From the beginning of our lives, there is one question that hovers over us constantly. When we gaze up into our parents’ eyes, it is there. When we crawl about the floor or dash away to inspect something new, we find it in most of the places we look. When we try something that we have not attempted before and we succeed or fail, it burns in our cheeks with victory or shame.
Commonly, we know this question in its basic form: What do you want to be when you grow up? It is a fine question, but it is almost never easy to answer. Especially when you’ve reached the end of your high school years and you have to decide on a major in college or a career. It’s quite a cause for concern—to almost everyone you meet, including strangers. At every social function, dinner, or meeting with older people, you’ll find some variation of this question asked usually as the first matter of business before the hellos have faded away. However, mysteriously, people stop asking this question once you reach a certain age.
Of course they stop, you might say. You’ve already grown up. No point asking now.
But there is a point, and it is this: that question is not the true question that drifts around us from the beginning. Rather, the proper question is “what will you be?” There are two key distinctions with this question. First, it is not concerned with what you will do, but who you will become. Second, it can—and should—be asked throughout a person’s lifetime.
Okay, you say. Fine. Why is this important?
When we ask what we want to be when we grow up, we build an expectation for a certain date—that day when I grow up. It only happens once, and once it does, you can never go back to being a child. Childhood is wrapped in soft blankets and tucked away in an attic, where it must be abandoned and thought about as little as possible. It is off limits.
That’s the difference.
Becoming an adult means a life where suddenly there are so many things that are denied to you, that are no longer within reach, that are no longer possible.
With this in mind, no wonder so many people are taking up Peter Pan’s popular refrain: “I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up! Not me!”
Among certain people, this mantra is a crow of pride. There is a certain kind of victory that they claim in not conforming to what society says they should be as someone who has reached a certain age. In some aspects, I say good on them, but ultimately this kind of thinking is fundamentally flawed. It brings us back to the divide: if we are adults, we are restricted, so we will not be adults. This would be a good idea except for the fact that it is impossible to stop physically aging. Then we are left with the dilemma of having to act as adults without recognizing ourselves as adults. And this, friends, is a dark, frustrating place.
This is not the same as not feeling ready to be an adult or being ready to grow up. No one is ready for it. If they tell you so, then they are fibbers and you might think about sticking your tongue out at them. But in all seriousness, this is a problem that is becoming more and more common. The only solution is to change the question. When we ask “What will I be?”, we eliminate the chasm between child and adult and restore what has always been ours, just one life and not two isolated halves.
When we think in these terms, we can see that it is impossible to stop being the child that you once were. That is your past, stuck to you like your own shadow (or sewn on, as the case may be). That child never stops being you, no matter how many years pass. You do not have to abandon it or shove it in a drawer, nor do you have to envy it. It is, after all, a shadow. Its hands are not capable of moving anything or anyone. It is flat and now dark, only a shallow representation of ourselves, people who have grown into three-dimensional wonders with complex feelings and understandings. When we don’t want to grow up, we content ourselves with chasing our shadows.
There is a lot of resistance to growing up—it’s fairly rampant. We rally around sentiments like “I don’t want to adult today” and retreat when people expect things of us that lie outside of our comfort zones. Like the wild boy Peter, we have only happiness on our minds. But we are no longer children, who like faeries, have room for only one feeling at a time. We know much deeper, significant feelings. If nothing else from this rambling of mine, hear this. You never stop growing up. Last time I checked, up is a direction, not a destination.
In defense of growing up, I would tell you that being an adult is a great privilege. Yes, it has a lot of responsibilities that are necessarily attached. And yes, it does have a great number of unavoidable inconveniences. But it far expands your joys, your understanding, your wisdom, your independence and dependence, and your standing in the world. If you don’t give it away, you never have less than you did as a child, only more. What you learned to love as a child doesn’t have to be forgotten. What delighted you then can delight you now in more sophisticated ways. Your understanding of the world is much deeper and relevant because you’ve seen more of it and you can recognize that it is bigger than you. People will listen to you and believe what you say because you are not a child.
But you can only attain these things if you begin to think of yourself as an adult. Truly, one of the greatest responsibilities of an adult is to think. It takes intentionality and it does take significant work. It requires us to change. However, growing up is not something to dread or resent. We cannot help it. So let’s give up the pretend that when we cling to certain things, like the ability to take joy in simple things, enjoying free time, maintaining friendships, or pursuing hobbies, we are refusing to grow up. These are noble things that are not unique to children. If anything, they are purer when we are adults.
Let’s instead leave Peter’s call to children and take up Wendy’s wisdom, remembering that when we grow up, we can see that “To live will be an awfully big adventure.”
Stay tuned for part two of these rambly thoughts!