By Anna Gát
(coming of age in twelve loops)
- Who counts as an “adult” in 2019?
- At what point did this person become an adult?
- Is becoming an adult a singular occasion, a gradual process, or can one fall in and out of this life-stage?
- Who has the authority to perform rites of passage into adulthood?
- What is the person who is an adult responsible for?
- Is this responsibility negative (not doing things) or positive (doing things)?
- What is a community of adults like?
You can examine the course of your lifetime in two ways. You can visualize it as a volume of big, discrete chapters, separated by major life decisions and life-stage transitions. You can also view it as the surprising sum of the many daily yeses and nos, left/right turns you choose as you move ahead, which only very rarely lead to big and sudden change.
Recently, I’ve come to notice a blurring of these two frameworks of interpretation. As if the random, transient forces normally experienced in the daily game of life had taken over the foundations, which, we feel, should be operating in a more compartmentalizable way. When I look at this sentence, I know I have just described a crisis. Something public is being experienced on the most private level, by us, individuals, in homes and in mailboxes, on airplanes and in beds... Where there is a crisis, there is a change. Where there is a change, there is a hope. I want to understand how we got here, and how we will get out of it. I want to understand my responsibility, and yours.
I’m writing these words next to boxes that contain most of the things I own. I’m moving house, from one rent to another, a strange woman in London. Sitting on the carpet in a lotus, with my laptop, I realize this must be a hypermillennial existence. I realize that Steve Jobs won.
At 35, most of what I own is virtual — I have some money on my bank accounts; my startup, my collaborative and intellectual exchange networks on the internet, and my social wealth, none of which is inside these boxes.
There are aspects of this way of living I didn’t choose: I’m part of a generation whose entry into adulthood coincided with the recession that caused the disappearance of some traditional measures of opulence. My peers and I set out to look for alternative ways to be rich — in knowledge and in global friendship, in entrepreneurial spirit and in political agony — with no gold to be found, to make our own. Our generation, as a consequence, seems to find a number of old systems — forms of government, ruling parties, job sectors or family structures — in need of update in order to stay relevant for this new quest. I’m thinking about the adults on this quest. Everyone you know, everyone you have ever spoken to in your life, is trying to do the right thing. Surely, what the “right thing” is remains a source of disagreement. Or does it?
Clumsily sellotaping cardboard handed down to me from the Turkish bakery on the corner, I’m wondering if this, what I’m doing, is the adult thing to do. Whether I’m really an adult. Whether any of us is. I’m wondering where this packing instinct is coming from! I remember what the fantasy author Philip Pullman said in an interview, discussing what makes eleven year old children, his books’ heroes, so special:
[O]ur stories begin the day we discover that we have unaccountably been born into the wrong family. “We all discover that, in our early teens usually,” he says. “You have to grow up, and you have to move on.”
Sealing the last box I feel a need to dive into what I have rejected and moved on from — and where this road may be taking me, us. I want to understand how the Millennials and the GenZ adult. To understand what I am hoping to win.
Starting my personal series focusing on the changes in how we, today, see age groups and life milestones makes sense as this is a fundamental question that nuances many others.
While playing with the logic of “coming of age” I have come upon twelve narrative loops. Untangling these may be a lonely, hero’s, quest — or something we figure out together as a community. You will find many open questions below, and some intuitive proposals for a solution. As always, I want to know what you think — I want to hear what happened to you. So come with me on this journey of discovery, and join the discussion with your personal views and experiences!
Visible Worlds (A prologue)
The first time I was an adult was on June 24, 1995. I was eleven and a half years old.
I was standing in a Bauhaus church, the crown jewel of Budapest’s second district — a suburb developed in the 1930s by the city’s Jewish “new bourgeoisie”, something I was — listening to an interlude during a Roman Catholic mass.
Before the apse stood a young woman talking to the congregation. She was a novice, a Franciscan Clarist, who came here to give an account of the events that drove her to enter the order: the life-changing journey in her past that she took from Budapest to Paris where she met the people who gave her her future.
As this young woman shared with us the process of stripping herself bare of her atheism and convictions, her national and personal identities, her clothes and her name, eleven-year-old me suddenly felt dizzy. I had been overcome by a physical sensation I can only compare to the top of my head melting and staying open, plugged into a vibrating light above.
The light flowed in.
When I finally came to, I glanced around — at my fashionable friends; at my mother, with her own newly imported goody-bag of Western spirituality which contained aura-cleansing, astrology and, why not, Roman Catholic masses — and in that one instant I had figured out freedom.
I wasn’t familiar with PhD-flirty concepts like nondeterminism, Global Village, collective hallucinations, Flow or fluidity, let alone the recurring patterns in religions or systems, but a knowledge of how everything that surrounded my physical self (the location, people’s words; how everyone acted as if all this was fixed reality) was in fact nothing but the “first offer”, subject to action and mutation, had come alive in me as if to the magic spell of this Saint-Claire monk who chose to own nothing.
I knew in that moment that I had somehow split off — and re-connected. The core I was built around, outside which most things were quite transformable, had manifested. During the past 24 years I would often revisit that morning in my mind— that first entry into understanding. There a line appeared between “before” and “ever since”. Paradoxically, there’s no going back from that flexibility and that freedom — it is fixed (LOOP1). When I think about adulthood I think about these lines and the moments when we crossed them.
As it happens, childhood and adolescence are temporary states — but we become adults for good. It is forever, or, rather, there is only one way out of it. I am fascinated by the finality of these feelings of infinity. By how conscious we are that we can’t return into unconsciousness… When you’re asleep you don’t know you’re asleep, but when you’re awake you know you’re awake. Adam and Eve didn’t think they had to cover themselves with leaves, not until this knowledge was imparted to them — and then they forever knew.
