Sunday, November 15, 2009


I remember hearing someone lament a while back that in present-day America, we no longer have any sort of rite by which a boy is declared a man (or, similarly perhaps, by which a girl becomes a woman). Perhaps this lack of affirmation or guidance has led many youth to find "manhood" in sexual exploits or gangs. In others it might be manifested in the continuation of adolescence well into one's twenties: still living at home, watching sports and movies all the time, playing video games, failure to hold a steady job; or wanting your whole life to look like some rapper's exploits on MTV.

A few themes have stuck out to me about what real maturity or adulthood is made of. These are things I've mostly learned myself as I've grown to my nearly twenty-eight years of age. Others I've learned from spending forty hours per week with teenagers who think they're mature and wise but are often far from it. So what makes an adult?

1. The willingness to do whatever is necessary right now, whether you like it or not. Getting up at 5:30 A.M. is not fun. Neither is cleaning the house or foregoing a television show for the sake of being prepared for the next day at school. It also might be inconvenient to have to drop everything and make an important phone call to the bank. But perhaps the biggest thing I've learned about being an adult is that when something's important and needs to get done, you just do it. No one is going to be watching your back, urging you, "Did you pay that bill today?" and no one is going to be there to clean up your messes. This is where the responsibility rubber meets the road.

2. The ability to think and plan long-range instead of seeking immediate gratification. It's common to view teenagers as reckless kids who think they cannot die; and perhaps that's true. But what is pretty evident to me is that many teens have little or no long-range vision for what they wish to do in life and how their decisions today will influence their futures. How many people would honestly pursue casual sexual relationships outside of marriage if they thought about what life would be like with an STD or with a child? How many kids goof off in school only to find that they can't get into college and can't get a job with a salary or benefits? How many would spend hundreds of dollars per month on clothing, food, or hairstyles instead of paying off debts, saving it, or investing it? We live seventy, eighty, or ninety years, and having to struggle for decades because of what seemed like a good idea for a moment is no wise way.

3. Finding internal pleasure and pride from long-term, patient achievement in the face of obstacles. In a culture that encourages immediacy in nearly all things (microwave ovens, high-speed Internet, "in-depth news coverage" that is little more than a headline with a few sound bites) it's nearly impossible for some people to imagine doing something that takes a long time. Television shows have shortened our attention span so that family problems are neatly resolved within the space of 23 minutes of programming. Everything is quick, and it had better be enjoyable right now (#2). This comes back to bite me every day in class when I hear students complain "This reading/writing/whatever is too much work!" or the teacher's worst nightmare, "When am I ever going to need to know this? I'm not going to be a scientist!" I love the challenge of learning. It sucks to feel like a failure or less than perfect in the middle of things--be it writing a paper for a class I'm taking, working out an issue with my wife, training for an 8k race, or figuring out how to improve my teaching--but knowing that I've accomplished something challenging provides a source of satisfaction. Many of my students give up when an assignment poses difficulties for them, or they put forth little effort so that it won't reflect poorly on their self-image when they fail. But not only are they missing out on a chance for pride and joy; they're also failing to develop the persistence and patient endurance that are necessary for the obstacles in life that will inevitably come: relational strains, arguments, poor working conditions or unemployment, financial duress, etc.

4. Acknowledging that you are not the center of the world, and that your well-being really demands that you seek the welfare and interests of others. Jean Piaget and other cognitive psychologists have long noted that greater awareness of other people and elements in the world is a factor that develops as one ages. This is only natural. But there's another type of awareness that demands accountability, respect, compassion, and love. Some people remain totally self-seeking, fixed on their own interests alone and indifferent or even callous toward others; others reach out but remain myopic in their worldview. Neither allows real maturity. The sooner we recognize that we really do depend on and benefit from others for life and happiness--others whom our words and actions can seriously grieve and injure--the sooner we can move on toward a healthy and whole life. I think this is why marriage and children really sober a person and knock him out of any delusion of independence. I've already become keenly aware of how little others factored into my decision making until I began dating Olivia. Now that we're married, that has been amped up several degrees. Everything I do and say affects her; we're "one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). I cannot even imagine what this will be like if and when we are blessed with children.

St. Paul said that when he became a man, he left behind his childish ways (1 Corinthians 13:11). What else do you think makes for an adult? What are other "childish ways" to grow out of?

1 comment:

Ted M. Gossard said...

Good words again, Andrew. Yes, we all need to grow up, and sadly some seem to never do. Very sad, but definitely a big part of what it means to grow up together as Christians into the full stature of Christ.