“Yeah, soon I’m going to have to become a REAL adult.”
This is a sentence I overheard the other day from someone several years younger than I, during a group conversation about homeownership. Because I know the speaker, I was able to safely assume he was also referring to things like marriage, childrearing and owning a BJ’s shopping card. I didn’t say it out loud, but my initial reaction was, “Why? Why do you have to do that?”
The saddest part is that the comment was uttered with a tone of trepidation. Foreboding, even. Like it was something he knew he had to do, but just didn’t want to yet. Truth is, just about all of us risk get sucked into that “you must do this” mentality once we become adults. We get the sense from others that if we do all of these seemingly responsible things that we are expected to do, then we will be somehow rewarded later on. But this reward we are seeking, what is it really? Is it the approval we gain by other adults or by our parents? Is it the reward of being seen as “responsible”? I’m really not sure…because it’s certainly nothing tangible, from what I can tell.
‘We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come.’
– Joseph Campbell
Leaving that unanswerable question aside, what does a “responsible adult” look like, anyway? What makes buying a home more responsible than renting? What makes staying in a job we hate more responsible than making less money at a fun job or doing freelance work? Why are we considered more “adult-like” if we have children and save for their educations, rather than saving for vacations or retirement homes with our beloved spouses?
‘Life is too important to be taken seriously.’
And, more disconcertingly, why do we make our life decisions based on what other people will think of us? Why does what we think of ourselves matter so little by comparison?
‘This above all, to thine own self be true.’
In my travels I have watched well-educated people destroy their lives making decisions based solely on what they want others to think of them. I’ve seen people live miserably unhappy existences in an effort to appear wealthy, well-dressed and successful, stay in a loveless marriage to circumvent the appearance of failing at something, and even have more children than they wanted just to satiate a family member. It’s one thing to make seemingly reckless decisions in order to enhance your eventual happiness, but to do so just to augment another’s opinion of you, and thereby decrease your own happiness…well, that’s just downright irresponsible!
‘To go against the dominant thinking of your friends, of most of the people you see every day, is perhaps the most difficult act of heroism you can perform.’
-Theodore H. White
In my ripe old age of 33, I have come to realize that the most responsible “adult” decisions I have ever made have turned out to be mostly gainless and ineffectual. I have purchased two homes, and I have lost tens of thousands of dollars on both while never increasing my happiness at all. I spent my entire savings on a big (to me) wedding and at the end of the day, every penny felt wasted. I invested in a 401K and lost most of it when the stock market stumbled. So far, none of the things I was “supposed” to do turned out to be worthwhile for me.
‘The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.’
On the other hand, some of the decisions I’ve made that would be viewed by the world in general as irresponsible, wasteful, juvenile or foolish have brought me significantly more happiness. Going to college for art. Renting an apartment (before the idiotic decision to buy). Standing behind my husband while he quit his job to become a freelance artist. Deciding not to have children. Heck, even running barefoot.
‘Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.’
-John F. Kennedy
Turns out, every time I turn doggedly away from the things I’m “supposed” to do and decide my own path, the rewards are manyfold. And because of this, in the near future I will be revealing more ballsy, life-changing decisions that may have others up in arms, but will bring me happiness beyond what the average “responsible adult” behavior can appreciate. Sure, being cheered onward from friends and family is great, but approval from others is not my ultimate goal in life. Not anymore, anyway.
‘In order to live free and happily, you must sacrifice boredom. It is not always an easy sacrifice’
Now, I’m not saying that everyone should quit their job or live in a hovel just to buck the system. I just believe that there is no one true path to everyone’s happiness. Some people love the idea of living their entire lives in the same town, but not everyone. Some people love children and want many, but not everyone. Some enjoy the security of a long-term employment in one place, and of a long-term retirement savings plan, but not everyone. Some believe in the benefits of a plant-based vegan diet, but not everyone. See what I’m getting at here?
Everything is right for some people, but nothing is right for everyone.
‘Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in Nature’
The American Dream is not one dream. It’s millions of dreams, held by billions of Americans. Forcing everyone into one ideal “responsible adult” lifestyle is ridiculous and irrational. And that is why, by its own definition, I don’t plan to “buck up” and become a REAL adult. Not now, not ever. In fact, it’s the worst thing I could imagine for myself.
Instead, I plan to undo the decisions I’ve made in this vein, as much as I can. I plan to retrace my path back to where I started before any of that outside interference, and make careful steps along my own path. And I’ll draw my own map from now on, thank-you-very-much.
‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’
– Mark Twain
June 5, 2012 at 1:21 AM
I have this similar feeling about being an adult. I just turned 34, never married, no kids, travel all over the country consulting. No matter where I go most people my age have the ring, the kids, and the house. I bought a house and happen to like that decision so far. I don’t have this innate desire to get married and have kids. It doesn’t sound bad but I just don’t have that desire to, and I don’t think it makes me a bad person regardless of how out of place it looks when most people my age are married, with kids, and the house loan. The funny part is many guys my age share a drink with me and come off envious of my lifestyle. I think each lifestyle has its pros and cons. What really confuses me is why did they choose a family and then be envious of single life? Did they decide something they didn’t want deep down? Maybe they have cast me into a stereotype of single guy who wakes up to new girl each day and then envy that stereotype for which doesn’t reflect my life at all. I have some other goals that I think are valuable and rewarding and I would like to attend to those.
June 5, 2012 at 7:47 AM
I have had similar experiences with people, especially with the kid thing. I’m one of the only people I know (locally) who dont want them. I’ve been approached by people with jealousy, anger, defensiveness….just about everything. All I can think of is if you choose a path that excludes some of the things that te majority of people consider important, you inadvertently end up challenging people’s perception of themselves. Or you make them realize for the first time, that they had a choice about their lives, and could have been happier (like you) if they’d chose differently. It used to bother me a lot, but I’ve learned it does no good. People will fell how they do. You just gotta live your life for you – not for the standard view of adulthood.