If you are an American born in the 70s or early 80’s, chances are you’re familiar with this advertising jingle, most prevalently heard during the weeks leading up to Christmas when we were about 12:
“I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid . . .”
That may be the defining anthem of my generation, judging from how social media has embraced the word “adulting.” Initially I thought it was cute, clever and relatable; today, this overused catch-all grates on my nerves, maybe because it touches a nerve. For those unfamiliar with this recently coined term, “adulting” in practice is a temporary submission to adulthood, without any intention of permanently or even consistently sustaining maturity. It’s the appearance of acting like an adult without fully accepting the reality.
We gen-xers don’t want to grow up now any more than we did when we were 12; in fact, I’ve read social science articles claiming my generation’s version of a midlife crisis is when we finally accept adulthood and all its trappings (unlike our parents, who embraced adulthood during the materialistic me-generation 70s and 80s only to relapse into ridiculous twenty-something behavior around the time we were singing that Toys R Us jingle). I think this gen-x midlife crisis is preceded by a series of fits and starts, dipping our toes into the water of what we think is adulthood. We go to the J-O-B, we’re adulting. We pay the bills, we’re adulting. We make a meal in an actual kitchen, we’re adulting, and we Instagram the proof. We mow the grass, and everyone in the neighborhood knows we’re adulting, in real life no less!
When I was 12, part of me desperately wanted to grow up. I wanted to grow boobs. I wanted to grow out of my acne and into my big teeth and makeup and the juniors department at J.C. Penney. I wanted to have my own space where no one could tell me what to do, and my willfulness motivated me to keep my bedroom and bathroom clean enough to my mother stayed out (maybe) and make good enough grades for me to go away to college where I’d finally be free to eat Kool-Aid out of the canister and buy clothing out of the J. Crew and Victoria’s Secret catalogue with my first credit card.
A deeper part of me was subconsciously terrified of growing up, quietly whispering to my heart all these years that if I grew up and got bigger, no one would love me, even as I ventured into the ultimate triathlon of adulting – marriage, home ownership, and parenting. It was around the time my youngest daughter was vehemently fighting potty training that a light bulb went off in my own head; both of us feared passing certain milestones toward maturity, because as long as you’re the “baby,” someone will love and take care of you. Talking her through this helped ease her transition out of diapers, while introspection and journaling yielded much insight into the “whys” and “hows” of my fears. Much of it is too private to share publicly at this point in my life. But I can say this – my tactics for staying young and physically diminutive were doing me no favors; I have thankfully begun to outgrown them, and now I’m embarking upon the gen-x midlife crisis – truly accepting adulthood.
For me, the ultimate in adulting is waking my kids up for school. The little one who fought potty training is also a late sleeper and only semi-conscious when I have to pull off her pajamas at 6:30. I long for the day when she can dress herself in the morning like her big sister (the morning person in the family who was born adulting and potty-trained herself at 2). This morning, as I was putting on her shirt while she whined, “But I don’t WANT to go to school,” I thought of this weekend’s Gospel. Jesus said to Peter, “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Spiritual adulting, it seems, is less about being an autonomous, self-sufficient grown-up, and more about being, as Jesus told us earlier in His ministry, like sleepy little children. This exhausted mama is half-way there any given moment.
Like my daughter, I hated those early school mornings when I was a kid, and I couldn’t wait to go to college and no longer have to wake up at 7 am (I took only one 8 am class my entire college career, my first semester). I used to believe becoming an adult meant I would be able to make my own decisions and do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted instead of submitting to the choices someone else was making for me, but I also knew true maturity meant doing the right thing even when I didn’t want to do it, and considering other people’s feelings and not just my own, and I wanted no part of that. I wanted all the fun of being the captain of my own ship of fate with none of the responsibility to “feed His sheep” and “tend His lambs.” I certainly didn’t want the hardship that comes with growing older.
Apparently, that’s not really an option. As one of my co-workers who is pushing 80 just said to me bluntly, “Christy, getting old is hell.”
As much as we may try to postpone age, observation has taught me hardship can and will come to any of us, almost capriciously, before it is even expected. A friend recently lost the love of his life to breast cancer, and she wasn’t even 40 years old. I know many others who’ve lost their spouses and loved ones far too young, succumbing to cancer or suicide or addiction. One of my dear friends is battling an extremely aggressive cancer, and the experimental medicines that are killing the disease are waging war on his formerly healthy body. It’s heartbreaking.
They are being lead where they did not choose to go.
When Jesus said this to Peter, He said it in reference to Peter’s ultimate suffering and martyrdom to come. My hope is no one reading this will ever become a martyr for their beliefs, but I’m certain every one of us will experience a private suffering at some point in our lives. Accepting life on life’s terms requires a surrender not unlike martyrdom. We talk a lot in my faith about “dying to self.” Peter, in Sunday’s reading from Acts describes what this means succinctly: “We must obey God rather than men.” That is spiritual adulting, and it doesn’t always look like being a grown-up. In Peter’s case, spiritual adulting meant preaching the Good News that Jesus had risen the dead, shunning his former career, experiencing public shame and ridicule, and literally risking his life. I’m sure the Apostles’ families were thrilled at their career change.
Jesus gave us the ultimate example in spiritual adulting when He accepted death on the cross. Any rational, self-assured grown man when faced with false accusation and impending execution would at the very least try to fight the charges. Jesus didn’t. He even had the power to avoid it all, but He obeyed His Father, not common sense.
How many of us have heard Christ’s words, “Sell all your possessions and follow me,” while sitting in the church pew, and let it go in one ear and out the other? I’ve rationalized that Jesus wasn’t saying those words to me. Jesus would want me to be a good mother to my children. He’d want me to provide the best I can for them. He’d want me to be making a living wage. He’d want me to be generous with my excess, I’ve told myself, but He wouldn’t want me to deprived. He’s given me talents and He’d want me to use them to support myself so that I’m not a burden on society. He’d want me to be a responsible, socially conscious citizen demonstrating the benefits of living a good, Christian life, right? He’d want me to be a good, solid adulting adult. Right? Right?
Rationalizations are not the language of spiritual adulting, but the disciples couldn’t recognize Jesus was obeying God when He went to the cross; they understood only in retrospect. Even Jesus questioned it in the garden, though God gave Him the grace to obey. Many of us (including yours truly) avoid cultivating a spiritual life for fear of what God will ask us to give up or change. Our deacon preached this weekend about how we avoid reading the Bible for this reason, and sadly, my parish had to postpone its annual women’s retreat for lack of participation, probably for much the same. As much as gen-xers avoid adulting, all generations avoid spiritual adulting. We don’t want to be changed; I’m quite comfortable where I am, thank you very much.
But I don’t get to stay where I am any more than the little one got to stay in diapers, or I got to stay in that blissfully irresponsible pre-adulting decade of my 20s. The older generations never miss a chance to tell me life will only get harder from here on out, but most of them say it with a twinkle in their eye, as if they know some secret I don’t. But I do know.
I know God won’t forestall anyone’s suffering and death anymore than Peter following Jesus protected him from eventual execution. Loss comes to us all eventually. The secret is that as I become weaker, God’s presence in me can become stronger. The more I release, the more God can bless me. The less I hold onto my own will, the more God can use me to accomplish His will. And His will is beautiful and everlasting.
We all will be lead where we do not choose to go. The secret is, I can choose to go alone, or to go with God by my side. There is nothing more adult than that.