When Kevin Nordstrom turned 31, he refused to grow up.
“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the desire to be very grown up.”
Last April, there was a birthday party.
This birthday brought friends and family over in a dazzling array of costumes. There were Batman and Avengers balloons and streamers everywhere, a Captain America cake on the table and even a Captain America piñata (which subsequently lost its head to a mighty blow from Thor’s hammer).
Oh, did I mention that this was my birthday and I was turning 31?
When I tell people about what I did for my birthday I get funny looks and I’m told just how silly the whole ordeal is. How could someone who’s in their thirties take part in such childish frivolities? And in response I always say, “How can you not?”
This world can be a harsh and terrible place at times. Those we love are stolen from us without an explanation, whole cities crumble from earthquakes, populations die ever so slowly from famine and drought and let’s not forget the plain old awful people who cheat, lie and murder for selfish reasons. In the midst of such harsh realities, it’s easy to give in to cynicism and apathy. But, in the passing years I’ve learned a thing or two about dealing with that.
I grew up far too young. I experienced my first great loss at 15 to a drunk driver. Since then I’ve seen some of the worst things humanity can inflict upon itself, save for having gone to war. I quickly gave in to anger and madness because that’s all the world seemed to have for me. Joy was fleeting and pointless it seemed, and it was all the more solidified in my mind when I got divorced.
The following months I was hollow and empty. Any feelings that washed over me were so brief as to be non-existent.
Then I started volunteering.
It started out just once a month at a children’s cancer ward. I saw children facing their mortality with laughter and smiles because, as children, that’s the only way they knew how to live. I soon moved on to the local Boys & Girls Club and that’s when I first felt it.
I felt alive.
I taught an art class once a week. Sure, there were those pain in the ass kids but I didn’t do it for them. I did it for those kids that would light up when they drew something they were proud of. One of my happiest moments actually came when I wasn’t even there. A child I’d been working with had drawn several superheroes he made up just like I’d taught him. The woman who would one day become my wife (more on her in a bit) was sending me texts of his progress as other children crowded around him watching him create one character after another. This came from a child who regularly came into the art room saying “I can’t” whenever I asked him to draw something.
That’s when I truly understood what I’d lost. This boy was drawing a crude and simple superhero of what would, from an adult’s perspective, be utterly ridiculous in concept. And yet, he beamed with joy and excitement, as did the others around him.
Almost indistinguishable scribbles were the highlight of this child’s day.
I’d spent my life trying to obtain money, a marriage and a career so obsessively that the joy had gone out of all of it. I’d always envied children and their ability to find such joy in such small things. Do you remember what it was like to see a house covered in lights and decorations around Christmas? Or the exhilaration of heading out into the darkness on Halloween night, clad in whatever costume was your greatest passion in that moment?
As adults we’ve gone out of our way to lose such childishness so that we can be regarded as a grown-up to other passionless grown-ups.
My time at the Boys & Girls Club reminded me of that ability to regard things in this world with a child-like wonder. Yet, I still maintained it was exclusively for children. That adults were devoid of such passions. But then I met my wife.
Laura was a Program Director for the Club and I met her one night when I was volunteering for their haunted house. I was taken aback because here was a beautiful, intelligent woman dressed in a pink wig with a mustache drawn on her face. As I got to know her I realized such quirks exceeded beyond the haunted house. We’d be walking through a store and a song she loved would come on and she’d dance unabashedly no matter who was in the vicinity. She’d make fart jokes, watch cartoons and sing songs loudly and completely off key. On the flip side of this we’d have in-depth conversations about history, anthropology, psychology, even astrophysics. For her birthdays I always picked a theme complete with maps, riddles and a mission to save the world.
Slowly but surely, through this woman who lived her life truly not caring what other people thought, I learned something about myself… I was happy. More than that, I was a happy grown-up. I pay my bills, work hard, every day I listen to Yale and Harvard courses to constantly broaden my knowledge of the world and the people in it. And yet, every year on the first snow my wife and I get on our snow suits and go out and play. We then come home to a nice cup of hot cocoa we made with the snow we’d collected from the previous year’s first snowfall.
While there are important staples we learn about being a grown-up (be respectful, compassionate, and be able to talk to people without scaring them) that doesn’t mean you should give up that joy and wonder that gave you tingles back when fairy tales were real and wishes in wells still came true.
As children we start out viewing the world through a very simple, clean (admittedly small) window. As we grow, so does the window. But the world around us and those who are in it with us can dirty the window or put shades and blinds on it so we can’t see things we should or keep the light from getting to us.
Tear down the shades, wash your windows, and be prepared for the brightest light you’ve ever seen. It is the light of your childhood and, like all energy, it is eternal. Once it enters you it’s a part of you forever in some form or another.
So, yes, be a grown-up. Exercise, take care of yourself and your family. Be compassionate and understanding. Learn as much as you can about the world and be an active player in its fate. When there’s an issue in your life, talk about it respectively and patiently and cut out people who are endlessly negative and ignorantly selfish. Learn from the mistakes you made in youth and try not repeat them and work hard to make a wonderful life that you’re proud of.
But along the way don’t ignore the child inside you. Take a moment to just look at the beauty and magic of the snowfall and not see the driveway that needs to be shoveled. Laugh loudly and unapologetically at things that are silly like cartoons and farts. Dance and sing whenever the feeling comes over you because people will judge you no matter what and you’d rather have them say “Well, that person’s certainly having a good time” and let them go home, ignoring the fact that they can’t remember the last time they danced so freely.
And most importantly, if something’s important to you like, say, a superhero birthday party, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something because it’s childish. As long as you’re not being stupid and you’re not hurting yourself or someone else they have nothing to say. Any shaming they send your way is from their own insecurities and fears of not being as happy as you are.
And that’s just childish.
“Grown-ups love figures… When you tell them you’ve made a new friend they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead they demand ‘How old is he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Photo: Kevin Nordstrom
This post was originally featured on Stuck in Traffic.