The day that my son was born, I knew I’d passed irreversibly beneath the lintel demarcating the antechamber of my as it then seemed trivial youth from the salon of for-keeps adulthood. I expected as much. What I did not anticipate was the arresting shock of the first time staring into the depths of a mortgage amortization table, the reckoning with the fact that you are now a name and number in someone’s file, and that this constitutes a bond backed up by the full force of the state. What was I thinking, marching willfully into this arrangement?
On the theme of amortization, allow me to dilate. The Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door, as they seem always to do in the stirring time of Spring, with assurances that I could cheat death once the installments of my earthly years had reached their end. I tell everyone with this sales pitch that I’ve been around the salad bar, thank-you very much, and I know what suits me. I do want to try whatever is on offer, only because it is on offer. How else would one decide what is, and what is not, good? Ah, but the bad is an unavoidable part of the purchase. Experience can be had only by wholesale and with the shrink-wrap still on. As Kierkegaard noted, life is lived forward and understood backward. It follows that we are forever moving forward in a state of ignorance, or lack of understanding.
There you have it — adulthood summarized. If you are thirty, it happens you have never been thirty before and so you’ll need to improvise your way through it. The same I must suppose will obtain at every point up until the end, whatever and whenever (and you’ll have no certain indications) that may happen to be. This off-the-map business is a central and unanticipated feature of adulthood, the wisdom of one’s elders being an article of faith during much of one’s childhood. Suddenly at some inopportune critical-mass moment, in a kind of instant disrobing, the truth is revealed, and at one’s own expense.
It’s not all bad. You get to push the shopping cart around the grocery store and fill it as you please, without the requirement of parental permission — albeit under the Aldous Huxley principle “up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics.” The irony in most individual cases however is that one simply internalizes the disciplinary function of one’s parents, in loco parentis. All the responsibilities and circumspection, and nothing of reckless abandon and scraped knees. There’s an awful lot of time, effort, and investment that goes into this protracted condition of being done with all that.
Well then, what are the advantages of being an adult? Just what I have already suggested, the double-edged fact of one’s qualified freedoms and individual responsibility. It is the case also that as one ages, and with any luck, a degree of resilience may be actively acquired, as may that most useful carapace, a sense of irony. My friend and mentor Michael Hornyansky once recalled in my presence an acquaintance of his who noted that “everything matters and nothing matters.” “Now that’s wisdom,” he added.