Last week, I ran out of toothpaste. It was ridiculous. It’s not like it took me by surprise; I knew it was getting more and more difficult to brush my teeth, and yet I did nothing. I’m supposed to be an adult, but what type of adult runs out of toothpaste? Am I even an adult in the first place?
Once I’d righted this crime against dental hygiene, it got me thinking about what it actually means to be an adult. Official definitions of the word are, on the whole, ambiguous. Dictionaries throw around terms like “mature” and “fully grown,” but there certainly are immature octogenarians. I capped out at five feet tall as a freshman in high school, well before anyone would have considered me transformed into an adult.
There are plenty of other, often conflicting, definitions of adulthood. A boy of bar mitzvah age (generally 13) is considered a man by the Jewish faith, though legally he is not an adult until he is 18. He can’t drink until 21, and his brain won’t be fully mature until he reaches 25.
Conflicting concepts of adulthood work their way into everyday speech, and it becomes clear that “adulthood” is a subjective term. For example, imagine a woman discussing a man she is dating who throws temper tantrums and sulks about trivial issues. It would be unsurprising for this woman to say, “He’s a grown man, he shouldn’t be acting this way,” just as it would be unremarkable to hear her say, “He’s such a child. He never grew up.” These two framings reflect different conceptions about the meaning of adulthood, and the meaning of “growing up.” Does it happen to everyone, or only those who mature “successfully” by some standard other than age?
Semantics aside, when people think of adulthood they think of certain qualities and experiences. The primary quality is maturity, which covers a whole range of personality traits: the ability to withstand stress; the ability to comprehend difficult ideas; the ability to conform to social expectations of behavior; the ability to provide for oneself rather than rely on others.
There are plenty of mature people on campus. Does that mean we’re adults? I say no, and I say we’ll never be adults. An adult is something relative to who you are now. There will always be grown-ups, and that means we will always be grown-downs.
Imagine for a second the way you perceived people older than you when you were in elementary and middle school. Imagine those people now the way you saw them at that time. For example, in first grade I thought long division was just the coolest thing ever, and so our teacher got a seventh grader to come teach me long division. All questions about my priorities aside, when I think back to those lessons, that seventh grade boy was gigantic. When I look at seventh graders now, they couldn’t seem smaller.
While there are people compared to whom you feel adult-ish, that doesn’t make you an adult. Adults are supposed to be the pinnacle of growth; it’s the final destination. As long as there are people more adultish than you, who have achieved the next indicator of maturity and success, you will always be a comparative child. And they, most likely, will see you as one.
Don’t despair your perpetual childhood. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. With adulthood being synonymous with completion, this way you get to avoid a lifestyle that becomes static. You should always still be amazed by new things with childlike wonder and realize that a good number of your elders probably have a perspective on life that you haven’t achieved yet.
Very few people ever feel like they’re done growing or changing, and with the world moving quickly by them, if they ever stopped moving forward they might regress to a state of childhood, anyway. Take for example senior citizens who are adapting to use the computer. If they do not learn, then they have to rely on others to do all computer-based tasks for them. This puts them in the role of the child, comparatively uneducated in the ways of the world in this particular respect.
It’s nice to feel like an adult. Of course, it’s fantastic to shirk any semblance of adulthood from time to time, and I don’t imagine that will ever stop. But it’s also nice to carry an image of success when stumbling from Weshop with armfuls of groceries or when doing the laundry before you run out of socks. There’s nothing wrong with maturity, and adulthood shouldn’t be avoided just because the term “grown-up” carries with it the stigma of being boring, stuffy, and out of touch. Classy can be fulfilling. Responsibility is practical and rewarding. An occasional Saturday night in with a book (or, you know, work. Or Netflix.) doesn’t make you curmudgeonly, and in fact might make you happier than forced “immaturity.”
These things will not make you an adult, but they represent qualities toward which many strive. So much of satisfaction lies at the bottom of a glass of narcissism; people like watching themselves do the things that they imagine older, more settled people doing. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Of course, there’s one more upshot. To my younger audience, keep in mind: If your parents tell you to brush your teeth before bed, you don’t have to. Adults do not exist.
Zalph is a member of the class of 2016.