On that morning in the church, during that event of separation, two things occurred. I gained a periscope-like consciousness which I constantly stick ahead (into the future) and above (into the unknown), with everything else behind and below in a state of whirling, endless, chaotic change. It’s the thing that seeks that never changes. I found a nonvariable. And, I decided to start reading the Bible and the existentialists ASAP (as soon as I got home!), exiled myself to a Catholic school for five years, and embarked on the joyride of becoming a very neurotic teenager.
But we don’t become adults just once.
During the past weeks, after the publication of my essay and then routinely encountering a new series of personal upheavals, I’ve been immersed in the question of what it means to be an adult in 2019. I’ve been reflecting on my own adulthood, a state which I’ve been trying to establish in the past ten years, but the challenges of which seem to keep throwing me back to the start-line...
As often, I’ve been talking to people like me, who feel similarly caught up in some never-ending, life-stageless life-stage.
I’ve been meditating on our community of individuals, and our individual responsibilities within it. The struggles of self-establishment that keep us busy and strangely modular — and the related desire to build spaces for sharing, nonetheless.
This brought up a lot of memories, but also re-opened questions I used to consider settled. My aim in this essay is to encourage honest, daring discussions about our adulthood. As always, you’re warmly invited to share your thoughts and experiences both on this platform and the I.I.’s Twitter where you will find people wondering about the same questions as you are.
Now let’s go!
Age of Agelessness
“A person is an adult when they no longer ask for mercy.”— Éva Ancsel
What differentiates a child from an adult is responsibility. Presumably we all know that the mental abilities, self-sufficiency or physical prowess of a two-year-old versus a 13-year-old are vastly different, but from the point of view of the Law both children fall under parental accountability in largely the same way. They are pre-adults, and not expected to be able to make the informed decisions based on which we could judge the ethics of their actions and their consequences.
While these two children with their 11 year age difference fall under roughly the same legal category, we somehow think that, in matters criminal, medical or sexual, a human has to just turn 18, and is now all of a sudden perfectly capable of taking responsibility for themselves and others.
Thank goodness for legal pragmatism and precedent, because this, as you know, isn’t so simple. In reality, adulthood is complex, diverse, and begins with a lot of ambiguity and difficulty for most of us.
To make things even messier, adulthood means different things across regions and eras, or even across social strata.
As I was musing out loud about the question of adulthood on Twitter, I asked my community when they feel they first became adults. The most frequently cited instances revolved around three themes: self-sufficiency (starting to earn one’s own living), loss (the death of a beloved parent) and parenthood (having one’s first child). We like to consider our post-Postmodern lives very complicated, but these themes are as simply and eternally human as it gets: safety, autonomy, reproduction. The past is lost, the present is sustained, the future is secured. An ability to participate in the hunt and survive it.
In prehistoric communities — before settled lifestyle introduced the notion of ownership — transitioning into being grown members of the tribe must have been a simple affair. Boys were initiated into the group responsible for bringing home meat and carry heavy stuff, and girls had their first babies and joined those looking after the less dangerous and muscle-demanding tasks.
Our contemporary ideas about adulthood seem very similar in pattern. Traditionally, we look at life-milestones to determine if a human being has become an adult: whether they are now active and responsibility-taking participants in the daily life of our society, regardless of their specific role in it.
Just think about what questions you would consider when assessing another person’s state of maturity. You’d think in stages. Is this person now prescribed adult medicine by a doctor? Can they drive? Are they allowed to have sexual relationships? Can they marry without parental permit? Can they buy alcohol? Would they be tried as adults if they committed a crime? Would they be drafted into the Army in an event of war? Are they expected to vote? Are they supposed to hold a college degree? Ought they to move out of their parents’ house and maybe buy their own? Should they be working and paying taxes, or present a pretty good reason not to…? Notice that the questions we instinctively ask to outline adulthood diverge into expectations and prohibitions.
Two problems arise when we look more closely at either side of this divergence. One is that both states of being “active” and “responsible” participants in a society are reached at different ages and are based on different rules. The second problem is that how grown people actually live in 2019 makes many of these milestones ambiguous.
Points of crossing
Some transitions into maturity take place at a young age. It would probably make little sense to consider a person an “adult” just because they can board an airplane alone or are given adult pills. The timelines are fuzzy at best. Girls may get their first periods at any point between ages eight and 18. Most people in the West first have sex before the voting age. In countries where people can’t legally buy alcohol before their 21st birthday, a person will likely drive a car, vote at an election and even work or graduate college before their first official glass of wine is poured.
Graduating, starting a job, buying a house or getting married —all of which for a brief period in the 20th century seemed to come in a bundle— are now events spread out in time, shuffled up, or experienced with chosen or involuntary gaps.
With our careers turning into freelance zigzags and lifelong renting a real possibility, with a more widespread acceptance of elective childlessness and celibacy, job offers, weddings and christenings have ceased to be the clear and obligatory Rubicons they once were. Even the oft-mentioned independence-from-family requirement feels like a half-truth: I know very few people who don’t in some way remain supported by their (grand)parents’ money, network or guidance well into having had their own children or purchased property.
As it often happens, artists grasped this phenomenon earlier than their audience. We are reminded of Jacques Brel singing about “growing old without growing up" to postwar romantics… I also recall a particularly poignant episode of Sex and the City where Carrie has had enough of going to other people’s bridal showers, spending a fortune on gifts under the unspoken agreement that everyone will one day have theirs (and so it’s fair). She realizes she might never have her own, and throws a gift party just for herself.
