I’ve recently being experiencing one of those strange confluences life seems to throw up at particularly poignant moments. Rethinking my life, trying to figure out what constitutes a good life, and navigating my way through feeling like a ‘failure’ according to the yardsticks we’re given to measure success, it’s not surprising that you start to wonder whether you’re just struggling to be an adult. Have you simply failed to grow-up? Are you somehow still living in a childish fantasy, refusing to embrace the realities of this world?
At the same time, I’ve been revisiting and rediscovering some of the pleasures and influences of my childhood, both because I’ve been teaching children’s literature to undergraduates at a summer school, and because I’ve moved back to the place where I grew up. So at a time when I’m asking myself whether what I’m trying to do is foolish, insane, some kind of childish refusal to accept the way things are, I’m simultaneously rediscovering what exactly it means to be ‘childish’ – and what it means to be an ‘adult’.
It’s hard to see yourself as an adult sometimes if you don’t embrace some of the rites of passage your culture values. Marriage, owning property, becoming parents yourselves, careers, are all essential for marking the difference between adulthood and childhood, because without these ‘rites’ or means of measuring status, it’s hard to distinguish the point at which we no longer feel like children. Arguably, we reach a certain age when we realise that it’s only our bodies that are going to feel older – emotionally, psychologically, we are never going to magically ‘feel’ like grown-ups. Priorities, interests, desires and tastes change, but we won’t somehow ‘click’ into being an adult. It’s always going to you, making your way through the world the best you can.
Yet we do move away from childhood leanings and desires, even the ones that aren’t simply ‘childish’ urges and demands. Yes, age and experience change and even transform who we are, but does this necessarily equate to the need to give up everything associated with our youngest selves? Are we giving up certain parts of ourselves because we want to or because we feel that we should in our move to become adults? Or does our move to adulthood mean forget to pay attention to some of the smallest things that bring us pleasure?
Reading children’s books as an adult has been a revelation to me. For the past 200 years, we’ve been using stories as a way of educating children and one of the recurring themes in English-language children’s literature is just how foolish and child-like adults are, not least of all because they believe in things that aren’t there or aren’t important. Again and again, the classics of children’s literature in English return to the idea that grown-ups have forgotten how to live, or have forgotten some very important parts of life, that mean children are more alive to the world than adults.
I was in a café, thinking that a happy four year old could prove this idea to you inside of minute, when an elderly man and his carer sat at the table behind me, and started chatting loudly. Initially, I thought he was complaining about his food, but in fact, he was taking great pleasure in it, noticing the flavours, textures, complimenting the good, critiquing the sub-standard. As I listened, it struck me that we often conceptualise the oldest years of life as a form of regression, a return to childhood, not simply in terms of physical dependence, but also in terms of tastes, urges, temperament. At the same time, the people who have lived the longest in our culture continue to tell us we waste our lives worrying about things that don’t matter, working towards things that don’t mean as much as we think they do.
There are distinct parallels between how we treat the youngest and eldest people in our society. And there are distinct parallels between how they see us. Is there a way in which these parallels suggest that there’s something in the intervening stages of life that are the ‘aberration’ or the ‘confused’ stage of life? Can the way the youngest and those who’ve lived the longest see the years between teenaged turmoil and retirement teach us about the way we live and the way we could live?
So what do the middle years look like to people on either side, who have to live with us and under our regime? Children and people who’ve lived here much longer than us can see what a hash we all make of the middle years, as individuals and as a society. They can see that we don’t know what we’re doing, and more importantly, they can see that we constantly try to hide our ignorance, incompetence and lack of direction in convention and seriousness, cloaking our shortcomings by investing meaning into things that hold very little value at either end of life. In other words, they can see that we are human and lost – and so we will always be ridiculous to them in some way or another.
For either end of life, the middle years look like a gradual giving over of freedom and independence in order to pass for a competent adult. But does taking on responsibility automatically necessitate the given over of all that once meant something important to you? Is this what we have to do, or are we letting too much of ourselves be given over to the task of appearing to be a competent adult, of being a successful grown up?
More questions than answers. But I think there may be something to taking seriously the idea that some desires and pleasures are there in childhood and in later life. Maybe they are in fact there all along – we just forget to pay attention to them in the middle years.