I set the standard last year; it’s my birthday, and so I’ll write about whatever I want to! Last year, it was about Stephen King’s On Being Nineteen, the intro to The Dark Tower. I guess birthdays get me thinking about age and responsibility (just me or everyone?), because this year I wanted to talk about what it means to be an adult.
We throw the term around a lot. It’s an important part of our lives, our understanding of things. We crave categories, and “adult” is a huge one. But what does it mean? Age? Maturity? Responsibility? I’ll look at all of these things.
You know, my old thought used to be that becoming an adult was that moment when you started questioning your past, your beliefs. Maybe it is. That moment when you have to decide, do I really believe this? Still believe this? Will I believe it into the future? Again and again, about many things. We don’t have good rights of passage anymore, so maybe that’s it. But once you’re “there,” once you’re an adult, what does it mean?
Exists in Relationship
On its own, adult doesn’t inherently mean anything. If you were the last man or woman alive, being an “adult” wouldn’t mean anything. It exists as a separator, a difference from childhood.
Well, and a lot more divisions over time. We have all sorts of names for children as they progress – infants, toddlers, children, pre-teens, teenagers, young adults, and then maybe finally, nebulously, adults.
We’ve lost some of the progression from there – you don’t hear as much about “elders” anymore, although as we live longer that makes sense in a way – when do you become an “elder” when people live into their eighties and nineties? Maybe the new term is “retirees.”
All of these terms mean something in relation to each other – steps moved through, categories we’ve placed. But there’s not a hard rule for when they happen or exist, nor a final word on what it should mean or what you should be doing or feeling or be.
So is it all just age? It can’t be. After all, what does it mean to “act your age?”
So is it maturity, then? We’ve gotten into this debate before, in the comments on a Feminist Friday post. Maturity is a judgement – about some action or attitude being better than another. There are “childish” things we’re supposed to “grow out of,” but then, reading comics is one of those things, and guess what I was just doing?
We don’t really judge maturity as a society. We assign ages to things – driving, voting, smoking, drinking. Those “adult” activities. Regardless of “maturity,” you can’t do these things legally earlier – and for some, it’s weird when you start them late. I didn’t drive until I was in my twenties – was I a “late bloomer?” Or did I not have a car to make me want to drive? The world may never know.
If maturity is a judgement – and an external one, though I suppose we can apply it internally as well – then it too exists in relationship. To be mature is to be more or less mature than someone or something else. Or it can be a checklist of societal constructs: do the mature things, and not the immature ones. Go to cocktail parties (there are always those cocktail parties in stories, right?), don’t go see action movies. Got it.
This is still all external. What would that look like internally? What about responsibility?
Responsibility is kind of the result of maturity – it’s what you’re given when you’re deemed “mature enough.” Isn’t it?
I don’t know if that tracks with my experience. Some of my earliest memory of being given responsibility was with Field Day back in elementary school. I was one of only a couple kids in my grade helped to ask run an event – usually it was the older kids. And I think we were running the events for the older kids, even.
Responsibility can be the sort of thing you don’t feel ready for, but gets foisted on you anyway. Then you have to sink or swim with it. It becomes a point of honor – and honor exists as both an internal and external sort of judgement. Internally, we care (or don’t) about how honorable we are, and how that is perceived. Externally, it is also judged and remembered by others.
Responsibility is a weird thing to me. I’ve mentioned before I’m on a Board of Directors. And I’m the president. And it’s just still really weird to me, even after almost two years as president. I am easily the youngest person on the Board. I feel like the kid in charge of the adults. But by society’s standards, we’re all “adults.” We’re all in the same age bracket – even the people twice my age.
Wait, why am I president again?
Responsibility is given. In the end, there’s a lot external to it as well. So maybe that’s what it is to be an adult – to have these external pressures, external judgements – and to still hold on to a sense of self, a sense of identity.
I don’t know. What do you think? What makes one an adult? And what does it mean in ongoing sense? I’d love to know your thoughts!