And, so, I wonder: if, in 2019, we slalom instead of walking linearly along some trodden path of aging-with-dignity, does this mean we fall in-and-out of the adulthoods (plural) reached in this decade-long procession of physical, legal and emotional milestones? If a person finds, for example, that their academic background isn’t fitting for our fast-changing world, and they return to university, or if they move back home until they find a new job, or if they change their mind and remain unmarried — does this “devolve” the individual into some pre-adult stage? What happens to life-stages in our most defenseless moments — during divorce, miscarriage or widowhood…?
I think we know that there’s no going back. That once a person has assumed responsibility for their own decisions they are, and will always be, an adult — even if the available categories we still use to describe this permanent state no longer work. Or precisely because of that.
What keeps me an adult?
The answers I got on Twitter suggest that we’re ambivalent about how to balance out the loss of the past necessary to make place for the new. This ambivalence — those metaphorical milk teeth — is likely a useful angle from which to look at our own adulthood and that of others. Still, some complications arise. Try to answer these questions in a loss/gain framework:
- Am I an adult if I have found purpose in life? Why, living with purpose is hard and requires many sacrifices! (And what would this distinction make a hard-working middle-aged family man or woman who feels they haven’t found their purpose?)
- Am I and adult if I have lost some of my illusions? What if in their place I have acquired wisdom with which I can help others? (Then what if, as I age, I lull myself into new illusions that I come across along the way?)
- Are we finally adults when the most basic things in our daily existence, like our attention, digestion, sleep or sexual performance, have become things to improve— as opposed to just regulate, like it was done by our parents?
- Are we adults when we have had a numinous experience? Why, I had one in 1995 and it took me 20 years (three more religions and a brief stint as a militant atheist!) to understand what it was.
- Are we adults if we have experienced burnout? Depression? Physical violence? The deepest loneliness? If so, how will our recovery and re-connection differ from that of a child?
In general, is the term adult comparative? Can one person be “more adult" than another? If Alice quits school at 15 and starts working for money but Bob stays on academic scholarships and grants until the age of 37, is it Alice or Bob who is more adult…?
Heirs and honors
The growing popularity of continuous, public, learning suggests one positive ambition to rise above outdated life-stage categories. With career fields famously blurring together and information and specialized online hubs becoming accessible like never before, people reach stages of maturity only to discover vast new avenues of knowledge, and enter them with curiosity.
I assume that the mass displacement of milestones — their loss — is compensated by the unprecedented new possibility that caused it. (LOOP2) Everywhere I look, I see seekers moving around with childlike openness. I see people teaching and being taught at the same time.
We may wonder if it is only through conveniently ignoring the material facets of life that information comes free, abundant and unbirdled, ready to be discovered by our periscopes. We may also come upon a related question underneath all this — that of communication.
More precisely: community.
To what degree is my identity as an adult dependent on that of those I spend my life with? I, like everyone else, experience my personal transitions alone — the light in my childhood’s church… my moments of fulfillment and those of grief — and yet, as a human being, I wish to share my time and thoughts with others. I wonder to what degree are received categories and collective milestones necessary for this sharing. And how to create new ones for a future that will plausibly bring a more and more atomized human experience.
Every person you meet carries an inheritance with them; they are a link in a chain between past and present — both on an individual level and in their wider context. Maybe adulthood begins when we become mediators between the time passed and the times ahead. When we have fully assumed this role, knowing we are all in it together. The problem is without community level chapters in personal histories, we’re all driven to represent our values alone. It is fortunate we at least have words and platforms for sharing these values, often developed and nurtured in solitude. We can hope to find the seekers similar to us, and continue our learning in mutuality. We will probably still wonder if that is… enough.
Re-entering communities is a complicated affair for everyone.
I remember how dumbstruck I was by Kierkegaard as an undergraduate: the ideas outlined in Fear and Trembling about the conflict between personal morality (which is experienced, by his un-speaking Abraham, alone) and the shareable ethics, the “response”-ability, with which we stand and face the community, and communicate.
Arguably, while this conflict is ever-present in human consciousness, contemporary individualism can make it more bearable. After all, each of us has unprecedented freedom to explore our personal values (and how much tolerance we need for those held by others), and we can choose to find, or build, new communities that respond.
Yet a few problems this particular reconciliation of the private and the public leaves unresolved: namely those of beginning, alignment and ritual.
If we are to accept that in 2019 every individual has had “unique” experiences on diverse axes, along which at some point they achieved self-responsible adulthood, then we’ll want to know: who took them across the river? What was the one seminal rite of passage like? Who performed it — and who authorized them to?
If we, today’s humans, have to initiate ourselves, having authorized ourselves to, one wonders if the resulting crossing is valid in the first place. (LOOP3) Do you accept the self-initialization of others?
If we are to accept that milestones expand and mix up as the individuals of today come of age, how does this change our expectations about relationships (and resulting communities)? How important does it remain for a couple to be on the same level of “adulting” — what about friends, colleagues, employees, students, or our scientific or religious companions? What do we look at when determining if another person is on the same page as we are? (And how tolerant are we when they continue changing?)
One person’s internal conflicts are one thing — but leaving the responsibilities of an entire community’s members, however small, a point of contest can be, I would think, eroding. If the contours of adulting are unclear, how can you expect reciprocity from your fellow adult? How can you cry wrongdoing? How can you defend yourself? On the other hand, decentralizing the “house rules” for each node (drafting mini-Constitutions for each) may make joining problematic, not to mention any cooperation across the “houses”.
If we are to accept that we’re all destined for “individual life-stage reaching” today and in the plausible future, then what to make of the collective milestones that do seem to remain significant? Are transition events like bar mitzvahs and Sweet Sixteens and baby showers just a residue of the barbaric past?
