You are getting nerdy…

Ruminations on Adulthood

I actually had to think about that title for a while.  I still have difficulty with the idea that I’m qualified to offer any sort of opinion on adulthood as a concept or an experience.  That’s ridiculous, really.  I’m twenty-four years old.  Sure, I’m not worldly and wise by any stretch of the imagination.  Not even particularly experienced in many areas, really.  But I think I ought to be comfortable with the idea that I’m an adult by now.

Circumstance probably plays a role in the perception, when I think about it.  I still live with my parents.  I make barely more than minimum wage.  I’ve got approximately a year’s worth of post-secondary education, with which I’ve gone nowhere.  All less than impressive to be sure.  But whenever I moan about such things – which is probably too often – whomever happens to be in earshot inevitably asks me why that’s such a big deal.  Apparently I’m at the sweet spot in life where, while it is encouraged, I’m not obligated to be a responsible, contributing member of society.  This, I think, affords a rare opportunity to really examine the meaning of this ephemeral concept we call adulthood.

It is important to note that “meaning” and “definition” are not necessarily the same thing.  There are multiple definitions of adulthood.  There are even varying parameters within certain definitions.  The easiest to explain is the legal definition.  Age of majority, as most first world countries call it (actual term may vary according to linguistic preferences).  The actual ages in question and rights afforded by this legally defined threshold will differ from country to country, and even within one country, there may be different rights afforded – or rescinded – at different ages.  Essentially though, the legal definition of adulthood exists to define what you can drink, what you can smoke, what sorts of vehicles and/or weapons you can own and operate, what political action you can take, and what sort of people you can and cannot fuck.  This definition also carries a host of new consequences for stepping outside the boundaries of the law, but with the frequency that kids these days are charged as adults, that’s not quite as meaningful as the drinking, smoking, driving, shooting, voting and fucking rights.

That legal adulthood can be so neatly summarised in a single paragraph clearly shows that it is the easiest definition of being an adult.  Much more difficult are the social and personal definitions, often the same thing, since so many people define themselves by the perceptions of others.  More on that later, I think.

How adulthood is defined personally is going to depend partly on perspective.  I (vaguely) remember being a teenager and seeing legal majority as the only important ideal of adulthood.  More generally, it was freedom from the oppression of childhood.  As an adult, I surmised, I could do whatever I liked and not have anyone telling me “do this” or “don’t do that”.  Of course, that comforting illusion was shattered within a year or so of my eighteenth birthday.

As I began to shrug off the conceits of adolescence, that ideal of freedom metamorphosed into another, more evolved concept: independance.  There are those who might ask what the difference is between freedom and independance, and I say it can be defined in one word: self-responsibility.  Freedom becomes independance when one recognises that it isn’t really free.  If I really wanted to be my own person, I would have to work for it.  I would have to accept someone telling me to do this and not do that.  This was the first stage in understanding adulthood, but not the last.  Self-responsibility, the recognition that I would have to earn the right to stand on my own.

Independance is, itself, something of a fallacy.  Here, I believe, is one of the hallmarks of real adulthood.  Independance becomes interdependance.  Self-reliance becomes responsibility above and beyond oneself.  To truly understand that we don’t live in a vacuum is perhaps the most important step in personal maturity that someone can take.  Unfortunately, not everyone takes that step.  We share the reality we live in with everyone else on the planet, and every action we take impacts someone outside ourselves.

It is possible that we can define our own lives by the roles we play in the lives of others.  To use myself as an example, I am a son, a brother, a brother-in-law, a nephew, an uncle, a friend, a potential partner, an employee, a coworker, a helpful bookseller, a customer,  a passenger, a witness, and more.  And those are just the positive roles I play in people’s lives.  I’m sure I could hammer out a few less complimentary if I thought about it.  But those are enough to make my point.

What I am, all of those things that define me, are dependant on others, the impact I have on their lives, and the impact they have on mine.  It is only as an adult that I have come to recognise this, that I am not an island.  We’re not defined by how others perceive us, as some people seem to believe.  We’re defined by the effect we have on the world, and the world is other people.  To achieve and adult state of maturity, I believe it is necessary to recognise this constant.  Interdependance.  We’re all connected, and so we’re all responsible for each other, even as we are ultimately responsible for ourselves.

Of course, adulthood isn’t all about peace and harmony with the world around us, it also invokes a bleaker understanding, equally important for its uncompromising reality.  The world owes us nothing.  There are no guarantees, and the only life we can rightfully claim to deserve is the one we’ve built with our own hard work and resourcefulness.  A sense of supreme entitlement is one of the cornerstones of a childlike thought process.  A toddler doesn’t know responsibility, or interdependance, or freedom.  It knows only “want”, “need” and “have”.  As we age, our understanding matures, and we are meant to grow out of this infantile perspective.

