Having recently turned fifty, it seems like a good time to ponder the question of what it means to be an adult.
Ingrid and I were talking the other day about adulthood, and how it isn’t anything like we thought it would be when we were kids, or even when we were in college. When we were young, we assumed that adults had it all figured out: that adulthood meant security, and consistency, and always making the sensible choice, and things running smoothly, and never being blind-sided by life.
I have no idea why I thought this. It’s not like my own parents, or the other adults in my life, were always secure and consistent and sensible with smooth-running lives that never got blind-sided. Far from it. Very, very, very far indeed. So I don’t know where I got this idea: whether it was simplistic and deceptive messages I picked up from pop culture, or if it’s just how a child’s brain is wired, or what.
But I did expect this. And Ingrid and I realized that, to some extent, we’re both still waiting for it: that moment when all the problems are solved, and all the systems are in place, and we can just relax and enjoy. And there’s a part of us that feels like failures because we don’t have this: because we still have worries about money, because we still let things slip through the cracks, because we still get overwhelmed and freaked out by all the stuff we have to take care of, because we still sometimes make dumb frivolous choices that we know are dumb and frivolous even as we’re making them, because our life still isn’t perfectly armored against a monkey wrench sailing in from out of nowhere and grinding the gears to a halt, because we still sometimes blow off our responsibilities and watch “What Not to Wear” instead.
Before fifty different people send me the link: Yes, I’ve read “This Is Why I’ll Never Be an Adult” at Hyperbole and a Half. It’s a huge inspiration for why I’m writing this now, in fact, and if you haven’t read it you absolutely have to stop and go read it now (not to worry: it’s short, and it’s very funny). It perfectly captures a big part of what I’m getting at here: the feeling that adulthood is a constantly moving treadmill of more and more responsibilities, and no matter how much stuff you take care of or how well you take care of it, there’s always more, and it’s never going to be good enough. My favorite line: “Wait… what is this? I have to go to the bank? What am I, some sort of wizard?”
Which is ridiculous. It’s not like going to the bank is a huge fucking nightmare. But when you’ve already spent the morning returning emails and booking plane tickets and picking up the dry-cleaning and calling the vet, going to the bank seems like an exhausting, overwhelming, impossibly Herculean task. Hell, doing anything other than flipping on the TV and watching “What Not to Wear” seems like an exhausting, overwhelming, impossibly Herculean task. I’ve read in neuropsychology books that the part of the brain that makes decisions gets tired after it’s made too many, and that once you’ve made a whole bunch of decisions, your brain basically says, “Fuck you,” and emits a soporific cloud of green fog like a supervillain knocking out Batman, trying to get you to cut it out already and give it a break. Well, okay, that’s not exactly how the neuropsychologists put it. But you get the idea.
So yeah. Adulthood. Not what I expected.
The stubborn, obnoxiously relentless optimist in me has to say “But. ”
There’s a positive flip-side to this as well.
Positive Flip-side Number One: I’ve read — I can’t remember where, but it was in multiple places so it must be right — that most people have a very poor understanding of what makes us happy. We think that happiness means letting go of work and responsibility and effort, that it means lying on a beach with a margarita in our hand and nothing to do. Nope. That’s good for a little while… but we soon get bored and restless. What really makes most people happy is working on a task we care about, one that’s challenging but within our capacity to accomplish. So this fantasy of a perfect adulthood where everything is handled and there’s nothing left to do? BOR-ing. We need and want things to do. That’s what keeps us engaged with the world.
So letting go of the expectation of perfect security and having one’s shit together… that’s hard, and frustrating. But it’s also hugely liberating. And it has the capacity to make us genuinely happy.
Positive Flip-side Number Two: A life that can blind-side you is also a life that can surprise you. And I want surprises. I want to pull into a diner in a strange town and have the best bread I’ve ever had in my life. I want to wander into a shoe store on a whim and decide that yes, despite years of actively resisting the very idea, I am falling in love with those four-inch stiletto pumps and absolutely have to try them on. I want to go see a band that my friend’s co-worker is in, and be transfixed and transported, to the point where I continue to follow them for the next twelve years. I want to have the people in my life who I didn’t even know existed two years ago and who are now among my closest friends. I want to go on a date for what’s supposed to be a casual holiday fling, and two weeks later call her to tell her I love her, and five years later ask her to marry me, and fourteen years later still be crazy in love with her. (Well, okay, I don’t want to do that again…)
Sure, there’s a part of me that wants security and safety and for everything to run smoothly with no worries. But when I think carefully about what that would actually look like, it makes me want to run screaming for the exits. It’s like Heaven: I can’t imagine any version of it in which I would (a) still be myself and (b) be anything other than bored to the point of raving dementia. So if I want a life that has the capacity to surprise me, then I have to take the bad surprises along with the good.
So again, letting go of the expectation of perfect security and having one’s shit together… that’s hard, and scary. But it’s also hugely liberating. And it has the capacity to make us genuinely happy.
And finally, Positive Flip-side Number Three:
I once read somewhere — again, I wish I could remember where, if I were more professional I’d spend 45 minutes trying to dig it up, but fuck that noise — that my generation, and the generations after it, have been re-defining adulthood as playtime. We see adulthood, not as the time when we automatically get slotted into marriage/ parenthood/ a stable career that we stick with until we retire, but as the time when we can choose for ourselves what’s important to us and what we most want to do. Not our parents, not our teachers — us. And if some of what we want to do is go rock-climbing, or drink ridiculous cocktails, or sing karaoke, or play Grand Theft Auto, or dress up in corsets and stockings and go to the Edward Gorey ball… then we get to do that.
Of course we have to make the choices that allow us to do these things — hold down a job, pay our bills, etc. But adulthood means the freedom to make these decisions for ourselves. We get to decide whether we’d rather have clean laundry or watch “America’s Best Dance Crew”; whether we’d rather eat chocolate cake for dinner every night or lose twenty pounds; whether we care more about traveling across the country or saving money to buy a house; whether we want to keep that comfortable well-paying job or live on beans and rice for a few years while we try to make it as an artist/ writer/ musician/ circus performer.
And that is awesome.
Again, I don’t remember where I first heard this… but I’ve seen responsibility defined as seeing and accepting the degree to which you are the cause of what happens in your life, and acting accordingly. That can be hard: it means that when things go south, we have to accept, at least sometimes, that our behavior is what made the southness happen. And there is that whole thing of getting overwhelmed, when there’s too much to deal with and too many decisions to make and our brains are emitting the soporific supervillain “stop thinking” fog. But it’s also freaking awesome. It means our lives are our own. It means we get to decide what matters to us, and we get to try to make those things happen.
We tend to hear the word “responsibility,” and think it means “burden,” or “blame,” or “being boring and always making the safe choice.” But it doesn’t have to mean that. It can also mean freedom: the freedom to make our own choices in the world, and to use those choices to shape our lives to at least some degree.
Adulthood doesn’t mean freedom from responsibility. It means the freedom of responsibility.
And responsibility doesn’t mean perfect security and having one’s shit together. That’s not an option, and we wouldn’t want it even if it was. Letting go of that expectation… that’s hard, and unsettling. But it’s also hugely liberating. And it has the capacity to make us genuinely happy.
Yes, when I was growing up, I saw adulthood as secure and sensible and having everything figured out. But I also saw it as boring, and joyless, and dour, and predictable, and trapped. And I am so glad to be wrong about that, I can’t even tell you.