Lastly, as I tend to, I wonder about the moral luck of adulthood. Do I need others around me to be adults so I can be an adult? If they aren’t “as adult” as I am, can they somehow drag me back into pre-responsibility? Is it part of my responsibility to avoid being dragged back into pre-responsibility?! Is adulthood contagious? Should I “spread” it? You see, it gets complicated…
Now let’s move on and look at what the New Adults do in absence of the categories that could make them adults. (LOOP4)
Living Within Limits
“He’d had the other children in a holy war
Against the infamous grown-ups” — WH Auden
I grew up among film and TV people in Eastern Europe who often used cinema as a metaphor for the greater questions in life. One of the things my dad would often mention, for example, was how he thought constraints actually helped artists to be more creative.
I know this sounds like a contradiction, but he would bring up convincing examples like Eisenstein (whom I loved) and Tarkovsky (whom I hated, save for Solaris), arguing that one of the reasons that era’s filmmakers produced such masterpieces was that they had to creatively navigate an oppressive system.
It fueled their talent with something special. Resistance. Innovation. Mystery. With that framework gone, the golden age of Russian cinema was gone too.
Now we may agree with this or not, or may see it as my dad being nostalgic for the restrictions-circumwaltzing world of his youth, his interpretation does illuminate our central query, today’s adulthood, from a useful angle.
Last summer I came across an interview the musician Joni Mitchell gave to Rolling Stone magazine in 1979 — to Cameron Crowe who is now a film director (and who made his cinematic debut with Fast Times at Ridgemont High after he, an adult, went undercover in a high school to observe how teenagers reach adulthood).
While the whole interview is a no-filter must-read roller-coaster of insights, one particular paragraph made me jump to my feet.
Mitchell is describing the pious, rule-bound small town in Canada where she grew up, and then zooms in on her industry’s Los Angeles: “They insist on painting me as this tragic . . . well not even a tragic, because in this town people don’t understand tragedy. All they understand is drama. You have to be moral to understand tragedy [laughs].”
Sun-faded images of the wealthy housewife character in The Hissing of Summer Lawns flashed up in my mind (the woman who only imagines the blood), but that more fundamental structure too, dramaturgy, which is so viscerally familiar to the people of theater, cinema — fiction.
The reason why well-built dramatic fiction works is that it splits its central character into all the other characters as aspects of his or her inner conflict. In lighter genres characters are harmoniously aligned: you enjoy Friends or Sex and the City because their ensemble casts make up one person to love. We’re all Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, etc., at times. Every woman is a Charlotte in some situations. Good comedy writers know that. On the other hand, tragedy — check with Aristotle or Hegel — works with oppositions. It has morals. Constraints. Nos. You can’t have everything all at the same time. Just like in real life. There will be loss. There will be real blood.
Hamlet can’t both marry his girlfriend while partying in the newly revamped Renaissance court of his mother and stay loyal to and avenge his medieval father. Ingrid Bergman can’t miss that plane without regretting it soon and for the rest of her life. Harry can’t fight Evil without entering the Forbidden Forest… Etc. We love this stuff. We know this stuff!
To Aristotle — in a weirdly similar way to my dad’s rants about The Cranes are Flying — limitations weren’t necessarily a bad thing. The ancients were pretty big on self-moderation as a way of limiting an individual’s bumping into the walls the world has in store for them. Limit yourself from within so the world can’t limit you that much from the outside, they thought. In virtue ethics, this is achieved via routines, expertise, and a usefully lived life. But you’ll find plenty of popular takes on the same idea from Confucius to Marcus Aurelius in both serious libraries and airport bookstores.
In these systems of thought the individual “internalizes” the walls — the obstacles or tradeoffs — of the world in order to minimize their own suffering and the suffering they would inflict on others. In short, they enter the “human condition”, willingly. When Joni Mitchell misses the morals in her L.A. milieu, it’s the observance of obstacles and tradeoffs as necessary parts of life that she means.
While the Ancients' calls for stoicism or moderation are as useful for outlasting repression as for times of amorality, they only partly answer our own questions about how to experience our personal life-stages and align them with others in a world devoid of collectively accepted life-stage categories.
To my mind, this is where the problems of self-responsibility (as a prerequisite for an identity as “adult”) and public/private accountability converge — and open up a new set of questions.
In absence of fixed rules and categories — but still within a matrix of moral expectations, i.e. that an adult is responsible for their own actions—we, contemporary individuals, have to make up for the lack of external pressures with personal choices. (There’s a reason why people grill each other about life choices on first dates: self-evaluation is all the info you get!)
On paper, choice seems to be the constraint one chooses for oneself. It can be experienced quite passively: you pick from the available walls that line your way which you are personally the most comfortable with. (Available information about what walls to pick will be quite important here, as you will see a bit later when we look at confidence in choice.)
Like taoism’s stream of water ultimately stronger than the rock because it can flow around and slowly shape it, or Tarkovsky’s talented evasion of his Soviet censors, we are at all times conscious that our adult lives are a long game of acting supple in the face of very hard hurdles, and not having anyone else to blame for it.
And so it seems that we are adults once we have understood the flexibility and freedom with which to make our own choices; when we are the nimble thought that encounters the impeding world no longer personified by parents — when the world-as-obstacle has become impersonal to our person.
And yet when, in a mild panic, I picture us as being our own lonely categorizers, I wonder: to what degree are we, as adults in 2019, required to build our own moral worlds, our own principles, too? Won’t such principles when not aligned, throughout the life-stages that make up our lives, with the principles of others, be found context-dependent? In a modular moral system, while one act might seem righteous in one situation, it can be dishonest or even destructive in another. (I would say “contingency”, but I’m worried Slavoj Žižek would somehow find out.)
