It is often said that life begins at forty, yet for the most part our culture defines the golden age to be that of youth, a period followed by the seemingly inexorable and unwelcome decline in all that is most highly prized! Yet this stereotype, espoused as much by the needs of the marketplace as by a general nostalgia for the passion and curiosity of adolescence, neglects a fundamental truth: namely that the birth of adulthood can be a cause for celebration, as we combine experience and commitment to engage more forcefully with life, and find fulfilment in new and stimulating ways.
The adult state signals a potential shift in outlook that could be described as one of ‘generous perception’. This can be characterised as an attitude of ungrudging concern for others, for society and the environment. The so called ‘midlife crisis’ may paradoxically be a wakeup call to this phase of self-awareness. Indeed, some have suggested that the defining element of the second half of life is that it often involves a keener sense of our mortality and encourages a generosity of spirit, in which others are placed before self and the notion of service becomes paramount.
The rounded individual has been described as someone who has finally understood and accepted that there is a shadow side to their psyche – the less appealing traits in their makeup - for which they need to take responsibility. As we become more tolerant of ourselves, so judgement gives way to greater self-awareness and a willingness to connect with others. Generous perception could be called self-awareness in action.
At the heart of generous perception lies a more inclusive outlook on life, where the self and its needs have been put to rest, as the individual seizes upon what he or she can do for others, be it in the domestic arena of family and friends or in a concern for the wider issues of society. Although every stage in life allows for generosity, the pressures of childhood and youth are such that other factors will generally be uppermost: the child is called upon to revel in the joys of innocent perception, in which an immediate connection, untroubled by critical reflection, can be established with the world. Later in adolescence we witness the exciting birth of passionate perception, where creativity combines with energetic engagement to such powerful effect. While many choose to remain in a prolonged state of passionate perception, because its joys and challenges are so addictive, for those who are prepared to move on to a fuller engagement with reality, the potential of generous perception brings with it a new understanding of life, in which deeper self-awareness and responsibility march hand in hand.
Of the three perceptual states, each accessed most fully at their respective stages, generous perception is the flagship. The first two, innocent perception and passionate perception, are preparatory and instinctively experienced as part of growing up. In contrast, generous perception requires a deliberate willingness to forfeit our comfort zone and accommodate the needs of others. All three perceptual states are available throughout the lifetime. Indeed, one of our evolutionary responsibilities is not to lose touch with either our innocence or our passion as we move into adulthood, a time when we can engage in the tasks of contribution and service. It could be said that one of the crowning glories of a civilized society lies in its capacity for generous perception, with its determination to look after the old, the young, the homeless and those in poor health. In contrast, if we look at recent dictatorships, we find the very opposite, with every vulnerability remorselessly crushed by those who value only their strength and the tyranny of unfettered willpower.
The prize of generous perception is a deeper relationship with the world in which innovation, adventure and the unexpected go hand in hand.
Generous perception asks us to abandon the comfort zone of certainty typical of youthful optimism and to engage with experiences whose demands are likely to be unpredictable. The concept of ‘relational stretch’ may help us to gain an idea of what might be involved: All of us construct a unique emotional reality to deal with the challenges of life. We instinctively create a place of emotional security in which our beliefs and attitudes are protected and remain intact, and where intimacy tends to be tightly regulated. There will be times of infatuation when we throw caution to the wind, but in general our surrender is muted, controlled and anticipated. Our comfort zone binds us to the safe and predictable. ‘Relational stretch’ is a measure of the extent to which we challenge the boundaries of this comfort zone, deliberately move away from the humdrum pattern of our lives and engage in new feelings, new behaviour and new activities. It is reflected in the novelty of our experiences. As we abandon our more defensive attitudes, we deepen our perception of reality and our understanding of the world changes; we embrace old relationships with greater concern and new relationships with more openness. The prize of generous perception is a deeper relationship with the world in which innovation, adventure and the unexpected go hand in hand.
Generous perception invites us to explore new aspects of reality with selflessness and integrity; in sharing resources, our use of time provides a good indicator of our intentions. How we give of our time is a simple, basic measure of something that is relatively elusive and sophisticated, yet it gives us an idea of what generous perception looks like in practice. Even with children, we can chart the extent to which they share their time and resources with others... fledgling steps towards maturity. Giving to others is usually ‘time hungry’: the grandparents who put days aside to look after their grandchildren; the artist who, having honed her skills over years of practice, helps others to develop their talents; the sportsman who trains youngsters at the weekend to attain the confidence he long ago acquired; the countless hours spent by volunteers in looking after the needs of others; the leaders of industry who put aside their evenings to inspire the young, and so on. The examples are legion, yet implicit is the notion that only by giving of our most precious resource, namely time, can we truly experience the grace of what we ourselves have been given.
Generous perception holds the promise of great intimacy. It is the key and portal to successful relationships - the grail of our adolescent yearnings - where we can relate to others in ways that are tender and innocent, when we can truly be ourselves and when the most irksome of emotional inhibitions can finally be laid to rest. In contrast, young people, who are in thrall to the acute passions of their age, have to accommodate a host of competing activities as they seek to establish a foothold in life.
True intimacy is nourished by an experienced heart, one sustained by generosity, patience and sensitivity.
Intimacy is often confused with the joys of sexual activity. For most of us, in our youth, those pleasures are both wonderful and sufficient. But although our loneliness can often be assuaged by physical passion, the promise of intimacy may still elude us. True intimacy is nourished by an experienced heart, one sustained by generosity, patience and sensitivity. In fact, were young people to realise that adult surrender holds the promise of deeper intimacy, they might feel more positive about the prospect of growing older, and in consequence the generational divide might be narrower!
Generous perception, like innocent and passionate perception, is wide ranging, open to change and the creative impulse; yet unlike those states that are birthed in childhood and adolescence, it offers a more mature definition of our humanity where the importance of ethics is paramount. It puts an emphasis on values such as patience, humility and kindness - strengths often neglected in the scrum of modern life – and it celebrates those occasions where we stand our ground in making difficult decisions. Generous perception causes us to listen to our feelings and take responsibility for what we hear. As a result we are not driven only by those needs deemed important in society but by the power of choice that is found within.
Generous perception is mistrustful of all that seeks dominion over others, be it a position at the high table or in a cup that is already overflowing; for ruthless ambition and unbridled greed are goals only worthy of opportunists who have yet to find their foothold, and whose values are often determined by the shifting sands of popular opinion. Though it remains our birth-right and responsibility, generous perception may be absent in those who eschew the depth of their feelings in favour of short-term gain. Indeed, if generous perception is neglected for too long there is the danger that it will develop its own pathology of greed and anxiety, with rampant disconnection causing the cravings of desire to take precedence over common sense and true need.
The impression created by those for whom generous perception is important is that they act out of reflection rather than impulse, that they are guided by ethics rather than expediency, and that the end never justifies the means. Essentially generous perception is about surrender and contribution. It is to be found in any gift that proceeds from the heart, in any initiative that puts others before self, in words that bring comfort and joy, and in those moments when truth and wisdom vie for attention. We resonate instinctively to the generous heart, wherever we find it, and in doing so we recognise the adult face of humanity.
© 2009 Nick Halpin