Monday, May 08, 2006


Dear Reader,

At age 18 (or is it 21?) what magical transformation occurs that turns a child into an adult?


Watching quality reality shows like Frontier House, Black + White, Texas Ranch House, and so on, is an exercise in disappointment with the state of adulthood today. Or rather, disillusionment, for I am not aware of a coherent theory of what adulthood means in America other than making a living, paying taxes, and obeying the law. Even voting in America is optional, let alone fuller participation in democracy. We shove people into the responsibilities of adulthood whether they're ready or not as soon as they pass the magic age, and then punish them if they can't rise to the occasion.

This explains why so many "adults" are petulant, defensive, self-centered, appetite-driven, confused, incoherent, clannish, simple-minded, even unethical--in short, why so many "adults" are children. Many of the stories of popular culture hinge on the childishness of modern adults, and much of the chaos of current events and politics only makes sense when we look closely at the immature psychology of the people involved.

The most childish quality I see is competition over victim status. I mean, there are people like Dr. Martin Luther King or Malcolm X who no one would have blamed for giving up considering the adversity and outright unfairness they faced, yet they continued fighting for what was right even unto death, whereas I have met privileged, middle-class white men who feel oppressed and whine endlessly if you disagree with them about their pet theories about the world. The inability to distinguish great tests from irritating inconveniences (lack of perspective) and the complete immersion in their own private feeling life as though that were the extent of the world (egocentrism) help such people justify wallowing in victimhood even when they have the upper hand in life.

This lack of adults leads so many situations in modern life to devolve into resentful clans sniping and feuding over who has been the most unfairly treated by the other. I used to know a white employee at the VA hospital who felt victimized by the black employees there, not because of anything they did to him but because he imagined them shirking work and whining about how unfairly they were treated--precisely what he was doing when he came into my office to complain about them. I never told him what a racist he was because it was far more interesting just to watch him and try to understand the mind of the bigot, the adult child who has singled out categories of people to be his oppressors. Most adult children just blame life for being unfair, or specific people for picking on them, but bigots need a grander sense of drama so they imagine whole abstract categories of people oppressing them.

Two of the core lessons of adulthood are impossible for the victim to imagine, let alone act upon.

First, we contribute to many of the problems we experience in life, sometimes because we do not adequately prepare for adversity, sometimes because when bad things happen instead of rising to the occasion we wallow in our feelings of being victimized, the unfairness of it all, and sometimes because we are broken and recreate in our lives over and over bad situations from our childhood that we still haven't acknowledged and dealt with. I speak from experience, here.

Second, regardless of whether bad things that happen to us are our fault, as adults it is our responsibility to clean up the resulting mess. That is one of the defining qualities that distinguishes an adult from a child--an adult has learned that infantile responses do not make things better, however personally gratifying they may be, and they often make things worse.

By all means, sometimes things happen to us that are not our fault, and some people are definitely singled out for mistreatment for a variety of reasons. Anyone who believes racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry and persecution are things of the past is kidding himself. But where a child may let himself be defined by that unfairness, an adult has to be the parent, has to step up and start cleaning up the consequences.

I wish there were a handbook for adult behavior that children could read and strive for, but as it happens part of adulthood is learning to think for ourselves, to look past appearances, not to blindly trust authorities to tell us the truth or have our best interests at heart, so such a handbook would subvert what it purported to teach.

Still, our criteria of adulthood are so lax that even a clever psychopath qualifies as an adult, as long as he can survive for 18 or 21 years. Not one shred of decency or genuine human empathy is required to qualify as an adult in our culture. Can we be surprised at the quality of adults we have selected for?

Surely we can do better than this, but first we are going to have to think about what adulthood ought to mean and figure out how we could select for that. The Ken Lays and Jeffrey Daumers of the world clearly were not ready for the responsibilities of adulthood. We can proclaim that all men are created equal--and maybe they are--but they sure do not end up that way.

Yours truly,

Postscript: This is not intended as a slight on children. I have met children who are fundamentally more adult than many "adults," and plenty of children are sweet and adorable and clever and good even if they are not yet ready for the responsibilities of adulthood. The problem is not childhood per se; it is the lack of standards for adulthood.

1 comment:

Danny Barer said...

Gee, Rick, weren't you there in High School the day they passed out the Manual on How to Act as an Adult? I think it was from the publishers of The Secret Manual of Stuff that Everyone Else Knows. If I had copies, I probably left them out in the rain.