If you are your own moral world, or module, what community will have — let alone trust — you? What friend can give you advice and feedback? How can you grow a coherent self out of yourself for yourself, which you can love, understand and represent throughout your life?
Self-moderation practiced for better dealing with walls should not mean building more walls. How could a definition of “adult” work unless it describes an active individual who ventures outside? If it’s just “choose a mod, WASD, and don’t collide with whatever pops up in front of you”, then, in absence of guidelines, we merely react. In react-mode our fellow individuals will themselves seem like walls — like parts of the impersonal impediment to our person — and we will choose to restrict ourselves fearing they might do it if we don’t.
This can be a good moment to overview what happens when we’re both building the road and walking down on it. (LOOP5)
No is easy, yes is hard (No is lonely, yes is for each other)
Adulting in 2019 is not for the faint-hearted. Endowing each individual with both the responsibility of managing their own life-stage transitions without much possibility for alignment with others and finding the subcultures where some alignment can nevertheless happen, is, well, it’s a lot. (And then we didn’t even mention if those subcultures can align into a greater whole.)
I will remain a pro-pluralist culturally, but this side of contemporary individualism, where we have to both figure out how to grow up and then do it, seems unprecedentedly stressful to me.
No wonder stoicism is trending on YouTube! When faced with such mental overhead it’s a relatively relaxing solution to make most of our choices a “no”.
Reducing complexity, distancing yourself from what’s fuzzy, looking for those very similar to you...
Yet in my experience most “nos” are temporary solutions at best. A state of suspension while the mind is waiting to figure out what to do instead. Withdrawing and rejecting — these aren’t natural states for a human being who is by default inquisitive, adventurous, status-seeking and -respecting… In short, both geographical and social.
Yet saying no seems deeply inherent in our generation’s thinking, and it informs many of our choices. I catch myself wondering whether we’re going too far. When I look at my low-possessions life and gleaming that not accumulating material things for myself actually makes me more of an adult than was the houses-and-spouses collecting generation of my parents, I am conscious that mine is a “no” choice.
And that, possibly, the a state of negation I’m in is due to a bigger influence from the post-recession zeitgeist than I like to admit. (The Irish film Nothing Personal, in which the heroine gradually gets rid of everything she physically owns until all she has left is her credit card, is the most accurate portrayal of this generational instinct that I’ve seen.) That I am in a diverting spin of continuous learning, sucking up information behind four walls like no era in history has ever before allowed, doesn’t change the fact that I am, technically, withdrawing some of my influence from the material world.
By “I” I mean “we”. When I look at us as community, it makes me uneasy to think our age-group could be irreversibly closing itself off from discovery and creation in some category-less attempt at self-moderation. Not to mention how difficult an acceptance of collective misalignment —our modularity — makes it for us to find out what the new categories of maturity we would need are.
Life-stages are relative and if each person is an island, if everyone is only comparable to themselves, then it could remain a near-impossible task to negotiate the concessions any collaboration of equal participants asks for! This is especially problematic since “equal participant” is pretty synonymous with “adult”. (LOOP6)
While there is no going back to not knowing about freedom and obstacle, the two cornerstones of adult morality, saying no will never equal purpose. It’s becoming clear to me that just removing ourselves from the fuzzy categories of others will lead us neither to a shared re-invention of these, nor a responsible, fulfilling and useful existence in a world in the creation of which we took part.
My hunch is that if our generation’s interpretation of freedom and flexibility only leads to negation, then we will simply miss out on both of them. (LOOP7) A hermit is of limited utility. Without a daring discussion about what values we really hold and want to see shared, contemporary adulthood, as I see it, will be stuck in a long-term, lonesome, unnatural no. (And as we know from childhood, we don’t start a conversation with “no”.)
But let’s go and look at what yeses could be available to us.
Yes to You
“I remind him
I’m an American, that all his yeses sound alike to me.” — Denise Duhamel
The teachings of mainstream religions, Western law, as well as most schools of philosophy, differentiate between doing and allowing. We humans are rarely ambivalent about the qualitative difference between not helping somebody who is hurt and actively hurting them. If you have children, you’ve probably observed that they start understanding the moral difference between deliberate acts and accidents (they will start by saying the things they did were accidents, so as you understand they had no bad intentions) at a young age.
This difference exists with regard to positive outcomes, too! One interesting framework was how the philosopher Adler refined the distinction between circumstantial freedom (not being restrained) and natural, or volitional, freedom (the freedom to plan and act). The latter is often discussed together with the concept of self-determination.
When you visualize the volitional, active, yes, you will notice that it is part of two binaries. On the one hand, it is of course opposed by the no. On the other hand, it is opposed by a passive yes. (When I play with logic maps and come across poles with multiple binaries opposing them, I sense they are the rare and precious things in life that the world is out to get. The active yes is so vulnerable!)
I think we can agree that, from a value, virtue and utility point of view, not doing something doesn’t equal active engagement in action. Not spending money isn’t the same as earning money. Have we have forgotten that the world will not stop just because we find it easier not to participate? Or that it will most likely not go the way we want or expect it to without our taking part…
I wonder if our contemporary adulthood — our identity — is too firmly based on an ambition to “defend” ourselves. As military strategists know, anyone in a defensive position is quite immobile; his or her choices will be just responses to the choices of others, from a fixed position. As my oldest childhood friend, the moral philosopher Anna Réz, told me this morning on Messenger: choosing between alternatives is not the same as creating alternatives.
(Haven’t we set out to create gold after all?)
