Paradise Lost?

The Epic Shenanigans of Adulthood Part III: What We’re Missing

What is it that we have lost? Childhood is a time of emotion, imagination, fun-centered friendships, and awe.

Even though adulthood brings with it physical freedom, childhood has emotional freedom. Only those with a child’s heart have the freedom to feel without limit: laugh, giggle, cry, whine, shriek, etc. No feeling is out of bounds.

Likewise, childhood is a time of boundless intellectual freedom. My heart goes out, too, to those whose childhoods were characterized by restraint. My musings and generalizations here are a reflection of my own upbringing. “You had a magical childhood,” my fiancée concluded, after looking through the family photo album, full of picture of me with gloves on my feet, a pitch helmet on my head, and a sword in one hand. Or the video of me telling my third-grade class that I wanted to be a cryptozoologist. My mind as a child was free to go wherever it desired. How many adults can say that? And how many of our minds, given the choice to go to the heights of the ineffable, go to the gutter instead!

The nature of friendship, too, seems to change. Now I did not have any great friends as a child, other than my sister, with the exception of Nate in 5th grade (whom I still call and email from time to time, though he lives at the other end of the country) and some half-assed friendships in middle school and high school. But let’s be honest, most of us didn’t figure out how to be good friends until college (I’m especially speaking for the guys). Even with those qualifications and limitations, I would still see childhood friends as being drawn together by shared fun, while adult friends, as often as not, are drawn together by shared duty. My friends now tend to be my coworkers. But at the cookout on Friday, four-year old Halsey’s friends were determined simply by who else wanted to play in the dirt pile.

If you remember the joys of dirt, then you can agree with the importance of awe at the world around us. A cardboard box is a source of endless joy and possibility, all the more so if you can fit inside it, as it transforms into a car, submarine, and space ship. When we are born, the entire world is unknown, except for mother, and all of the unknown is a source of awe. As we increase in knowledge, the temptation is to decrease in awe. Perhaps the greatest loss in a human’s transition into adulthood is a loss of awe.

The greatest tragedies of childhood – abuse, neglect, loss of love ones, physical hardship – are those that deprive a child of emotional freedom, imagination, friends, and awe.

Do you remember the joys of simply playing in dirt? If not, the next post is especially for you. Meanwhile, I covet your comments.


The Price of “Growing Up”

The Epic Shenanigans of Adulthood Part II: Why

Sometime around the age of twelve, the transition begins. While our bodies reach maturity fairly quickly, I am convinced that the vestiges of childhood linger until there is some grave change of heart. It happens in secret and catches many of us by surprise when we realize, long after it has happened, what has taken place. Hence the classic, Baby Boomer mid-life crisis. We, their children, have tended to specialize more in the I-refuse-to-commit-to-what-I’m-doing-for-the-rest-of-my-life “quarter-life crisis.”

What fits of misfortune drive us to the margins of our own hearts?

When I consider the elements of adulthood largely foreign to childhood, I discern duty, success, failure, and physical freedom.

Duty is present in some childhoods, though I would characterize most childhood duty as “negotiable responsibility,” in the sense that it is more optional. No matter how numerous the chores of childhood, the stakes are markedly lower. The presence of dependents – spouse, children, and aging parents – can create a sense that not only is there no “safety net,” but the livelihood of an entire clan is dependent on my ability to fulfill my duty, i.e., to succeed at my career. Those minors who take on such duties lose their sense of childhood the soonest, in ways that will become clear in the second half of this post.

Success, too, is present in some form in the lives of many children. But these accomplishments are without the ambition and mastery achieved by “successful” adults. No child faces the temptation to believe, “I have such control over the task at hand that I am like a god!” Your childhood doodle will probably hang on the fridge no matter what. Your grown-up oil painting could fetch $1.2 million and hang in the Guggenheim.

But the flip-side of success is failure. My heart goes out to any readers who grew up with a sense of abject failure. My guess is that sense was imposed from outside, either directly or indirectly, by adults who were all to cognizant of their own failures and looking for someone to take it out on. As an adult, you have the potential to loose it all. You could “squander” your best years throwing paint on canvas and have nothing more than a handsome debt to show for it.

Adults have great physical freedom, in that we can go and do almost anything humanly possible. But possibility comes at a price. The long list of could quickly becomes rivaled by the long list of shouldn’t. I could go run, but I shouldn’t, because of my bad knees. Our bodies’ slow betrayal renders us the slaves of our own limitations. Adulthood comes at a price.

The Epic Shenanigans of Adulthood

Part I: What

My long hiatus from blogging has brought with it much writing material. It’s not just an excuse. The “interruptions” in life can be a source of great blessing.

I am engaged and the wedding is in two months. I am nearly finished with my first year of Ph.D. studies. I am in the process of maybe selling a house, which has been complicated by ant number of issues. Unbeknownst to myself, I was without homeowner’s insurance during the earthquake, for example. But I digress.

My question is this: in what ways is adulthood qualitatively different from childhood?

I ask this because I am convinced that far too many adults have not abandoned their childhood selves and that, unless I am careful in the big decisions I face in my present, I will become one of them.

For the purposes of this essay, I will disregard such nuanced stages as “teenager” and “young adult.” I assume that if you are somewhere between 12 and 40, my discussion applies to you, as well as to many people outside that age range, which is simply my best guess at classifying those who are trying to figure out what it means to be grown up.

Children dream of becoming adults. Most of them do, anyway. Their games reflect this. But they do no want to become just any adults. While stereotypical roles reflect this –firemen, soldiers, astronauts, movie stars, princesses, and mothers – I think that even non-stereotypical playtime reflects this trend. My earliest career aspiration was to live in New York and own a costume shop, helped by a giant rabbit. My favorite book, “Busy Day, Busy People,” had somehow given me an inkling of the Big Apple. But I think, too, of my recent summers spent mowing the campus at the seminary. I wore a broad-brimmed hat to protect me from the sun and a bandana over my mouth and nose to keep out the dust and pollen. I heard from several seminary parents that their sons enjoyed “playing cowboy,” i.e., mowing the lawn like me.

Why do children want to grow up? Adults have apparent freedom and endless possibility. They come and go as they please. They stay up as late as they want. They spend money on whatever they want. They have power, beauty, strength, and knowledge to a degree that is barely imaginable for a child. A boy who longs to be strong knows that he will be stronger when he is a man. A girl who longs to be beautiful knows that she will be more beautiful as a woman. All children who long for adventure know that they will have greater means to travel and explore when they are older.

Yet if the standard children’s attitude is “I can’t wait to be an adult,” the standard adult response: “bills! [gripe, gripe] duty! [gripe gripe] if you only knew!” Too fraught with duty to dream of childhood, gripey grown-ups nonetheless know that they are missing something. As to what and why, I will devote my next post.