I was asked, the other day, “What makes an adult?” An interesting question. Can we locate a definitive marker of adulthood?
- Age. We’ve established some arbitrary legal definitions, here in the US. Does anyone think that’s the answer? No? I didn’t think so.
- Biological capabilities. Once one can have children? Uh, clearly not. Lift 250 lbs at the gym? Please excuse the silliness, we’re illustrating a point. Insufficient.
- Events. Graduation from school, marriage, birth of a child, taking on a mortgage? Still insufficient.
- The capability to sustain a host of such events? Getting closer.
If positive identifiers cannot solve the problem, let’s try reductionism. Do we know what an adult is not? I think the only unquestionable statement we can make is that an adult is not a child. So what is a child?
- A young person. But we’ve established that leaving youth behind doesn’t guarantee full adulthood.
- A child is someone who cannot fend for themselves.
Yes. Adults must be able to fend for themselves. Eat, sleep, pay bills, on their own. Sufficient definition? Still, to me, no. Human society has evolved beyond sufficiency, beyond just staying alive, and so has our concept of adulthood.
My son was talking to me the other day about a philosophy class he’s considering. He explained that in the last century, under the stress of science, philosophy separated into two schools. The Analytic and the Continental. Right then and there you know that one involves kippered herring and the other, chocolate croissants. Unsurprisingly, the path to meaning tends toward chocolate.
In essence, the Continental idea, which I believe to be true, is that we get at real understanding about people via narrative and emotion. That neither binary logic nor reductive reasoning do the trick.
The real question then. When do we feel like adults? Whatever your own voice says is probably right.
Myself, I feel like an adult when I’m crackling with perspective. Perspective in the artist’s sense, i.e. creating distance to intensify reality. I think of those moments when I rise above immediate events and see against the context of time. Or put myself in someone else’s shoes, and know how they feel.
Or, particularly, when I understand my own self with perspective. If adults were wizards, we’d chant Maybe Yes Maybe No as our Spell of Spells. In an understanding of choice, you take the first step towards responsibility. That’s another aspect of my own definition of growing up.
Here’s what I believe, most of all. Adulthood entails demystifying personal necessity. Inevitably, the needs of others surface in the cleared space. I feel most like an adult when I care for others as though they were in some way my own child.
But this is just my story, in the morning, with tea and thoughts of chocolate. Yours may be different – no one is apt to tell it but you.