It is difficult to grow up, to become an adult. Too much around us and inside us invites us rather to remain the little boy, the little girl – the puer, the puella.
Many things conspire to bring this about: To begin with, we have within us a powerful resistance to death. To grow, at a certain point, is to begin to die. Health, physical energy, and sexual attractiveness, which in our culture are identified with possessing life, are most manifest in the young. Hence to cease to be a boy or a girl, to become a man or a woman, is to have die in a real way. Adulthood, for this reason, is not easy.
But we have other problems too with growing up. In Western culture we have basically no rites of passage, few clear initiation rites for adulthood. Moreover, we have even fewer clear models for adulthood, images of what a man or a woman should in fact look like.
The models we do have, for the main part, are precisely models of adolescence, of never growing up: Peter Pan, the puer, the eternal boy; Tinkerbell, the puella, the eternal girl. Their attractiveness is based precisely upon their never growing up. Can you imagine Peter Pan with middle-aged fat, grey on the top? Or can you picture Tinkerbell with stretch marks, her legs spotted by varicose veins? That’s hardly imaginable. Yet, today, however unconscious this may be, when we imagine the ideal man or women we picture precisely this kind of adolescent image. Small wonder we have difficulty growing up! Small wonder we spend so many of our adult years as mutton trying to pass ourselves off as lamb!
Small wonder too that we have difficulty making and keeping adult commitments, in marriage, in family, in religious life, and in society at large! Small wonder we have difficulty in doing real adult things, like blessing others rather than demanding that they bless us, like carrying others rather than demanding that they carry us, and like sacrificing our lives so that others might have more life rather than demanding that others give up life so that we might have more of it. Small wonder we try to avoid stretch marks, grey hair, and middle-age fat!
Yet it is useful to remember that it is the parents that carry children, not vice versa. To be an adult is to begin to carry other people and their problems. To be an adult is to begin to die, to youth, to perfect health, to sexual attractiveness and sexual availability. To be an adult is to have stretch marks, scars, greying hair, and a body that no longer looks like Peter Pan or Tinkerbell. Their bodies are so perfect precisely because they have never given birth to anyone, or anything, and they have never carried anyone. They are kids who still need to be, themselves, carried and given life to.
It is difficult to grow up in a culture that deifies Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. Fortunately, things are changing somewhat. Recent literature coming from both women’s and men’s circles has began to challenge this.
Feminists have begun to point out the price women pay for the deification of Tinkerbell, namely, stretch marks, varicose veins, and hands and lives that are wrinkled and tired out from years of giving to others cannot be justified if the ideal is to remain the puella. But little girls don’t give life. They rely on others to give it to them. It is those who give life who have the wrinkles, the grey hair, and the stretch marks. Moreover no Tinkerbell has gone through the invaluable rite of passage and conscriptive adulthood that are innate in giving birth to children and in nurturing them, just as no Tinkerbell has a clue as to what it means to live a life of deep meaning after one’s years of being sexually attractive are over.
Men’s groups are, likewise, challenging men to be more than Peter Pans, that is, to be more than little boys who don’t know what their muscles, hormones, and hearts are for.
These are hopeful developments, but we must grow a long ways still. Our culture is obsessed with remaining young, physically unblemished, and sexually attractive and available, just as it is also obsessed with avoiding the type of commitments that ask one to put real life on the table in a permanent way. We still need much in the way of new imagination that can take us beyond Peter Pan and Tinkerbell as models of adulthood. We still need much to teach us the joys inherent in growing up, in being a life-giving, blessing, stretched, blemished, greying, mature, some day-to-die adults.