Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Confessions of Emerging Adulthood

There used to be a time, so I’ve heard, when you knew that you were done being an adolescent and your adult life began. It was clear. You knew it. Everyone else knew it. The unsure, awkward, and “stormy” days were in the rear view mirror and you could kick back, confidently resting in the security of adulthood. Back in those days you knew what life had for you, knew it would be tough, but the pathway was clear. There were trades to be learned, manufacturing jobs to be had, farms to inherit, families to manage. There was a certain time when you’d buy a car, a house, and dream of a boat, but probably not get one. The scripts for becoming an adult were few and they were easy to read. There was certainty. Those were different times.

For me the transition to adulthood was supposed to transpire either during college or upon college graduation. It would be clear and I would know when it happened. I’m not sure what I was expecting to experience that would dub me “adult,” but I was just sure it was going to happen. Maybe I was expecting a brief rite of passage ceremony where I perform some task and then the adult community recognizes me as one of them. Perhaps I was looking for a celebration in my honor ending with some official and expert adult issuing me a certificate of adulthood. Maybe I was looking for some physical manifestation wherein just by looking at me I was recognized and respected as an adult.

None of these happened. When I graduated from college, I received my diploma, walked off the stage and felt the weight of a completely unknown future. It was the last act where I knew my lines. It was all ad lib from that point on. No one was providing the script anymore and I needed some lines. Where were those easy scripts? What were my next lines? At that moment, it had finally occurred to me that I should be planning something, or maybe should have already planned something…but what?

When I graduated from college, I did not feel like an adult, but I felt like I needed to act like one. At the same time, I had no clue what that meant. It was like needing to speak Russian – NOW. I could make sounds, maybe even accidently utter an interpretable word, but in no way was I speaking the language. It was the same with being a genuine and competent adult. There was nothing about me that registered as a genuine or competent adult. I did not know anything about the adult world, and now I was thrust into it because the adolescent world had had enough of me. There were no more contexts prescribed for me. I’d read through all my lines.

I had friends who seemed to know what it meant to be an adult. They were confident, groomed, and ready to join in. They fit into their business suits, had jobs lined up, were engaged to be married, and knew they would live in Dallas or Nashville or New York. They knew things. Important things. Important things like what their next step was, how they would pay for things and what they would be doing at 10:00 tomorrow morning. And if they did not know these things, they were very convincing that they did know them. So convincing that I believed them. Well, I believed that they believed them. Their confidence and apparent clarity about their entrance into the adult world did not resonate with me. How could they knew these things? I just went through the same college experiences that they did and I had nothing that gave me any sense of confidence.

Maybe I didn’t like their version of adulthood. No, there was an appeal to it. I guess it’s not that I didn’t like their version, but rather I did not believe their version. No, that’s not it either. I believed their version. It was not their version of adulthood I was skeptical about. It was worse than that, and more personal. I did not believe they belonged inside their own version of adulthood. I thought they were frauds. They would wear adult clothes and repeat things they heard adults say. They would produce facial expressions of the adult kind, like they were thoughtful or deep or knowing of something when I knew they just trying to get accepted. I’d seen them in the college dorm being complete idiots. I could not imagine that they had grown up so quickly. Maturity was certainly not the cause of their adultish behaviors. No, the only explanation was that they were liars. That was no other way to interpret them.

The problem with my interpretation of these frauds is that all thoughts and behaviors are in some way autobiographical. If I could create a story about these friends who had entered the adult world with some sort of measure of success, and the story framed them as frauds and liars, it would buy me some more time to avoid entering that world myself. I could extend my justification for having this huge burden of ambiguity in my life. They last thing I wanted to be was a fraud.

But here was the catch. Even though I thought that they were frauds, there was something enticing about their stories. I wanted to believe them. I hated my skepticism and cynicism. I longed for the confidence and certainty they had. Their adolescent ambiguity seemed to have been resolved. I wanted that. At least I thought I did. The way I wanted my story to go was that the ambiguity of adolescence would evaporate upon hitting the hot sun of adulthood and then life was clear. Easy? No. But clear. I wanted what they claimed to have. I wanted the illusion to be true and then to get in on the illusion.

The story did not go that way for me. The ambiguity of who I was or where I fit in this world didn’t get cleared up when I graduated from college. No, not only did it remain with me, it grew. And it grew teeth. The tricks it played on me were no longer humorous and harmless pranks; now they hurt. The story of my relationship with ambiguity took a strong turn after college.

1 comment:

Keith Brenton said...

Interested in chapter two ... there WILL BE a chapter two, won't there?

My observation about people who appear confident - some of whom really are confident - is that they are frequently confident of the truth of things which later turn out to be tragically false.

I recommend open-mindedness to confidence. Embrace ambiguity. Prove all things. Hold fast that which is good.

The preceding paragraph just took an unexpected turn away from originality. Please excuse.