Monday, November 18, 2013

Things they don't tell you about being an adult

So, here I am, 44 years old with a husband and niece. I'm ostensibly an adult now. Was I the only one who didn't get the memo about how to proceed?

I bet not.

Frankly, there are lots of things about adult life that nobody bothers to tell you before you get there. If you're not an adult already, I guarantee someday you'll have a complaint list of your own, but just recently I've been thinking about five specific concepts I kinda wish I'd known about before I supposedly became "mature."

You never really grow up -- you just learn how to behave in social situations.
Gahh. Why didn't anybody tell me that being grown up would feel almost exactly as confusing and awkward as being in college? I don't feel like I have any wisdom. I don't feel like I have everything together. I feel like I'm skating through life backwards and half-clad most of the time. The only advantage to being a chronological adult is that by this point, I've learned a few basic rules of etiquette about public behavior. In so many social situations, it feels like you just clap on your grown-up mask and go to a costume party. But it might help you to feel better if you realize that everyone around you is doing exactly the same thing, and that behind your friend's ostensibly suave exterior is the same awkward goof with braces and an inhaler.

There is so freaking much to remember.
When I was younger I used to get annoyed at my mom and dad all the time for not being able to keep track of all my appointments and recitals and swim meets and so forth. Nowadays I get exactly the same kind of guff from Miss V, and it probably serves me right. What I didn't realize as a child (and what V doesn't realize now) was the tremendous volume of information that adults are expected to juggle around in their brains -- not just being able to access and apply useful nuggets of knowledge from school and life experiences, but being able to keep up a sort of vast mental calendar of upcoming reminders and events, from the mundane to the rare, none of which can afford to be forgotten or skipped. Plus most of us spend our days running around with a mild-to-moderate case of sleep deprivation. This is why I carry a pen and notebook with me at all times -- not just because I fancy myself a writer, but because the warranty on my short-term memory expired around 1996 and if I don't write it down, it doesn't happen.

The older you get, the more difficult it can be to make new friends.
When you're a kid, it's almost laughably simple to make friends. You have a playdate or you meet someone your own age in the neighborhood or at school or church or even on the bus, you talk together for more than three minutes and presto! you've got a new BFF. But as you get into middle school, the process of making friends becomes much more awkward and self-conscious, and it's further muddled by the onset of puberty with its attendant carbonated hormones. After doing time in high school hell, the college years can be a potentially fertile ground for friendship -- for what may be the first time in your life, you're attending classes with lots of other people who share your passions; you're likely to get to know people who are highly simpatico, and you have the time and stamina to go on extracurricular adventures with them. Then you graduate, marry and/or get out into the working world, and again the potential for making friends contracts with your diminishing social circle. If you want to make new friends after age 30 and you're not a natural-born extravert, you're gonna have to work at it. The good news is that there is the adult equivalent of a playdate. It's called hobbies. Thanks to interests in needlework, cooking, writing, geocaching and science fiction, I've managed to meet a lot of new people, even as a hopeless introvert.

It's OK to let go of some dreams.
Kids want to be EVERYTHING when they grow up, and most wise adults don't disillusion them by saying, "You can't be both an astrophysicist and a prima ballerina, honey -- you won't have enough time to do it all." There's plenty of time to for kids to consider what they really desire, how much time and effort they want to put into achieving a life goal. And it's also perfectly all right to put a dream down and walk away, especially when you realize you've outgrown the need to achieve it. For example, for many years I wanted to be a print journalist -- but frankly I didn't have the drive to go after that dream, nor did I have the personality type that would ever be comfortable with traveling into dangerous territory and asking people hard, personal questions. And now print journalism seems to be dying, or at least radically transforming. These days I'm finally comfortable letting go of the idea that I was so fixated on in high school, and looking for other, better dreams to pursue.

Doing the right thing can be really hard.
The thing I found most alluring about adulthood was the idea of personal sovereignty. I loved thinking of all the instantly-gratifying things I could do when I was grown up -- I wouldn't have to go to school, I could stay up late, bounce on the bed, eat ice cream for breakfast, and do pretty much anything else I liked short of breaking the law. When you're an adult you can do all these things and more if you choose, but there's more to it than following your bliss. Personal sovereignty is a two-sided coin, and the flip side of the coin is personal responsibility -- accepting the consequences for your own choices. I just attended an interfaith potluck supper, and the strongest conviction I took away from the evening was that most people, regardless of their faith or lack of faith, possess an innate sense of right and wrong. Because of that nearly-universal moral sense, there will always be a certain amount of tension in adult life -- a pull between what you want to do and what you know you should do, between going to Disneyland and paying the mortgage. Even though doing the right thing builds a sense of inner peace and integrity that can't be obtained in any other way, it isn't always easy to choose the right. It's just worth it.

OK, grownups, let's hear from you: what didn't they tell you about adulthood?

No comments: