When I was nine years old, my parents divorced. A little while later my Dad dated someone, let’s call her Rivka, who made his life miserable for a year or so. One time we were seated at a restaurant, and I said, in what context I can’t remember: “I don’t want to grow up. I wish I could stay a kid forever.” At that time, in the late 80s, that was a more unusual thing for a child to say then now.
Rivka smiled a sagacious and impressed smile, and said, “That is the wisest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
As it turned out, her response is the worst thing an adult ever said to me. You see, a healthy child should look forward to being an adult, to the accomplishments of maturity, to the potentials of generosity, to the bittersweet pleasures of commitment and sacrifice. They should look forward to coming into their own power. To knowing more. To the oceans of learning available to us.
My distaste for joining the adult world, which would only grow in the ensuing years, can be directly traced to my parent’s divorce, which I saw as the replacement of a harmonious, close knit unit, with a newer, much darker vision of my family. The unit was broken and my father and mother appeared to me as unhappy hypocrites living in a world of miserable, lost adults. I didn’t want to join that world, and I spent around 15 years trying to escape it—running away from home, studying different spiritual paths like neo-Shamanism and Zen and ultimately becoming a Buddhist monk for three years.
I learned a tremendous amount on those paths, and and I met a lot of great people, but what I see as real life did not begin until later, when I tried to embrace being an adult at last. Wiser voices have argued, contrary to Rivka, that adulthood is something to be desired. “At 50”, says the ancient Jewish wisdom text Pirke Avot, “One attains strength.” “At 70”, said Confucius, “I could finally trust myself.”
Many cultures have viewed being an elder as the height of human experience. In traditional cultures the child has the least to give, the elder the most. The child needs everyone; the elder is needed by everyone. The child may be delighted in; the elder is revered.
This is oversimplifying things of course. Doesn’t the child also give back to the community? Doesn’t childhood also have its own special delights? Yes it does, but the child gives to the community simply because of what he or she is—pure and sincere life, new beginning, untainted vitality. The elder gives to the community because of what he or she has earned: survival, experience, skill, wisdom, maturity of heart. As for childhood’s delights, while real, they are over-rated.
And many childhood delights are not that desirable. The delight of bewilderment, struggle, and the difficulty of making yourself understood? The delight of barely understanding what the people around you are saying? The delight of being terrifyingly vulnerable to adults? The delights of powerlessness? The delights of dependency and having your decisions made for you? Childhood and adolescence, despite Hollywood romanticisation, are periods that are also marked by confusion and myopia.
I’ll take adulthood, thanks.
Which returns me to my point. Children should not dread becoming adults, no more than an acorn should dread becoming an oak tree. Yet in some quarters of our culture the idealization of childhood has only grown in recent years. I think there are many reasons for this. One of them is the worship of desire and irresponsibility, both tasted in their strongest vintage before the age of reason. Another is the dynamic of our ever-changing, “liquid” modernity (as the late Zygmunt Bauman called it), where the old are unfairly caricatured as repositories not of wisdom so much as stockpiles of outdated knowledge, or in other words, of ignorance. Another is the growing burdensome nature of adulthood in our current late capitalist era, where being an adult is more and more associated with grueling overwork, psychological instability, social isolation, political polarization, economic fragility, and the perils of the nuclear family.
Yet even with all that, even though becoming an adult (and staying one) is stressful—to be an adult is also to be a ripe, full human being. Being an adult hurts, yet in learning its lessons and sufferings lies strength and pleasures deeper and more refined than anything childhood offers.
Since becoming a father myself, I have heard several times people express, one way or another, that our 4-year-old son “lives the life.” Wouldn’t it be great to go back and be like that again?” they ask. I know my son too well for that—how he strains against his limits, how he longs to increase his abilities, expand his knowledge, and multiply his words. How delightful childhood can be in its fresh apprehension of the wonder of life, yet how miserable it can be in its indignities, bewilderments, and limitations. When I look in his eyes I see desire that tilts toward an expansive future—and I intend to keep gently encouraging that desire.
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.