We lack the map and markers to reach a socially-agreed-upon concept of adulthood. Of course, that might not matter to all those of us who are rejecting adulthood off hand. Adulthood is restrictive, unauthentic, oppressive and repressive in its continuous demands that we put other considerations ahead of our immediate happiness, or that we gain that happiness in the long-term by doing stuff that makes us unhappy in the short-term. Variations of the “don’t grow up! it’s a trap!” meme are forever popping up on my newsfeeds… and I’m in my 40s.
I was ahead of the curve on this one, for a change. I am not generally at the forefront of modern tendencies, or even aware of them, what with living under a rock. However, I determined that adulting sucked before I hit kindergarten. I also decided and stated that when I married my childminder’s grandson we were never going to sleep together (and I meant sleep – I was hazy on the mechanics at that point), so we could avoid having children, because children took all the fun out of life. [Please note that was my 3-year-old self talking; my current point of view on the subject is rather different.}
Since I was spouting this in the 70s, I was clearly a trailblazer for the modern adultnots. Many of my friends chose the traditional grown-up options: they studied in fields that gave them a chance of a good job, they selected partners in order to have functional long-term relationships, and they made babies. They made good choices, but all those choices carried costs as well as benefits. A few years back, when my life completely imploded and I ended up living in a very comfortably converted van with no need to work and no dependants bar a dog, the vast majority of my associates were not concerned for me: they were envious. I had a level of freedom and independence they could not aspire to. I was careless. They were (and are) care-givers.
That’s one of the things about the traditional rites of passage: one of the changes that they mark is the transformation from care-taker to care-giver. Think of musk oxens adults forming a defensive circle around the calves, the sick, and the elderly. Although we’re hardly related, we’re not all that dissimilar when it comes to the crunch. “Women and children first” was not just a sign of ageism and sexism; it was about survival of the group.
For adulthood to be the time in life when we put ourselves at the perimeter of the circle, standing as shields to protect our loved ones, two things are required. Firstly, we need to be effective at doing that protecting. If our defensive skills are no better than those of our dependants, there’s very little point in us stepping forward. We’re either all equally able to protect ourselves hence not really at risk, or all equally doomed. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, we have to be willing to put someone else first. That willingness is also the hallmark of Joseph Campbell’s hero: “…someone that has given his life to something that is bigger them himself, or other then himself.”