Preschoolers love to imagine what they'll be when they grow-up, a firefighter, a princess, but they don't give off the strong hurry up vibe that is characteristic of, say, my 13-year-old daughter Josephine who is on most days itching to take the step into full on teenager-dom and beyond. Occasionally, I'll have a child in class whose older sibling is in kindergarten and is looking forward to getting there himself, but preschoolers are much too rooted in the present for it to consume them the way it will as they get older.
I'm watching it now with Josephine who is doing what comes naturally to a girl her age, pushing back, sometimes angrily, at the familial and societal boundaries that she feels are keeping her from become her independent self. She can't wait until she can drive, for instance, or get a real job and have enough money to do "whatever I want." It's not so different, I suppose, than wishing to be a princess or even being a two-year-old saying, "No, no, no," to everything. We're born to leave the nest and just about everything we do between birth and that moment of finally taking flight is designed to prepare us for that common destiny.
I'm 48-years-old today, a man with 3 decades of adult independence under his belt. If it wasn't for the children in my life, preschoolers through teenagers, that struggle toward autonomy would likely be such an alien thing that I would rarely consider it except in those moments when they annoyed me in the movie theater or restaurant with their obnoxious assertions of self. I will never say, as others do, that children keep me young because, really, who would want to have to go through that again? No, I'm quite content to be on the other side. Instead I'm grateful for the presence of children in my life because they help me stay in touch with that essential force of human nature that causes us to struggle to break free from whatever it is we perceive is holding us back. It's an urge that starts young and intensifies. It is the urge of rebellion and progress: the bailiwick of youth.
My own adolescent struggle for independence was as intense as anyone's, and I thought, felt, and did things I look back on with shame. I also thought, felt and did things that I continue to think, feel and do today -- things about which I'm exceedingly proud.
Looking back, I can't point to a single moment when I ceased to struggle, but I'm no longer struggling, which tells me that its an instinct that diminishes gradually until it is a memory.
I remember a toy parachutist I once owned. One would wrap the chute according to the instructions, then use a kind of slingshot to launch it into the air. When it reached its apex, the chute would open and the little figure would float gently to the ground some distance away. Sometimes the parachutist would land softly on the lawn, but sometimes it would get tangled in a tree branch or the chute wouldn't open at all and it would land with a thunk on the driveway. That slingshot is the metaphor that comes to mind for this urge of youth. It is what launches us. It's how humans have evolved to spread ourselves around physically, emotionally and spiritually in order to give our species a greater chance of survival. It is the job of youth to get out there -- sometimes way out there -- and discover for the rest of us if there is something better we ought to know about.
Youthful rebellion sends our new adults into the world, spreading them far and wide, sending them out there to sow their wild oats, challenge us old people, and become their own, autonomous human beings. Those of us who are older, those of us with a little more perspective, we mistakenly think our job is to try to help steer them away from the tree branches and concrete driveways, but has anyone ever successfully done that? I don't think so. They will launch and we really have no control over where they land, nor should we. That's how our species progresses and who are we to stand in their way?
It's an interesting thing, though. As that all-encompassing drive for independence has faded, I find myself today, as a 48-year-old man, much more intensely drawn toward becoming connected with the other people. The youthful me identified with the Holden Caufields, Steve McQueens, and Keith Moons, all of whom, not incidentally, are fixed in time by the amber of being fictional characters or of dying young. I'm now far more inspired by the people around me every day and how we can become more closely intertwined with one another. I'm finding that there is more joy and wonder and love right here in this moment with these people nearby me than I'd ever imagined. I find myself wanting to pull them to me, to hug them, to be hugged back and to build something with them, anything, as long as we're doing it together.
I don't know if this urge toward community is a universal urge of aging comparable to the instinct for youthful independence, but I hope so. I see now how vitally important is was for me to be launched into the world, to wrestle in the tree branches and fall on the concrete. I might have died young, of course, but instead I discovered important things out there in the vast and cacophonous world; things I've brought back with me, and I'm ready to share them with others.
They aren't world shattering things, I don't think. They aren't even necessarily things that others haven't discovered before me, but they're new to me, and maybe they're new to you. Or maybe we can just laugh together over them and cluck our tongues over how crazy we once were.
As a newly minted 48-year-old man, that is what I'm thinking about this morning.
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