My dear friend is right. Creating alternatives — or, in self-help literature, “changing the conversation” — is probably the most proactive “yes” act we can think of. It is choice-as-action.
When I look at my own anxieties around change-making, I always arrive at the question of confidence. When we are encouraging an individual to make proactive choices — to create alternatives, to build avenues — we’re basically asking them to act with confidence.
For those studying decisions-making, channel noise, or which of our neurons fire during uncertainty, confidence has been of increasing interest. My friend Dr Adam Kepecs, for example, examines how where animals go and how long they wait for a variable reward is a good metric for their level of confidence in getting it.
To us, humans, the building blocks of a confidence to act seem to be: the clarity of our goals, an evaluation of the utility of the information we have access to, and the expected outcome of our agency.
This confidence can be built in two ways. Via authority (trusting and following another person’s analysis of data) and experience (collecting our own data and utilizing it). But there are two problems with this framework.
One problem is that, as we have seen, our generation is quite wary of life-stage categorizing authority, as we tend to find these categories outdated for our real experiences. Consider how, while many people around the I.I. will tell you they’re in desperate need of mentors, finding relevant mentoring for our fuzzy timelines remains a big challenge.
Additionally, when it comes to gaining experience as our own useful data, the very moderation that our self-categorization seems to call for acts as a restriction — more nos mean less data.
The other problem is logical. Both methods of gaining confidence present us with loops:
- Authority gives you confidence to act freely in an essentially non-free context (you may not be able to say no or get clean information, for instance) (LOOP8)
- The other loop is a catch 22 par excellence: you need to have confidence to go and gain the experience that gives you the confidence (LOOP9)
I told you it would get complicated…
When the always grumpy Theodor Adorno talked about pop music (spoiler: he hated it) he accidentally said something very interesting: when he argued that pop music, while seemingly producing distinct, fast-changing works of consumption, was in fact one big unpleasant blob, he likened us listeners to inmates of a prison where we have somehow forgotten about the cell-walls.
Now, we’re more than welcome to group-hate the Frankfurt School that Adorno belonged to, but we have to agree their takes on consumer art proved prescient in a much wider context, namely the future of freedom.
About this they were right: not encountering the walls because we don’t venture outside where they would impede us is not the same as removing or overcoming them.
A silent resistance is not a change of regime. Refraining from risky action is not a revolution. The only way to never offend anyone is to not speak to anyone... Just because you’re not trying to board an airplane where you would realize you don’t have a passport doesn’t mean you do have a passport. Etcetera.
Even if no one bothers the cellmate and he never walks up to touch his walls, he isn’t free to go, is he? What about the walls of others? Does he see those…? Meditating on our low-confidence shopping-around for restrictions takes us back, yet again, to communal self-categorization: to what degree do we need those we share our lives with to have chosen the same voluntary constraints as we did? How do we find these people? How do we find out if those we know have similar “comfort zones”? Aren’t we even more helplessly locked in if those around us never challenge our choices with their own, different ones?
Interestingly, there seems to exist a third way of gaining confidence to act, and that is through collective action. As individuals, we can reactively join movements that are already underway. It is not an individualist, fully proactive yes, but it does move the world toward something we might want, and that is better than a lonely no.
What makes this confidence-gaining method problematic is that, when combined with modular self-moderation, it can easily reduce us to bystanders. We observe a cacophony of available movements “out there”; we wait to see what other people do, and how many and how successful they are, before moving a finger.
But how can collective actions even begin to take off if we are but bystanders, waiting for someone else to decide what to do? And where does this “someone” get their confidence from? (LOOP10)
Are we looking to just react, and follow those who’d lead us with hubris or delusion?
I see no other way for us but to risk the catch 22: the only source a truly active, world-building “yes” can stem from is the confidence gained through personal experience. Contingency. The outside. Relying on our own freedom and flexibility — joining other risk-takers without fear. Trusting our own judgement.
A way to counter the blind following of hubris is by widening the circle of initiators in order to allow for healthy competition among them. Such an ongoing contest can clarify who the best are among us to take care of this community of us— and allow for experimentation for finding what community style befits the New Adult in the first place. A New Adult who is a co-creator of the categories that define their place and role in the community in which they live.
I don’t know about you but I refuse to be the bystander generation.
I refuse to see the best minds of my generation destroyed by the madness of inaction or quasi-action.
It would be such a waste!
You know what they say: no opportunity is lost; someone else will take it. We can’t turn our entire life into opportunity cost.
What we do need, in my view, is something like an “Isaiah Berlin Round Two”. A positive freedom, freedom as self-mastery, a series of affirmatives. Loud yeses for 2019.
Time spent alone wondering how to conform to or evade outdated categories for our life events and our worth — our rights and responsibilities — a mental overload that cannot by nature be shared, seems like time lost. The only fruits it bears is nos. Let me repeat: a hermit is of — limited — utility —
Our periscopes that probe the unknown are important for achieving our flexibility and freedom, but aren’t enough for helping us benefit from them too. Knowledge isn’t action just yet!
It is likely the case that our limited time and space on Earth as individuals, as heirs of the times and spaces created and left behind by those that came before us, can only be spent usefully by continuing the creation of more time and space with and for others. By expanding communities, value, knowledge and wealth.
That’s what our flexibility and freedom are for. That is why we found it in ourselves, and that is what it should be put in service of.
Making new stuff is risky. You might fail. You might hurt yourself. Yet there is a good chance that continuous action — life-as-action —will ensure there will be newer and newer choices coming up, facing which we will sometimes make good decisions, which in turn will multiply value for everyone.
Should we dare disturb the universe — increase the contingency? Therein lies the experience, the data, which will keep on giving us confidence . Therein await all the people with whom we can share it. Isn’t this the opposite of the loss which we fear so?
