The Path to No Path

Growth and Immaturity

By the time we are about seven years old, we have learned many skills in coping with life. We know how to get what we want – we know how to get our own way, and are usually very successful at it. Favourite techniques are wheedling, pleading, and temper tantrums. In fact, we might seem to be so successful at getting our own way that we never bother to learn skills that could make us even more successful.

Or perhaps, by age seven, we feel that we have achieved as much as is it is possible for us to achieve as regards coping with life. If we do not feel very successful, we might well accept our lot in resignation. Why not just give up? Why keep on struggling?

Either way, very many people never grow up beyond this age. You don't believe me? Just try an experiment, and you will find out. For example, many years ago, when I used to smoke, I noticed that whenever anybody asked me for a cigarette, or a light, I would always oblige. I would never, ever. refuse. I had also heard that unless a person can say “No”, their “Yes” is meaningless.

I therefore decided to try an experiment. At the time, I was living in India, and spent a lot of my time in an open-air restaurant. I decided that for the next week, whenever anybody (they were always Westerners) asked me for a cigarette or a light, I would always refuse, for no reason other than the fact that I was carrying out an experiment.

My aim in this was to find out whether I could just say “No”, and if so, to find out how I felt about it. Well, I found out that for me to say “No” was no great problem, once I had got used to the idea. However, the reactions of the other people were amazing.

A seemingly mature adult (a “grown up”?), in his or her twenties or early thirties, would approach me, someone I quite possibly recognised even if I had never spoken with them. The person would see my cigarettes and matches arranged temptingly on display in front of me, and make their request in an adult way.

Nothing unexpected here, but invariably, when I refused, they would regress to their childhood behaviour pattern. Their voice would go up in pitch, and would have a slight whine in it. They would look petulantly at me, as if they were about to stamp their feet, or even throw a tantrum.

All this would last just a brief instant, and then they would stalk away to look elsewhere. Not a single person ever asked me, in an adult-to-adult way, why I had refused; they never tried to communicate with me. By the third day, I was in fact hoping that someone would ask me this, so that I could tell them of my experiment. In the end, I cut the experiment short. No need to continue for a whole week. Three days were quite enough.

And even in a totally different context, I have found the same behaviour patterns emerging. While working in a shop in Britain, a middle-aged customer asked me for some product. I told her that unfortunately we did not have any in stock. Her “seven-year-old inner child” showed itself as she asked me when we would be getting more of this product. I told her truthfully that I didn't know, but expected that it would be a few days. At this, she puffed herself up like a really big, grown-up seven-year-old, and demanded that I tell her who was the person who did know.

In case you are now thinking that her reaction was something to do with my manner, I would like to point out I enjoyed meeting the customers. There were many who came to me for help, and I enjoyed helping them, when I could. There were also quite a few whom I could not help, and yet not many of these chose to act like a seven-year-old.

One Saturday afternoon, many years ago now, I went for a long walk over the mountains near where I lived. I walked perhaps eight miles (it was ten miles by road) to a pub out in the middle of nowhere. I bought a pint of beer and went and sat on the balcony to enjoy the setting sun. The place was rather full. An elderly couple came up to me and asked if they could share my table. They sat down on either side of me, facing each other, and started chatting to each other.

Yet their words were not mere idle pleasantries. Each utterance had a barb to it. I visualised them as shooting arrows at each other, getting hit and pretending not to feel the pain. So I joined in their conversation. The two spontaneously started addressing themselves to me rather than to their partner.

I would remove the barb from what each person said and pass the remainder on to the partner, who would then shoot an arrow back at me. Again, I removed the barb and handed the message on. This went on for an hour. Then the couple told me that they had to go, and thanked me most sincerely for a very pleasant evening. I remained there, sitting, wondering why they had chosen to attack each other, and hoping that perhaps they might have picked up a hint that they did not need to do this.

The moral? You can surely get by adequately well for most purposes with the mind set and skills of a seven-year-old. And I certainly have nothing against seven-year-old children. Some I have known have been wiser than most adults. But I bet that more mature people (of all ages) have more fun and have a more fulfilling life.

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If you should wish to contact me about anything you have read here, especially if you feel strongly for or against what you have read, or if you feel that something is missing, I offer you an opportunity to share.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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