What Does It Mean to Grow Up?
In traditional societies, hanging tenuously to this whirling planet, surviving the onslaught of the elements, growing up was a matter of survival. The tribe could not afford to have children idling about. So, without a central committee sending out printed instructions, each civilization evolved rites of passage designed to ensure the transition from the naïveté and dependency of childhood to adult sensibilities that sacrifice comfort and sloth in service to the common interest.
When we examine contemporary culture, we find these rites of passage missing. Aging alone does not do it; playing major roles in life does not do it.
We carry life's two biggest threats within ourselves: fear and lethargy. Every morning we rise to find these gremlins at the foot of the bed. The one named Fear says, "The world is too big for you, too much. You are not up to it. Find a way to slip-slide away again today." And the one named Lethargy says, "Hey, chill out. You've had a hard day. Turn on the TV, surf the internet, have some chocolate. Tomorrow's another day." Those perverse twins munch on our souls every day. No matter what we do today, they will turn up again tomorrow. Over time, they usurp our lives.
While it is natural to expend energy managing our fears, the magnitude of this effort on a daily basis cannot be overemphasized. More energy is spent in any given day on managing fear through unreflective compliance, or avoidance, than any other value.
On the other hand, lethargy takes so many seductive forms. We can simply avoid tasks, steer away from things that are difficult for us or find ways to numb our days. Indeed, we have a vast wired culture to help us in this task, a connected 24-hour distraction whose hum both stills anxiety and dims the plaintive cries of our spirit. Drowning in distractions, we can sleep our life away and never awaken to the summons of the soul that resounds within each of us.
Something in each of us always knows when we are shirking, avoiding, procrastinating, rationalizing. Sometimes we are obliged to face these uncomfortable facts when our plans, relationships or expectations of others collapse, and we are left holding the bag of consequences. Sometimes others get in our face and demand we deal with what we have avoided. Sometimes we have troubling dreams, meetings with ourselves in dark hours, and then we have to face the fugitive life we are perpetuating. Something within us always knows and always registers its opinion. Naturally, we avoid this subpoena from the soul as long as we can, until it knocks so forcibly that we have to answer the door. The moment we say, "I am responsible, I am accountable, I have to deal with this," is the day we grow up, at least until the next time, the next regression, the next evasion.
When people attending my workshops so readily begin to write about where they need to grow up, it is not that they haven't thought about it before. The issues lie close to the surface. What has been avoided—a delayed confrontation, the acknowledgment of a talent, a path of reconciliation—is something they have wrestled with many times before. Sadly, awareness alone doesn't solve the problem. Fear and lethargy win more battles than they lose. All the while, the soul is roiling beneath, sending up protests.
Sooner or later, we are each called to face what we fear, respond to our summons to show up and overcome the vast lethargic powers within us. This is what is asked of us, to show up as the person we really are, as best we can manage, under circumstances over which we may have no control. This showing up as best we can is growing up. That is all that life really asks of us: to show up as best we can.
I have always been moved by the example of Marcus Aurelius. Though he was the emperor and could have enjoyed a besotted existence back in Rome, he chose to be out in the field to face the Hun who wished to kill him. Every day was a battle for him, as it is for us. I often read the words of Marcus Aurelius, from his Meditations, as he rose in the morning:
At day's first light, have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that "I am rising for the work of man." Must I grumble at setting out to do what I was born for, and for the sake of which I have been brought into the world? Is this the purpose of my creation, to lie here under the blankets and keep myself warm? "Ah, but it is a great deal more pleasant!" Was it for pleasure, then, that you were born and not for work?
When I read these words to myself, I imagine I can see him, sharing the fate of his comrades, cold and shivering on the freezing Donau, and facing implacable enemies. These words remind me to stop feeling sorry for myself, my privileged life and privileged opportunities, and to stop whining and looking for an easy path. I remind myself to show up, in the best way I can, winning some of those internal battles against fear and lethargy, losing some, but with the fond hope that if I show up as best I can, then I will be a grown-up: accountable and present.
Ask yourself these simple questions:
Where do I need to grow up, step into my life?
What fear will I need to confront in doing so?
Is that fear realistic or from an earlier time in my development?
And, given that heavy feeling I have carried for so long already, what is the price I have to pay for not growing up?
This adapted excerpt is from Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey, by James Hollis, PhD. Sounds True, February 2018. Reprinted with permission.