When he was fifty years old, William Butler Yeats penned this reflection on aging:
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble tabletop.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
This poem, especially its last line, is the statement of a mature, generative person. To be mature is to be able to give off life and to be a principle of blessing.
But what does this mean? How does one give off life and be a principle of blessing and how is this the essence of maturity and generativity?
An image can be useful here. Imagine a flower: As a seedling and budding young flower it is, in a manner of speaking, essentially selfish. At this stage, it is primarily consumed with taking things into itself, with its own growth. That remains true until it reaches the stage just past its bloom. At that point, it begins to die and in that movement it gives off its seed and is then consumed with giving itself away. It becomes generative at the precise moment when it begins to die and its capacity to give its seed is directly contingent upon its own death.
There are myriad lessons in that about maturity, mature love, mature sexuality, and mature growth. In that movement from seedling to young plant to bloom to giving off seed in death we see nature’s paradigm for maturity and generativity. In a flower, when full maturity is reached, life becomes consumed in giving itself away, at the cost of its own death.
In a flower, though, all of this is conscriptive, blind raw forces in the hardwiring of things relentlessly spinning themselves out. There are no choices made. As human beings we have another option, to give off our seed without dying, to let go of our seed with our bloom still intact. But this makes for some things that nature never intended: adults still consumed with taking things in, adults still obsessed with their own growth; boy fathers, girl mothers, child adults, puerile teachers, self-seeking authorities, abusive clergy, and parents who are still so caught up in the search for their own bloom so as to be unable to give off their lives for their children.
No one can truly bless another without dying. That’s what makes a blessing so powerful. Nature prescribes that. The flowers know it. Generativity depends upon a willingness to die, to let go of both the search for one’s bloom and of that bloom itself.
You see that in blessing adults: good mothers, fathers, teachers, clergy, mentors, uncles, aunts, and friends of all kinds. These, the generative adults, do not look like Peter Pan or Tinkerbell (who look like children), nor do they look like movie stars or athletes or those superb physically conditioned specimens that have just showered and walked out of the exercise club (who symbolize the bloom). No. Blessing adults, of both genders, are recognized by their stretch marks, their scars, their physical waning, and by the very fact that they are dying and their lives are no longer consumed with, precisely, trying to create and hang on to their own bloom.
In the Gospels, when Jesus challenges the rich young man to sell all that he has and give the money to the poor and come and follow him, the young man does not respond because what Jesus was asking of him, to let go of his riches, meant exactly that he would have to let go of his bloom. He was most sincere, but he could not do what Jesus asked. He wanted still to give his seed without dying, to become generative with his bloom still intact. He went away sad.
Flowers go away, but they don’t go away sad. They bless the earth, first with their bloom and then with their seed. Unlike the rich young man, in their maturity they sacrifice their bloom to give out all they have.
Innate in nature lies a lesson: Don’t give off your seed if your primary concern is still your own bloom.