The Dubious Mythology Of Growing Up

Sometimes when I was clowning around with the kids, I’d say, “I was born an old man, then every year I get younger until one day I’ll be a baby and go back into my mommy’s belly.”

This was an obvious joke to most of the kids, who would of course call me on it. “No, Teacher Tom. That’s not right!” they would shout. They know the universal scheme: humans, including themselves, get older, not younger. They’ve been told that they will one day be adults. They’ve had birthdays to celebrate the success of their aging process. They are prompted to tell us what they will be when they grow up. They may not know the difference between five minutes and five seconds, but if they understand anything about the passage of time, it’s this.

Playwrite Tom Stoppard wrote in his book The Coast of Utopia

“Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment. We don’t value the lily less for not being made of flint and built to last. Life’s bounty is in its flow, later is too late. Where is the song when it’s been sung? The dance when it’s been danced? It’s only we humans who want to own the future, too.”

This is often a hard thing for young parents to hold in their heads, I think. This cult of growing up goes beyond childhood, staying with us through our lives. There’s elementary, middle, and high school, each a rung in the ladder of growing up. Then there are things like university, career, marriage, and parenthood, all marking our progress toward the ultimate goal of being grown up. If we skip any of these steps, we find we must defend ourselves against those who insist we are doing it wrong. “Grow up!” we scold. We call it “failure to launch.” We say someone has a “Peter Pan Complex.” And when people die, we shake our heads, and sigh, “Too soon,” as if they are a dance that’s not been danced.

My mother had some insight into this. When we would say, for instance, “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to go on that ride,” she would caution, “Don’t wish your life away.” And that’s the danger of embracing the dubious mythology of growing up. It teaches us that our purpose lies somewhere in the future when anyone who has given it much thought knows that we are lilies, right now!

I’m sixty years old. People tell me, “That’s not old.” And I don’t generally feel old, despite the gray beard. But from the perspective of much of the world, I’ve finally arrived. I’m as grown up as I’m ever going to get. I don’t expect that anyone will ever again warn me that the things I do will become part of my “permanent record,” although I imagine some might whisper, “He’s having a second childhood.” They’re wrong, of course. We each only have one childhood, just as we have only one life, just has we have only one moment, and that moment is now. None of it is a step along a path and to perceive it as such is to risk robbing ourselves of childhood, of parenthood, of songs and of dances. Even more tragic is when we rob others, like children, whose purpose is to be a child, by insisting that they must become school and career ready.

As a grown up in the eyes of the world, I assure you that growing up is an illusion of the young. People simply don’t grow up. We live. And as Stoppard asks, “Was the child happy while he lived? That is the proper question, the only question.” The rest is illusion


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