You need not be Peter Pan to feel uneasy about the prospect of becoming adult. Indeed, it’s easy to argue that Peter Pan, imitated by Michael Jackson, is an emblem of our times.
Being grown- up means renouncing your hopes and dreams.
It means accepting the limits of your reality. Resigning yourself to a life that will be less adventurous, worthwhile and significant than you supposed when you began it.
Some writers argue that few people these days want to grow up. But if adulthood is a matter of feeling, in one’s more honest moments, that one was cheated, who can blame them?
We begin to see why when we turn to Kant’s most famous discussion of maturity.
We choose immaturity because we are lazy and scared. How much more comfortable it is to let someone else make your decisions! “If I have a book that takes care of my understanding, a preacher who takes care of my conscience, a doctor who prescribes my diet, I need not make any effort myself. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will handle the business for me.”
Kant uses the example of children. With a familiarity surprising in a man who had none, Kant describes the way they learn to walk. In order to do so they must stumble and fall, but preventing bruises by keeping them in a baby carriage is a recipe for keeping them infantile.
Kant’s target is not over-protective mothers of course. It is governments, for whom grown-up citizens are far more trouble than they’re worth. The state’s desire for control and our own desire for comfort combine to create societies with fewer conflicts. But they are not societies of grown-ups.
Growing up is more a matter of courage than knowledge. All the information in the world is no substitute for the guts to use your own judgement. And judgement is something we can learn. Mostly through the experience of watching others use it well.
Judgement is important because none of the answers to the questions that move us can be found by following a rule.
Courage is not only required to learn how to trust your own judgement rather than relying on your state’s, your neighbour’s or your favourite movie star’s.
Even more important, we need courage to live with the rift that will run through our lives. However good they may be: ideals of reason tell us how the world should be; experience tells us that it rarely is.
Growing up requires confronting the gap between the two – without giving up on either one. Most of us give up on one or the other. The world turns out not to reflect the ideas and ideals you had for it? All the worse for ideals.
Maintaining ideals in a world that seems to have no use for them becomes a source of disappointment, even shame. Far better to jettison them than to suffer the memory of hope defeated. Far braver to face the depth of the rot of reality than to cling to what turned out to be illusion.
Such a standpoint is less brave than you think, for it demands nothing but an air of sophistication. You need far more courage to acknowledge that both ideals and experience make equal claims on us.
Growing up is a matter of respecting those claims and meeting them as best you can, knowing you will never succeed but refusing to succumb to dogma or despair.
Doing what you can to move your part of the world closer to the way that it should be, while never losing sight of the way that it is, is what being a grown- up comes to.
If you happen to have an uncle who taught you that, you are lucky.
Growing Up Absurd
Have we created a culture that leaves space for grown-ups, a culture that makes growing up a good option? Paul Goodman argued in his classic, Growing Up Absurd, we have not. He believed that people need to grow into a culture that offers meaningful work, a sense of community. As well as faith that the world is responsive to their efforts.
When consuming goods rather than working becomes the focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents.
Goodman’s work, though influential in the 1960s has been largely forgotten. But much of his critique rings even truer today than it did fifty years ago. In a consumer society, we confuse adulthood with the capacity to accumulate overpriced toys. Ideas of a more just and humane world are portrayed as childish dreams.
Garlands of Flowers
Long before the industrial revolution Kant’s contemporary Rousseau wrote stinging indictments of the way in which culture “weaves garlands of flowers around the chains that bind us”.
Arts and sciences are more likely to serve our vanity, and our purses, than our common humanity. Culture warps us into accepting a social order it ought to call into question.
The most wicked contemporary delusion is the widespread view that the best time of one’s life is the decade between sixteen and twenty- six, when young men’s muscles and young women’s skin are at their most blooming. That’s due to hormones, and evolutionary biologists will explain that it happens for a reason.
But your goal is not to maximize reproduction, whatever one can say of your genes. By describing what is usually the hardest time of one’s life as the best one, we make that time harder for those who are going through it. And by describing life as a downhill process, we prepare young people to expect – and demand – little from it.
Through clinging to youth, we impoverish youth and maturity alike.
Being grown-up is itself an ideal. One that is rarely achieved in its entirety, but all the more worth striving for.