An icon is a holy picture, an image showing something of the divine. Perhaps the best icon to depict adulthood is a picture of a mother or a father carrying a tired or a sleeping child. Few images capture as beautifully and as deeply what an adult is meant to do, carry the young.
Today too many things tempt us away from this and invite us instead to remain always a child, an adolescent. Why do I say this?
Because so much in our world today is telling us: “Don’t grow up! Don’t be a mother or a father or a grandparent or an elder. Don’t take on the responsibility that comes with adulthood. Remain instead the puer or the puella, the eternal boy or the eternal girl. Keep forever a youthful body and an untethered spirit. Have no irrevocable commitments or binding responsibilities. Assume neither the body nor the duties of an adult!”
That’s the air we breathe. More and more the ideal of a woman is Tinkerbell and the ideal of a man is Peter Pan, adolescent figures swinging through the sky, youthful, slim, free. Hollywood’s leading men and women are made to look younger and younger, the fashion industry dictates that there are to be no middle-aged bodies, and men and women old enough to be grandparents want still to look as if they’re twenty. What’s wrong with that?
What’s wrong is that Peter Pan and Tinkerbell are children. Neither has ever carried anything or anyone, nor made a commitment or assumed a responsibility. No wonder they’ve no stretch-marks, no wrinkles, no bodies stooped from carrying burdens, no middle-aged fat, no wrinkles, no grey hair, and precious little anxiety about the brokenness of our world. They’re children and children are not yet scarred by the burden of having to carry things.
Robert Bly, in his insightful work, The Sibling Society, suggests that what is lacking in our culture are parents and elders. Nobody wants to assume those roles because to assume them is to admit we’re no longer children ourselves and we don’t want to do that. Instead, too often, a mum wants to be her daughter’s best friend rather than the parent her daughter desperately needs and a dad wants to be his son’s buddy rather than the father that his son really wants. As adults we want to be perceived as cool rather than as parental, as free rather than responsible. What this does, more often than not, is put us in unconscious competition with the young rather than make us their mentors.
The effects of this are everywhere. We see it in the cult we’ve developed around the body – the pressure to look young, to not show the effects of aging, to value physical looks above all else. Partly this is good. It’s made us more sensitive both to our health and our looks; a good thing in itself, aesthetically and morally. There’s something healthy about wanting to look good for, as we know, the first sign of clinical depression is when we no longer care about our appearance. But this has a debilitating underside as well. What all this pressure to remain young and look attractive does is make it very difficult for us to accept mortality and all that comes with it.
And part of what comes with it is the pressure to never grow up, to never really mature, to remain forever the child, the adolescent, someone who looks over his or her shoulder for some adult to summon or blame. Too often our attitude mimics that of children and adolescents. When they’re caught in a situation where something’s gone wrong, invariably their response is: “It’s not my fault!” “This has nothing to do with me!” “Mum and dad have a problem!” “Someone needs to fix this!”
Notice how little different this sounds from: “Our leaders are evil!” “The culture’s a mess!” “The church needs to straighten itself out!” “The bishops have a real problem on their hands with this sexual abuse thing!” Bottom-line, these are the phrases of children and adolescents: “Something’s broken, but it’s not my fault. I’m not responsible!”
Taking responsibility and trying to help carry things is one of the primary tasks of adulthood and stepping forth to do this is one of the litmus-tests of maturity. As mothers and fathers, we’re supposed to be carrying the children, not asking to be carried ourselves.
But to do so will scar us in a way that will set us apart from the young. We’ll have stretch-marks, bent bodies, anxious hearts, the stoop that comes with carrying burdens, grey hair, wrinkles educed by worry, and probably some middle-aged fat as well. Moreover we won’t always be best-buddies to our children or the coolest mum or dad on the planet, but we will be the elders, the mentors, the teachers, the adults, the parents, the mums, and the dads that our society so sorely misses.