Allan Mott insists that no matter how much we wish it were true, becoming a grown-up doesn’t mean everything suddenly makes sense.
My nephew Lynden would have been nine or ten the afternoon he looked over at me while we were playing video games and asked, “Uncle Allan, are you an adult or a teenager?”
I was around 32 at the time.
I understood it as a compliment, because I knew—like many kids his age—he worshipped teenagers and often spoke excitedly about how many birthdays he had left before he would become one himself. He asked the question not because he sensed an innate immaturity or lack of gravitas on my part, but because I seemed too cool to be a normal adult—I wasn’t like the other grown ups.
But I found the question a bit depressing nonetheless, because when I was his age I always assumed there would be a moment where the switch was clicked and the transformation would be made (perhaps with the same “Shazam!”-induced lightning bolt that turned young Billy Batson into the almighty Captain Marvel) and here I was 20 years later, still waiting for it to happen.
It took Facebook to alert me to the reality I had already suspected existed. Even though it happened to my friends all the time, I almost never ran into people I went to school with. But once I began to find my old classmates via social media, it all started to make sense: They were adults, with adult jobs and adult responsibilities, and I was still living like the university student I had been at 20. Of course, we never ran into each other—we lived in completely different worlds.
And that’s not to say I was entirely lost in a Never-Never Land of Peter Pan slackerdom. By that time I’d published a dozen books and could proudly tell people I was a writer and really mean it, which had always been one of my major life goals. Because of this I was able to occasionally form my observations into little word nuggets that bore a passing resemblance to cultivated wisdom. Still, despite this, it was entirely reasonable for a guileless tween to look up at me and ask, “Are you an adult or a teenager?”
A few days ago, The Atlantic ran a piece in which three men discussed their own transitions into adulthood. The verdict I came to after reading their stories is that this transition is so personal and encoded in what we each believe adulthood is that it is essentially impossible to generalize it. The best any society can do—as one of them notes—is create arbitrary rites and symbols of adulthood that allow its members to mark the passage, even if they don’t necessarily feel it inside.
Western society has mostly abandoned the most overt of these practices, leaving us each on our own to figure it all out—the result being what can most accurately be described as a buttload of confusion.
The biggest problem in determining whether or not you’ve “become a grown-up” is that it depends entirely on what your definition of a “grown-up” is. For many of us, this vision of adulthood will be inspired by our own parents—for good or ill—while for others it’s been acquired from a lifetime of cultural observation.
Because of this, we’ve created new rites and symbols in place of those we abandoned. Today if you ask people about it, they’ll mostly say the same things. Adulthood means no more crazy haircuts, and more conservative clothes. It means getting married and having children. It means owning a home. It means being fiscally responsible. It means having a good, stable job. It means becoming disdainful and afraid of the music the kids these days are listening to.
I’m 37 and have done none of those things. By that standard, it would appear that I have failed to grow up. Yet when Lynden asked his question, I didn’t hesitate for a second to answer him.
“I’m an adult,” I told him as we raced our imaginary video game cars across the imaginary video game track.
I said this because—despite what I may have felt inside—I knew that the reflection in my mirror wasn’t that of a child. As much as we may like to think of being an adult as a feeling, it’s really nothing more than an inevitability of nature. We grow up because we grow old. To suggest otherwise to a ten year-old would be dumb.
Growing up is one of those things that just happens, regardless of how we feel about it. It isn’t some magical moment where your life comes together and suddenly makes sense. Life is too strange, wonderful and too complicated to be summed up by such random epiphanies. We just have to accept that life moves forward and some of us figure it out to greater success than others.
Every experience is different. Mine apparently still involves video games.