I have recently written columns about principled realism and social individualism. These were put forward as an antidote to the ideological crisis we are currently experiencing. Yet if liberalism, conservatism, and libertarianism are obsolete, can these alternatives fill the vacuum?
Last week, I spoke about our need for balance. By themselves, none of the old truisms are sufficient for our purposes. None answers all of our questions; nevertheless each supplies wisdom that if supplemented by the others can advance our joint interests.
The trouble is that implementing this balance or my suggested replacements presupposes the existence of a crucial foundation. Ours may have become a mass techno-commercial society in which our affluence offers up a multitude of choices, but we will not be able to take advantage of them without “emotional maturity.”
David Goleman authored several books about what he calls “EQ.” He compares this emotional quotient with IQ, that is, with the intelligence quotient. Both are said to be crucial for social success, but the way he puts it is that IQ will get us a job, whereas EQ is essential for keeping it.
Unless we know how to get along with other humans, we are sure to alienate them. If we can’t read people emotionally or control our emotional impulses, we are sure to behave in an off-putting manner. It is, therefore, critical to understand and master our passions.
While Goleman is partial to a comparison between EQ and IQ, I prefer to talk about emotional maturity. We are all born with a full complement of affects. Some folks may be more sensitive than others; even so, we all feel fear, anger, guilt, shame, disgust, sadness, and love.
What distinguishes us, however, is how well we learn to use these emotions. They must all be adequately “socialized” if our affects are to be helpful to our adult selves. Were we to experience and deploy them the way that children do, we would be in enormous peril. Our social life would, in fact, come to a grinding halt.
To illustrate, we all get angry. Yet how we get angry differs. An extremely irate infant may literally bite the hand that feeds it. Then again, were an adult to do something comparable, he would probably go to jail. Adults must learn to express their irritation verbally—not physically.
Something similar applies to fear. Adults need to learn the difference between what is dangerous and what is not. Thus, while a ceiling fan might startle a baby, a teenager should be able to take this in stride. The teenager should also have learned to cross a busy street by looking both ways.
Strong emotions must be controlled or they revert to their infantile forms. Without self-discipline, people behave inappropriately. They get angry when they shouldn’t. They get frightened when they ought not. Worse still, they lash out when they should keep silent or run away when they should stand and fight.
This is what I mean by emotional maturity. It is not something we are born with, but something we develop. Unlike IQ, it is a competence that we acquire. All of us are able to learn how to be less afraid. All of us can discover how to get angry without throwing a tantrum.
What is more, unless we do, we cannot engage in principled realism. We would instead be so terrified by reality that we hid under a bushel-basket of fantasies. We would also be so enraged by our frustrations that we immorally injured those who got in our way.
Social individualism is correspondingly impractical in the absence of emotional maturity. We would not be able to make wise choices because we did not recognize, or honor, our limitations. We would, in fact, be too busy pretending that we should get everything we desire.
Unfortunately, emotional maturity is currently in short supply. We see this in politics. We see it in the media. We see it in our entertainments. Everywhere we look, childishness is in full bloom. Not only is it ubiquitous; it is celebrated as energetic and optimistic.
Too bad, because in its ignorance and impulsivity, this sort of immaturity is endangering our future. A world that is converted into a puerile sandbox will shortly have all the coherence of a pile of sand.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Kennesaw State University