I am indebted to Steven Barnes, author of Dream Park, Lion’s Blood, and countless other wonderful novels for the genesis of this post. On social media, he discusses the concept of adulthood in detail.
I have come to believe that in our society, we are gravely confused about adulthood, and what adulthood means. Sometimes, I wonder what our civilization has come to when the most frequent context for the word “adult” is as an adjective describing entertainment with explicitly sexual themes.
It’s no wonder our society is obsessed with sex, and who is having it with whom, and who has the right to have it under what circumstances. Clearly, we have made the ability to copulate into a significant proof that we are worthy of an honor, and that honor is the privilege of being considered by our fellow adults to be reliable and responsible self-supporting beings. This is amazingly sad when you consider that this activity can be carried out by beings that literally have no brains. Yet for all this, there is a more sinister connotation to the use of the word “adult” in the context of entertainment.
We’ve turned “adult” into a word that means that you are free and unrestricted. That no one can stop you from consuming whatever you want. And the most disturbing thing about this definition of “adulthood” is not that it’s new or strange, but that it is old and depressingly familiar. It’s the definition that we all learned as children, when we resented our parents’ constant direction. They were the ones who stayed up late, watched anything they wanted, chose the food we all ate, liked it all, set boundaries and cut off fun. Our definition of “adult” is the child’s definition, and that says far too much about the culture we have settled for.
So what’s the right definition? Steven Barnes has defined adulthood as (to the best of my memory) the ability to provide physically for yourself and another human being. There’s a lot to like about that definition. It’s practical, relatively easy to measure, and about as unbiased as anything I can think of. But although that is an excellent beginning, I think adulthood is something more than this, too. I think it has to be more. I’ve seen too many so-called adults who were certainly competent providers tear up their spouses, their kids, their co-workers, and their subordinates without ever losing their ability to make a living and support another person. And on a certain level, that’s just, because despite those faults, those people made themselves valuable to others in ways that couldn’t be ignored. But I saw my grandmother and grandfather, who passed the above test (in many ways, with flying colors) turn their marriage into a little annex of hell because of their childishness. And that childishness was a real and dangerous thing because it endangered their son’s ability to repeat their success. It certainly robbed him of many opportunities to learn from their strengths. Further, their childishness endangered their grandchildren’s ability to grow into real adults because of the pain they inflicted.
But now let me tell you about my father. He didn’t come out of that situation unscathed, but I’ll tell you this: he sure as hell took the opportunity to learn from his parents’ weaknesses. The older I get, the more I appreciate that my father took a bad situation, a situation that many people would have used as an excuse to be weak, looked at it, and said, “I will not follow this.” I don’t think I ever heard him put the whole lesson into words. He said things like: “You do what you have to.” He said things like, “We’re family, and this is what we do for each other.” But if I had to put it into words, I would say, that adulthood is the ability to accept pain in your life without sacrificing others to avoid it.
Life is pain. Life is joy, too, but that joy comes with a lot of pain. I can’t count the number of people I know who unhesitatingly, and sometimes with vindictive glee, will throw friends and family members in the path of pain so that they can avoid it. Or so that they can have pleasure. That’s why people have affairs. It’s why people neglect and abuse the children they are supposed to be turning into adults. And while many, possibly most of us, avoid the huge wounds that tear a relationship apart in one blow, most of us habitually indulge in the repeated violations of trust that stretch these bonds to the breaking point over years. Because we want what we want. We want it now. We’re too tired to do one more thing for those we say we love.
Of course, we all have our limits, and there’s such a thing as needing to love and nurture yourself, too. Adulthood is the ability to distinguish between the desires of your heart and the desires of your stomach. Adulthood is the ability to say no to what you want in favor of what you absolutely have to have. And if you can’t tell the difference, then you will never be more than half yourself, the other half eaten up by petty desires.
But I am dismayed when I see how many people seem completely unable to say “no” to themselves, and are trapped in the desire of the moment as if it is their life’s goal. I am grateful beyond measure that my father taught me how to say that word. And I am well aware that I don’t say it enough; I’m not as good at it as he was. And no, he wasn’t perfect either. But he’s better at it than I ever have been. Maybe I haven’t been close enough to the consequences of a marriage that completely breaks down to appreciate it. If that’s so, then there aren’t words to express my gratitude.
Today, I look out at my nation, and I see clamoring hordes of children, crying out that they are adults, but at the same time, clamoring just as loudly for an authority to give them what they want, rather than resolve to make it for themselves or do without. And when they are challenged on this, they cry even louder that they have rights (usually by virtue of existing) but no power to do what they want. These are not the cries of adults. These are the cries of frustrated children. And the thing about frustrated children is, that they usually do get what they need, but they find that it is not what they want. The adults hear their cries and treat them as children.
If we will not be adults, then the adults will come for us, and they will put us in the place we have asked for.