Thursday, September 23, 2004

Age-appropriate joy  

I have mixed feelings about growing up. I miss not being responsible for myself, but I cherish making my own independent way. I miss having few responsibilities beyond school, but I'm grateful that my job now ends at five o'clock, and no homework to be had. I miss the freedom I used to have to just play all day, but now I have a wife and all the associated benefits. There was a time when I didn't know pain, but pain deepens one's appreciation of life.

I just saw the recent live-action feature film Peter Pan. I also read the book, which begins this way:

All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, "Oh, why can't you remain like this forever!" This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

I don't think I realized I had to grow up until somewhere around the age of 20. By that time I had lost many of the joys of childhood while holding onto its pains. It took me several years to let go of those pains and embrace the joys of adulthood.

It's not easy growing up in a culture that frowns upon it. Even people in their 30s and 40s try to dress and act like children, forbid anyone to call them sir or ma'am, and speak as if grammar didn't matter one bit. They don't understand, as I didn't, that childhood is only part of life, and not even the best part. They think that by holding onto the happiness they knew as children they can stay forever young. They must know it's a lie. Happiness is fleeting and must be experienced in the moment. You can remember it, but you can't hold onto it. Pain, however, can last a long time. It can last as long as you want to keep it. That's why it takes so much work being a 35-year-old child—you have to constantly recreate an unnatural happiness while holding onto several decades of pain. It's impossible to grow that way. Peter Pan, facing death, says, "To die will be an awfully big adventure." In the Pan story popularized by Stephen Spielberg, Captain Hook responds, "Death is the only adventure you have left."

I'm pleased to say that I've let go of much of my pain, though letting go of all of it is a constant struggle. I have learned from it, grown from it, been shaped by it, and discarded it with flourishes of forgiveness and acceptance. Now I'm experiencing the joys of adulthood, and what joys they are. Had I remained a child, I would not know the unspeakable feeling I get when I recognize the eternal humanity and the hand of divinity in my wife. I would never know the surpassing love I will feel for my own child, some time in the future. There's a lot of adventure left for me, and I won't waste the opportunities by refusing to grow.

Still, I sometimes want to be seven years old again, chasing june bugs and grasshoppers in my back yard. But only for a day. Or maybe two.

"The dear old days when I could fly!"
"Why can't you fly now, mother?"
"Because I am grown up, dearest. When people grow up they forget the way."
"Why do they forget the way?"
"Because they are no longer gay and innocent and heartless. It is only the gay and innocent and heartless who can fly."