The truth is what holds us back from reaching this confident fantasy is that yeses can be absolutely horrifying. (Poor aforementioned Kierkegaard could tell you a lot about it!) Yeses seem to commit us to decisions and their outcomes, and do this in front of other people, influencing their opinion of us. Conscious of this we feel that while making proactive choices flexibly and freely as self-masters we might be reducing our options and thus our very flexibility and freedom as self-masters. (LOOP11)
And so, finally, this brings us face to face with the beast. Let’s look at where a bystander-adulthood would take us.
In his much-discussed lecture Two Concepts of Liberty, the political theorist Isaiah Berlin said: “I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer…”
The core motivation in his version of positive liberty is to act freely in the physical world (as opposed to just “not being forced to do things”). Remarkably, the dark side of self-determination, to Berlin, was not anarchy, but authoritarian oppression. The possibility that a desire for self-mastery can turn into a drive to master others in a kind of Animal Farm scenario.
Reading his words 50 years later, in my modular, 21st century state of being, in a society where many of us are driven to reduce our options step by step with nos and passive yeses as a way of minimizing clashes with other people’s self-definition and of figuring out our own, I see another, new, dark side: our self-mastery leading to self-oppression.
It’s as if in absence of external pressures (authorities that would categorize us collectively) — instead of wisely choosing for ourselves the minimal constraints that could help us to be more productive and collaborative — fearing an encounter with the world as the will of impersonalized others, we chose to do the job of oppressing us ourselves.
While self-oppression may originate in perfect liberty, the resulting state of our being may not differ too much from an oppression exerted on us from outside. If LOOP11 was about fearing to make irreversible decisions the same way as we fear we might democratically elect a dictator, the fact that we achieve the same result all by ourselves against ourselves is quite astounding.
Like any oppressive system, self-oppression stifles our creativity, weakens individual courage, damages language, loosens cooperation, undoes trust, cools lust, and stops us from entering the avenues that would lead to the formation of critical masses indispensable for achieving large-scale progress.
Self-oppressed individuals can neither cooperate nor individually create in a sustainable way. If everybody withdraws behind their periscopes how do you find partners for your actions? Mutual checks and balances for your values? How will you be propelled to build and nurture if you can’t envision those you’d be building for and nurturing?
The most devastating loop is this: a world of nos is not only lonely, but infertile. Not eating the plants doesn’t equal planting new ones. There’s “no water but only rock”…
Not bringing things into the world — partnerships, ideas, businesses, works of art, children — which we’re then responsible for individually and collaboratively, and proud of, out of fear or out of disliking the ideas, businesses, etc., which appeared available for us to passively join, is the single most perfectly and pointlessly un-adult non-act there is. (LOOP12) And we all do this feeling very grownup about it.
It is life as Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine.
I like to walk up and down in my house, sometimes vividly talking to myself until I hear my own logical inconsistencies, and I like to sit around and have imaginary conversations with people I admire and whose views and points I’d love to listen to. I want to talk to Berlin tonight; explain to him what’s going on and tell him about my DYI theories about it.
I would tell him that my friends and I are filled with good intentions. Idealism. Strength. Good data from useful experience. That we really like each other. But also that we are lost in a series of identity loops to the point where we feel we can neither help ourselves nor others. I would tell Berlin that this is an illusion. That we’re wrong. That these loops can be ignored: they are merely rhetorical.
That in fact most roads in history were built as people were travelling on them. That you can start without confidence because there will be plenty of information from Step1 on. That you can trust that others have similar fundamental values as you and connect with them outside old-timey categories…
Berlin would probably ask: So what’s the problem?
And, quite sadly, I would tell him this:
We were born into a world gradually freeing itself from the categories along which people that came before us used to live their life and evaluate — and improve — it.
That my generation got this pretty rough homework of figuring out a life outside such categories. That it made us withdraw from the arena where things happen, from each other, and busy ourselves with all the things that we aren’t and that we don’t want to do.
I’d tell him we found our cold comfort in self-moderation; in extending and fortifying our lonely comfort zones. I’d tell him we went too far until important parts of our lives started to look like we’re living in a prison of authoritarianism. That of our own.
And I would tell him this self-oppression is stopping us from working together — which would be the only way to keep alive the system of freedom which gave us our category-less lives and our chances for self-reinvention in the first place!
I’d tell him that the twelve loops of adulthood which make our individual lives so difficult add up to one big and much more sinister loop for us as a society.
I’d tell him I don’t see how our collective freedom can be preserved and expanded unless we as individuals figure out how to live, think, and make choices mindful of that goal. Unless we somehow learn how to productively interact above categories in order to achieve and sustain it, everyday, and then pass down this ambition to those that will come after us.
He would probably allow me to repeat: no — opportunity — is — lost — If the individual over-controls him- or herself as opposed to creating a world in which they are an active participant, then, well, someone else will come and do it for you.
To put it in another way: if we don’t claim our adulthood in no uncertain terms, if we don’t require others to accept it, with us being ready to accept theirs, then our claims to the flexibility and freedom that allowed us to be confused about it in the first place will be impossible to defend.
The wild at heart, kept in stages
My generation roams vast geographies on social media and in video games. It wants to be slim, khaki and inoffensive. It wants to feel it has resisted the temptations of the messy, dirty, loud and unpredictable work of building physical civilizations.
But I want us to stop being so afraid. So wary of each other. So blasé! So busy pretending we don’t care…
I want us to want to be more than what we don’t want; what we don’t eat and don’t wear and don’t ride and don’t say.
Let me repeat: “no”— does not equal — purpose —
I want you to come out and play.