Adolescents represent a solid middle ground for this example.  Adolescence seems, at least from the outside (and from memory), to be characterised by desire and self-gratification.  This, of course, is why so many teenagers are so focused on the things they are not permitted do to, and the trappings of a self-serving lifestyle.  Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll is a concept that has always been synonymous with adolescence.  Though adolescents are typically aware of the idea of reponsibility and earning their lot, they don’t always care.  It is worth noting, again, that not everyone grows out of this perspective.

The fact remains, whether we recognise it or not, that we have no real entitlement.  Some people seem better off than others, and there’s no apparent logic behind it.  We do what we can, and take what we can get, for whatever purpose drives our actions.  Recognising this isn’t the only important step.  Many people recognise what they see as a fundamental unfairness of reality, and waste their time complaining.  The adult will see that this is the nature of the world, and will make peace with it.  Why bemoan what can’t be changed?  The adult simply makes the best of the reality he or she has been given.

As important as recognising interdependance and responsibility, as important as understanding the fundamental lack of entitlement, is the need to understand yet another immutable fact of life: no one is an adult all the time.  In the sense of our own imperfect nature, we will all lapse into immaturity and find ourselves acting selfishly or complaining when we don’t get what we want.  Nobody I can name is free of this.  But our childlike nature is not merely a flaw to be overcome.  There is our sense of wonder and imagination, our ability to laugh and enjoy the small miracles that life places constantly in our paths.

Too often people reach the age where law, or society deems them adults, and they abandon the simple joys of the child.  They cast childhood off as a thing of the past, something they’ve grown out of.  But childhood isn’t a chrysalis phase, remembered only as the empty shell we left behind when we became Real People.  Childhood is an important step, it’s who we once were.  Everything that we have been contributes to the sum of what we are.  To look back and say “those things don’t matter now, I’m an adult” is a betrayal of the self, and an unfortunate immaturity that is most pervasive in a society that so highly values labels and appearances.

The adult sees that the child he or she was is still alive, and understands that there is a time and a place to look on the world with unabashed wonder and indulge in innocent, carefree fun.  Just as there is a time and a place for sobriety and responsibility.  Rather than deny one and favour the other, the adult seeks a balance between the various extremes of the human condition.

Everyone will have their own idea of what it means to be an adult, based on their own definitions of the world.  For my own part, I seem to have found what I would call milestones of understanding.  The three critical facts of life that I must recognise in order to feel comfortable calling myself an adult:

1. I am not an island.  I am defined by the world around me, and the people I share it with.  I am responsible not only for myself, but for everyone whose life I touch.

2. The world owes me nothing.  Neither I, nor anyone else, is entitled to anything.  I deserve only what I am prepared to earn through work and sacrifice, regardless of what I or others have gained by good fortune.

3. I cannot always be an adult.  Childhood does not end where adulthood begins.  Everything that I was is a part of what I am, and I must embrace these facets of myself, and find balance among them.

I’m able to recognise these concepts, and put them into my own words.  It’s possible that I might even understand them.  That being the case, maybe it’s all right to call myself an adult, even if I don’t always see myself as one.


January 16, 2009 Posted by | Random | Leave a comment

And I Took the Road Less Travelled By

When reading “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, the common perception is that the final two lines are the crux of the poem: I took the road less traveled by/And that has made all the difference.  Of course, the common perception is probably correct in that regard, but when I found myself accidentally reading the poem a scant few minutes ago, it was another line that grabbed my attention: And sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler. For some reason, it seems to me that there’s a concept here that bears exploration.

The question that forces messily into my mind is: Do I have to be one traveler?  Can I only choose one identity, and remain stuck with it forever?  Well, obviously not, people change their identities all the time.  I’ve done it at least three times in the last five years.  No, the question has to be deeper than that.  Can I only have one identity at once?  If I can’t travel two paths as one person, why can’t I be two people?  The path is metaphorical, after all.  I don’t need an axe to be more than one body metaphorically, any more than married couples need crazy glue and stitches to be spiritually one.

Obviously, this line of thinking is riddled with flaws.  Well, one in particular.  There are decisions to be made in life for which there is no going both ways, and no turning back.  But that’s not universal.  What if the metaphoris applied in another direction?  If I tried to keep my mind on just one path, I would probably bleed something out of my ears.  Something extremely unpleasant and probably important, like my imagination.  I’m constantly going in many different directions at once.  It’s how I think, and how I come up with ideas.  My mind is pulling thoughts and notions and similar varieties of bullshit from all over the place.  Most of it doesn’t make any sense, but that hasn’t stopped me from posting this, has it?

Logic doesn’t really work here.  This is a flight of fancy.  But it’s free, in its own way.  Certainly, taking the road less traveled is the worthier option, if you have to choose, but isn’t it great to do both?

January 8, 2009 Posted by | Ramble | , , , | Leave a comment