As a kid I was often confused and intimidated by the idea of becoming an adult. Still, I felt reassured in knowing that as muddled as I was — not just about adulthood, but about myself and the life I inhabited — there was nonetheless a good crop of real adults running the world, which meant that even if I stumbled and never mentally made it past 12, everything was going to be okay.
I worked to mind my manners and memorize my multiplication tables. I learned to shampoo my hair and pick out my own clothes, as mastering these skills were prerequisites to adulthood, or so I was led to believe by parents/teachers/coaches and their incessant preaching/warnings about what would happen if I didn’t follow the rules. I did not know when, exactly, the cocoon-cracking blossoming of maturity would take place, or what, exactly, it would feel like when I got there. I am not Jewish. I’m not privy to a bar mitzvah, nor had I a debutante ball, nor basic training or even so much as communion. Learning to steer, flipping my tassel from right to left, putting my maleness to its evolutionary use. None of it made me feel like I’d truly stepped up on the podium. Ditto for getting my own place, paying taxes, getting engaged. Adulthood simply loomed in my future like a graduation to which no one had given me the date, much less an invitation.
I’ve begun to understand that growing up is a much more fluid and relative concept than I was led to believe as a child. Adulthood might merely be an idea implanted in the minds of naive children for disciplinary reasons, or perhaps in petty revenge by parents who won’t allow their children to enjoy being young in a way their parents never allowed them to be. But, if there’s no Crowning Moment, no Official Adulthood, what, then, happens when we grow up, (assuming we do)?
Perhaps I need to have a kid. I’ve heard everything changes the instant the nurse hands you a slippery 7.5 lbs. Becoming a parent undoubtedly alters the father and mother in significant ways, but parenthood, as I’ve observed from the sideline, is more like a quilt: it can cover up the life you had before; it doesn’t always sweep it away. And quite quickly, if not as instantaneously as the birth, the acidity of your prior life dissolves the blanket, and now in the home there are two children living under the same roof, the difference being that one child is responsible for changing diapers and the other child can only lay there.
From that perspective, becoming an adult might not be a mindset at all, but simply a reflection of behavior. It doesn’t matter if I feel five years old or fifty years old. As long as I stay on my side of the road and don’t cheat too much on my taxes and remember to pick up little Charley from day care, as long as I don’t too vigorously insult my neighbor’s lawn ornaments and don’t beat up little Missy for not scoring twenty points, then I’m good to slap on a name tag and put a ‘Mr.’ before the Jared.
Half of me feels like a kid climbing a tree and the other half like an old man on a bench watching the kid climb the tree.
I don’t have any kids and don’t plan on having one anytime soon. It’s possible that one of the reasons I’ve never had a child is because I’ve never really felt like an adult, and of course only mature and responsible adults should have children. In saying I’ve never really felt like an adult I imply that I continue to feel like a child. Perhaps I do, but that’s not totally true, either. I don’t know what I feel like. Half of me feels like a kid climbing a tree and the other half like an old man on a bench watching the kid climb the tree.
Sometimes I’m like this, sometimes like that, often at the same time. Which is how most humans truly are. We are complex, layered people, who know how to act mature in some ways but remain clueless in others. Which leads to a scary observation: a good chunk of adults, if not most adults, are not only not adults, but they’re pretending to be such!
There’s nothing wrong with pretending. If I don’t feel like being a good citizen, it’s probably a good idea that I continue to act like one anyway. If I feel like killing my spouse, it’s probably a good idea I act otherwise. A peaceful and functioning society largely depends on the ability of its inhabitants to check their impulses. But we’ve become a world of people pretending to such a degree that we forget we’re pretending. We wear the mask of adulthood with unnecessary seriousness and self-righteousness, traits which are the roots of conflict and greed and oppression and prejudice. And in my own case, in faking my emotional maturity, in taking my role as an adult so seriously as to forget it was a role, I prevented myself from truly undergoing the processes that would actually make me emotionally mature.
Eventually, when I got desperate enough, I learned to let go of all my constructs and masks, and I stopped acting, at which point I learned that one of the paradoxes of becoming mature is that in becoming so you actually become more like what we would consider a healthy child: engaged by the moment, playful, joyful, effortlessly gliding through the challenges and celebrations of life.
Wisdom can be defined as the ability to realize that we will never be wise in the ways we once thought we would be. A wise man finds a comfortable bench in a leafy park. He has a sober mind and a clear line of sight to the child waving from a branch high in the tree. And when he’s truly wise, he’ll disappear from the bench and the only one left will be the kid that climbs.
Jared Parker is too human to provide any biographical information for, although we do know he lives in Pittsburgh and loves to foam roll.