Play in and with the real world.
You want to!
You know that passivity will never magically produce great things. Our hard work does. Our yeses do.
If you’ve got to this point in this essay, you’re already looking for a way!
So go and plant new stuff in your garden.
Accept that internship.
Start writing that book.
While you might see your yeses as a narrowing of your decision tree, what they really do is widen it after each affirmative choice. Only nos lead nowhere! As we have seen before, what every one of your yeses does is open up new series of events awaiting you with even more chances for choice, and for encounters between you and others.
I know, I know — the idea that the only responsible choice as a free adult is saying yes to more responsibility, that there could be an increase in the number of our choices by making (closing) choices, seems like “LOOP13”. But it is an unlikely nonparadox. It is an opening. The opening! It’s the erotics of art over the hermeneutics of it; it’s what Berlin would tell you to do today.
Adulthood isn’t about nos — that is probably adolescence. Adolescents can define themselves through what they reject because they are in a waiting stage. But you, you don’t have to wait for anything anymore.
For you, the adult, every yes decision you make leads to more bifurcations in your decision tree. The commitments that you fear would lock you down in fact open up exponential numbers of choices. Yeses create possibilities. Jobs, relationships, wealth, dialogue — new human beings.
If you want to adult via shaping your world with your choices, then this exponential increase in the number of your choices is the thing that you want. That’s the currency you want to trade with. That’s the feeding of the multitude!
Communities accept those who come with yeses. Collaborators trust doers. Life-partners trust responsibility-takers. Dream, plan, build, and then take care of your creation — that’s the universal recipe for gathering the troops.
You are safe in openly expressing your freedom and your flexibility because they can’t be taken away from you — the same way as your rights and responsibilities can’t. Don’t let the world lose out on you.
It is through these events of individual risk-taking that we will establish the new communities in which individuals can thrive. It will be an infinite game of shared self-categorization, tolerant of both self and others.
When I first emigrated to London I had a brilliant yoga teacher at my university. In the most unbalanced positions, when you’ve been standing on one leg since forever and you’re feeling you’re just about to fall on your face, she would say: “Yoga is about integrity in the instability.” I was immediately taken by this notion. It was everything I’d come to feel about life!
Integrity in the instability is a partnership between the agent and the world, an active acceptance of the self as part of what is external, and an ambition to master both. It’s the opposite of separating a periscope-like consciousness from and raising it “above" the disorder — a separation that would inevitably be into loneliness (as other people are also part of the “disorder”, and we need them as they need us). It’s the balance of a new togetherness, a whole.
So take a deep breath and say yes. It’s going to be alright.
Global Grownups (An epilogue)
Achieving personal fulfilment in our individual and communal lives is a great and important goal in itself. But when you take a moment to look at the bigger scale where decisive events unfold, you understand another, crucial, necessity. In Western societies, where we see ourselves as heirs of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, of the Enlightenment and liberal democracy, of freedoms of conscience, speech and press, we like to think of our self-governance as one of adults.
Yet in the past years we have experienced a new wave of political confusion over what it means to be an adult citizen. Many things are being questioned again which we thought belonged to the childhood of our national communities: to what degree do we long for parental control and intervention from our leaders, to what degree do we reject the very institutions we built, to what degree can we forget that we have already, successfully, emancipated ourselves from the superstitious shackles of the past.
The building of walls which we may have resorted to in our individual lives manifests on this higher scale too — a modular self-oppression within borders, a shutting down of avenues in the international co-operations that allowed us to establish and maintain those borders in the first place. There is a new occupation of self by self on the level of individual nations — what we hear is the nos made possible by liberty but which diminish liberty.
Nietzsche and Tolkien were pretty sure we have either killed God or driven the magical creatures away so we can establish a world of — adult — Men. That we have, thanks to the sweat and blood of those we’re heirs of, entered an era of infinite possibility, independent agency, flexibility and freedom; an ongoing chance for self-determination.
It would be an unthinkable loss not to see this unique, abundant, in every way increasable and expandable, present taken care of in shared responsibility by us, equal participants.
A recap of the twelve identity loops, Leonard Cohen style:
- There’s no going back from that flexibility and that freedom — it is fixed (LOOP1).
- The mass displacement of milestones — their loss — is compensated by the unprecedented new possibility that caused it. (LOOP2)
- If we have to initiate ourselves, having authorized ourselves to, is the resulting crossing valid in the first place? Do you accept the self-initialization of others? (LOOP3)
- What do the New Adults do in absence of the categories that could make them adults? (LOOP4)
- What happens when we’re both building the road and walking down on it? (LOOP5)
- Life-stages are relative and so if everyone is only comparable to themselves, will it remain a near-impossible task to negotiate the concessions any collaboration of equal participants asks for? This is problematic since “equal participant” is synonymous with “adult”. (LOOP6)
- If our generation’s interpretation of freedom and flexibility only leads to negation, then we will miss out on both of them. (LOOP7)
- Authority gives you confidence to act freely in an essentially non-free context (you may not be able to say no or get clean information, for instance). (LOOP8)
- You need to have confidence to go and gain the experience that gives you the confidence. (LOOP9)
- How can collective actions begin to take off if we are bystanders, waiting for someone else to decide what to do? Where does this “someone” get their confidence from? (LOOP10)
- We feel that while making proactive choices flexibly and freely as self-masters we might be reducing our options and thus our very flexibility and freedom as self-masters. (LOOP11)
- Not bringing things into the world — partnerships, ideas, businesses, works of art, children — is the single most perfectly and pointlessly un-adult non-act there is. And we all do this feeling very grownup about it. It would be life as Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine. (LOOP12)