What does it mean to be a "grown-up"? I started asking people this question the other day. It quickly became clear that very few have seriously thought about this. Almost everyone felt adulthood to be a burden to some degree. The differences were mainly of degree of acceptance. Surprisingly, no one considered it a purely chronological event. In other words, reaching the age of majority does not automatically make you a "grown-up". Although most people I talked to were surprised to be asked such a question, all were eager to discuss the subject once broached. Responses fell into two main categories.
The quickest responders said something along the lines of, "I'm not a grown-up. I'll never grow up!" Interesting, age was no indicator of this attitude. These people associated growing up with capitulation to conformity and the end of laughter. They refuse to let play turn to drudgery and growth to stagnation. Their childhoods tended to be curtailed or unsatisfactory in some way. The adults in their lives were not positively perceived, as a rule. They also had some experience of being outcast from society. Personally, I am more sympathetic to this view.
Those who did consider themselves "grown-ups" were slower to reply. All these mentioned responsibility to others, usually family. Those without family ties felt a responsibility to their social roles. They expressed a wistful nostalgia for childhood, lacking in the other group. Their conception of adulthood was also tied to externalities, such as appearance, and specific milestones, like becoming a parent or building a career. They were generally more conservative. As children, they were more likely to look up to adults.
I, who am naturally introspective and have had more time to think about it, proposed another definition. When presented with it, everyone I spoke to thought it appropriate. It is likely that this agreement reflects the culture of the Cascadian region, where I am. To me, being a grown-up means not needing to be told what to do. It means I have the emotional maturity and experience to make my own decisions, based on actual requirements instead of inflexible rules. I think this instinctive claim to sovereignty underlies both the conservative aversion to government interference and the liberal philosophy of tolerance. I wish the former would be more willing to extend this freedom of self-determination to others and the latter would realise that responsibility can't be legislated.
Sadly, the way our civilisation is set up discourages (or even forbids) this sort of personal sovereignty. Our religions demand infantile obedience. Our economic systems in particular, are rooted in a coercive "stick and carrot" mentality that assumes our inability to regulate ourselves. We are encouraged to believe that chaos would ensue if we didn't have some authority figure standing over us with a whip in one hand and a big bag of toys in the other. The opposite is true. A proliferation of rules and regulations in every area of our lives denies us the right to ever make responsible choices for ourselves. Our ability to self-determine atrophies from lack of use. As a result, we remain forever childish. We are rendered unable to trust ourselves or each other. All this is no accident, and a dream-come-true for the control system. Is it any wonder that most of us consider being a "grown-up" such a drag?
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