person is really resigned reasonableness. It is acquired by adopting others as models and by abandoning one after another the thoughts and convictions that were dear to us in our youth. We believed in the good; we no longer do so. We were zealous for justice; we are so no longer. We had faith in the power of kindness and peaceableness; we have it no longer. We could be filled with enthusiasm; we can no longer be. In order to navigate more safely through the dangers and storms of life, we lightened our boat. We threw overboard goods that we thought were dispensable; but it was our food and water that we got rid of. Now we travel more lightly, but we are starving.

In my youth I listened to conversations of grown-ups which wafted me to a breath of melancholy, depressing my heart. My elders looked back at the idealism and enthusiasm of their youth as something precious that they should have held on to. At the same time, however, they considered it sort of a law of nature that one cannot do that.

This talk aroused me in the fear that I, too, would look back upon myself with such nostalgia. I decided never to submit to this tragic reasonableness. What I promised myself in almost boyish defiance I have tried to carry out.

Adults take too much pleasure in the sad duty of preparing the young for a future in which they will regard as illusion all that inspires their hearts and minds now. Deeper life experience, however, talks differently to the inexperienced. It entreats the young to hold on to the ideas that fill them with enthusiasm throughout their lives. In the idealism of his youth, man has a vision of the truth. In it he possesses a treasure which he must not exchange for anything.

We must all be prepared for the sad fact that life is intent on robbing us of our faith in the good and the true, and our enthusiasm for it. But we don't have to make this sacrifice to life. When ideals collide with reality, they are usually crushed by the facts. That, however, does not mean that ideals have to capitulate before facts to begin with. It only means that our ideals are not strong enough. They are not strong enough because they are not sufficiently pure, firm, and stable within us.

The power of ideals is incalculable. One does not see the power in a drop of water, but when it gets into a crevice and turns to ice, it splits the rock. Turned to steam, it drives the piston of a powerful machine. Something has happened to it that activates the latent force in it.

So it is with ideals. The knowledge about life which we grown-ups must impart to the young is not: 'Reality will surely do away with your ideals' but rather: 'Grow into your ideals so life cannot take them away from you.'


(*)Source: A. Schweitzer (1997): Memoirs of Childhood and Youth. Translated by K. Bergel and A.R. Bergel. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, pp. 89-94. (Translation based on the original German edition by C.H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Munich, 1924.)