Until today when a friend presented me with this question, I’ve always dismissed it into a pile of those questions I care little to ponder over. Though when pondered over, it’s easy to fall into a superficial way of thinking into it. That is, many of us frame the idea of adulthood with clearly observable things–things like age, income, possessions, occupation, or responsibilities. But framing adulthood in this way often comes from those who lack these tangible things. It comes from people who wish to possess them when in fact, many of those who actually possess some of these things, perceivably having become adults, still don’t feel like adults. Of course, some find relief in simply not meddling with the label at all, caring little for where they are in the spectrum of adulthood (if there is such a thing). But I wonder, why does and should it matter?
In retrospect, labels can be self-earned badges that are necessary as rewards for the hurdles we’ve gone through. They become more vivid as we walk through the stages of life, and especially within our liminal periods where we’ve graduated from one label and have yet to adopt the next. It minimizes confusion, and gives us a sense of identity. At the same time, however, they can be limiting and can screen us from seeing alternatives. By finding a label to identify ourselves with, we become less open to the possibilities of other labels, further narrowing our world-views. In that sense, labels can be self-detrimental. It is thus important to loosely label ourselves–we label for the sake of minimizing confusion while allowing ourselves to be open to alternative possibilities (in fact I have yet to find a greater virtue than open-mindedness).
Now comes the question: what is an adult?
I’ve recently felt the pulsating rush of adulthood when I finally received my official license in the mail. It is not because I felt that I am finally one of those members of society with important places to go and so requires their own personal vehicle to get to those places (I truly think that the entire concept of necessitating a personal vehicle is superfluous and consumeristic). Rather, it was that sense of leaping forward from a lower ground to a higher one; of leaving something behind me and then starting the new path ahead of me. The path that opened with all the possibilities of what I had just accomplished, and that opened me to new, different, experiences. Not just new experiences, but new experiences that I must face alone, where I must let go of holding hands with anyone I was dependent on in order to progress (a fleeting thought: progression into . . .? Death? Perhaps all the excitement of approaching adulthood comes from a sense of uniting with death, a state of ambiguity and loneliness. I do not know if I speak of truth or mere poetics).
I felt a layer of weight remove when I got my first job too. It was that sense of independence; like I had taken off that puffy winter jacket my mother gave me that kept me warm and comfortable, but hindered my movement. Oh yes, and when I lost my virginity, where the rush of adulthood I felt didn’t necessarily come from a sense of letting go of something. Rather, it was more prospective than retrospective. It came from knowing that I had thrown myself into a new, frightening realm full of uncertainties; a pool of inevitable mistakes. But rather than it frightening me, it excited me. I will venture into this ambiguous new world I know nothing about, I will fuck up several times, and when I come out, I will have become wiser.
Therefore, adulthood breathes from this feeling of becoming wiser from difficulty and ambiguity. And from becoming wiser, we ourselves grow stronger. The world outside of ourselves become more vast, more uncertain, and more uncontrollable the more we know about it and the more we experience it; however, we gain better control of own ourselves and our own emotions. We harden and solidify in resistance to a fast-moving river of other liquids, other substances.
Adulthood then is not this comprehensive state of being that we achieve after reaching a finish line. It is not something that we become, as again, it is not a singular state of being; it is something we become more like. That is, we can only become more like a perfect adult, which exists only in Plato’s world of perfect forms. I don’t think anyone has achieved full and perfect adulthood. Instead, it is a marathon that never ends, and is perfectly fine without a conceivable end. And it is a marathon that should be enjoyed throughout the run.