This essay is revised from a form submitted to Amor Fati & Ampersand’s ‘zine.
Get up away from your desk right now and go surfing, take a trip to Berlin, leave a note and hop a train and get off where the wind feels wilder. Buy a room stocked with candy and kayaking equipment and the XBOX One that you deserve. Finally go back to school to get your Poli-Sci degree. Actually, scrap that – start paying your bills on time, be there for family dinner every night. Buy a house that is a reasonable distance from work that you can pay for on a monthly basis without emptying cartoon pockets with moths and start recycling. Knuckle-down and work for that .5% increase you should have read about in your contract in the fine print just above the etceteras ad nauseum.
What exactly is adulthood anymore? It’s hard to say whether anything is different, but us “adults” circa 30 seem to have two competing paradigms. At the end of a long launch program of education, training, and coloring inside the lines this is our chance to jettison the fuel tanks of rules and finally do exactly what we want to do. Consider this relevant xkcd:
I think the eponymous Roger Greenberg of the movie Greenberg summed it up in one of his phone conversations where he advised his friend to remain unattached, saying, “It’s the harder, more painful decision to stay free but that’s what adulthood is.” We’re only slowly recovering (maybe?) from a generation where divorce was something in the atmosphere, like smog, and all those sorts of connections between people that made them miserable seem totally distasteful to us. We’re the new enlightened ones who aren’t foolish enough to settle and make the misery-inducing decisions that our parents made. We’re not going to burn fossil fuels until we have embarrassing rot beneath the surface. We don’t even have to know exactly where we’re going, the best choices are simply the ones that lead to the most choices, or maybe the most fun. For some people there is not a hint of irony in these statements – there is a reason that “ball and chain” is an english idiom.
On the other hand, maybe this is when the training wheels finally buckle and fall off and we’re the only thing keeping ourselves from toppling over onto the hard cement of reality. Maybe now we’re supposed to take responsibility: now is when adulthood makes demands of us (see, for example, the new insults of “man-child” and “basement-dweller”). It’s only the free-spirits who realize too late that the closing 30’s are a precarious age for childbearing. It’s only the perennially hedonistic that finds out spending all that money on credit cards to buy booze or mountain-climbing gear eventually catches up with you. We, the self-aware and civic-minded have known these things and prepared for adult life over the last decade. Thomas Merton, one of my favorite writers, opined that “free will is not given to us merely as a firework to be shot off into the air. There are some men who seem to think their acts are freer in proportion as they are without purpose, as if a rational purpose imposed some kind of limitation on us.”*
It could be that our situation at present is new. With the advent of cellphone technology and Facebook, we’re too connected to other people to have any insulation from the futures we didn’t choose. It was probably always difficult to do on some level, but now it’s as if our own pseudo-superego ghost haunts us and poltergeists our emotional furniture around. There’s a never-ending reel of travel, kids, nightclubs and bedroom sets stretching in front of our eyes on a beaming screen every day – and not just strangers doing or owning, these are our friends. So which is it? What kind of adulthood is actually going to make me the most happy™ on a day-to-day basis?
Realistically, who could even give us advice on something like this anymore? I’m not sure, but as I’ve been noodling on these different perspectives two of my favorite sources of wisdom seemed pertinent. In his travelogue aboard a cruise line, David Foster Wallace wrote:
I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable – if I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try to live with them.+
The best colloquial image I can come up with to represent this truth is a “decision tree” diagram. You make choices which lead down branches, each one itself branching out to possible outcomes that are evaluated before a decision is made. There’s no going back though, and there’s no staying still. Heraclitus said that “all flows, nothing stays,” and in this context that means that whatever you think you’re doing, you are moving through these various limbs whether you realize it or not. You can choose to simply fall like a plink-o ball whichever way chance takes you or you can direct your motion outwards from the trunk how you see fit – but you can’t stay perched undecided. Your married friends with children will be difficult to arrange fun with – they have opted to choose reliable parental presence over spontaneity. Your single friends will find you boring, they have opted to have less anchors and pre-filled calendars. No matter which paradigm of adulthood you adopt, things will change. As Merton put it:
If we live with possibilities we are exiles from the present which is given us by God to be our own, homeless and displaced in a future or a past which are not ours because they are always beyond our reach … A man is a free being who is always changing into himself.**
So we have to make choices, but do we really have to choose one overriding paradigm of adulthood? I would argue that we do not – and adulthood is neither wholly undisciplined libertinism or embracing grim responsibility. Adulthood is simply choosing which freedoms we permit ourselves to accomplish our goals and being able to live with the things we’ve settled for ourselves. The weakness in us will want to resign our legitimate freedoms and let the tree we’ve chosen wither (e.g. adults with children can have friends, single nomads can still have bank accounts). Likewise it means not being surprised ala mid-life crisis when certain things are plainly beyond us now. Sometimes our branching leads to building a life that is noble, accomplished, meaningful by some kind of external consensus. Wallace urged people to understand that sometimes freedom feels very subjective, sometimes simply means being able to embrace some level of self-abnegation for love.
But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.
The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.
That is real freedom.***
I’m contending that adulthood is about accepting what is settled. It may or may not be interesting to you, the reader, that the philosopher/theologian Leibniz wrote some letters to his friend Arnauld where he defended both freedom and necessity in reference to God (yes, necessity does apply to God). One of his most compelling points was that even God, in his divine superlative freedom, cannot leave things undecided. The very nature of reality means that free or not, for things to actually happen some decisions have to made and enter into crystallization as settled events. How do we cope with this, though? The Stoics provided some of my favorite practical philosophy for simple concepts like admitting which things are under our control and which are not and only concerning ourselves with what is under our control. The Stoics demanded constancy as a virtue in submission to what is settled, and what is settled for us “adults” is the decisions we’ve already made. Constancy is the habit of having a consistent attitude towards things beyond our control, the habit of making peace with the decision trees we’ve moved through, the art of consistently using the freedoms we’ve chosen well. Adulthood isn’t deciphering the cultural symbols and tropes to discover exactly what “true” adulthood means, there is no perfect and ideal happy life we have to distill from all our options. Merton believed that “a true and mature identity does not consist in the ability to give a final solution to everything – as if the ‘mature person’ were one for whom there were no longer any mysteries or any scandals. We discover our identity when we accept our place and our way in the midst of persons and things, in a historical situation, that we do not have to completely understand. We simply see that it is our own place and decide to live in it, for better or for worse.” ****
*Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island
+ David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing
**Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, 220
***David Foster Wallace, This is Water, 119-121
****Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, 52