If the popular entertainment website Buzzfeed is anything to go by, then nobody really knows what it takes to be an adult. The website is constantly amusing its viewers with articles related to this dilemma. In the last month or so, I can recall two or three posts on the subject, the most obvious ones being something like “14 Signs You Are Really, Truly an Adult,” and “22 Signs You’re Really, Really Not An Adult Yet” (and, incidentally, I related more to the “you’re an adult” one, though I do often leave my dishes piled high in the sink). Confusing as the concept of adulthood may be to the Millennials, it is perhaps a bit more clear cut for the older individuals of Generation X. A few years ago, I read a book by such an author, Gish Jen’s collection of short stories, Who’s Irish?, which explored themes of maturity and adulthood.
Pammie, protagonist of “House, House, Home,” certainly feels like she has discovered the answer to adulthood: “[Adulthood] has more to do with…finding oneself with responsibilities” (p. 207) But for me, her answer is a bit ambiguous, for just what are these responsibilities she speaks of? I should now like to offer my own perhaps rather ambiguous explanation of adulthood: to be an adult is an unpleasant experience—or, more accurately, is full of unpleasant experiences—and, I think, to be an adult is to fairly consistently accept those unpleasant experiences.
To be sure, this skill is one that the child Callie, of Jen’s “The Water Faucet Vision,” attempts to practice, with a dismal level of success. Clinging to “faith like a child,” she believes that if she prays and sacrifices enough, God will personally answer her desperate desires. While reading this, I was reminded of something a pastor of mine once said: “God will always answer prayer, and sometimes the answer is ‘No.’” When the child Callie is refused her slightest plea, her whole world drips down around her (in the case of the titular faucets, literally). I am not meaning to suggest that faith is incompatible with adulthood. Quite the contrary, I find that my semi-adulthood requires near constant faith. But adulthood, like mature faith, is made of “grit,” in the words of adult Callie. To me, one of the most moving passages of the entirety of Who’s Irish? is also at the end of “The Water Faucet Vision:” “Back then, the world was a place that could be set right. One had only to direct the hand of the Almighty and say, Just here, Lord, we hurt here—and here, and here, and here” (p. 48) If you are an adult, you must not cry and scream like a child does when exposed to an iota of pain. You must stand, and fight.
This is why I do not completely accept the conventional accepted definition that to be an adult one must be able to pave one’s own way through the world. According to Buzzfeed’s posts, the main requirements for becoming an adult are the ability to pay one’s own bills and run one’s own household, and that to depend on anybody else to do this is somehow emasculating. Indeed, I cannot entirely accept this definition, because I thoroughly refuse to believe that Sven, the ex-husband of “House, House, Home”‘s Pammie, is an adult. Immature as I have labeled Callie the child, she at least had an awareness of people outside herself. She sees the pain caused by the adult world, and seeks to heal it, though through her admittedly misguided prayer life. To be selfish is the easy way out, and in Sven’s case, it is literally so; he walks out on his family. Or perhaps I’ve got this wrong, and paving your own way in the world does make an adult, just not necessarily a good adult, but one to whom negative adjectives are attached (a “selfish” adult, a “thoughtless” adult, a “foolish” adult, etc.)
But perhaps now I see the simplicity in Pammie’s own explanation, that to be an adult is to accept the responsibility the world thrusts upon you (although I would argue that, in Pammie’s case, for example, responsibility is very often the result of our own actions, whether good or bad.) This would, come to think of it, fulfill my original premise that to be an adult is to accept the unpleasantness in the world. Responsibility can often be unpleasant. Why else do children shirk it so? Why else, when responsibility is early thrust upon a child, we think it a cause for pity? Responsibility is something adults are supposed to handle, and when they don’t, or can’t, doesn’t that make them somewhat childish?
Looking back over this essay, it strikes me as rather a melancholy, or even a slightly depressing read. But the facts are there: children are born, children grow, husbands come, husbands leave, parents love each other, parents fight, daughters abandon mothers, mothers refuse to forget daughters, friends come, friends go, employees come, employees go, families grow, families fall apart. Some of these are pleasant circumstances, others are unpleasant. To be an adult is to stand, and face them, as best as one may. The “as best one may” is important, for even the few of us who are indomitable rocks can be eroded, given enough time. In the real world, there is at least some partial credit for trying. This is what would make Pammie an adult, and Sven not, a conclusion I am quite satisfied with. Pammie, like most of us, has done questionable things (notice I do not say “foolish things”), foremost being marrying Sven, but credit given where credit is due, she sees it through. It is worth noting that she does this even when the cards she ends up with—divorced mother of three—are not the cards she was originally dealt—artist, wife of brilliant professor. The outside pressed in, and she pressed back. That is an adult.