What would I say if asked to define a grown-up? When I was a kid I had a view. Grown-ups were sophisticated. They looked good. Had lots of different clothes. Wore makeup. Smelled different. Got to do all sorts of cool things. Such as drive a car. Have their own money. Spend it as they liked. Go out at night. Stay up as long as they wanted. There were inside jokes. Nods across my head. Laughter when I thought I’d asked a good question that left me confused and hoping I would get it when I was older. And then there was the mystery of work - what did they do all day? And most of all, the fact that they got to tell me what to do. Shouldn’t be questioned. Were the final answer on everything. A place of safety. Where I could go for comfort and reassurance. Rest in the knowledge that they had everything in hand.
But now I am a grown up – and my childhood self would say I’m pretty old – I have come to realise that grownups today aren’t fulfilling all the roles that are needed. Our behaviour is more focused on the things I wanted from being a grownup when I was young. It’s about having what I want when I want it. About looking good. Smelling good. Feeling good. Right in this moment. Regardless of what might come next. In the words of Quanita Roberson, we are living in an adolescent culture. One where we have all the power and privilege but aren’t taking the responsibility on the flip side of that coin.
We are on the hedonic treadmill. Living from moment to moment. Pushing discomfort away by buying one more shiny thing. Having one more drink. Working one more hour. Scrolling and liking and sharing. Hoping people will like and share me too. Still filled with the existential angst that comes with teenage years. Not knowing who you are. What your purpose is beyond you and your immediate family’s immediate desires. Worrying about whether you’re good enough. Have enough to be secure. Measure up to those around you. Are well thought of. Living with the unnerving knowledge that life is short and precious and we have no idea what comes next. Just under the surface. We don’t want to think about that. Unless we can believe in an afterlife, or reincarnation – then we do. Whatever it takes to make the dread go away.
It strikes me as odd that acceptance of the cycles of life are so far beyond our comfort zones. Other cultures see and saw death all around. Connected with ancestors. Recognised that one day they too will be ancestors. Saw the honour in being a grown-up. Holding the responsibility to bridge the past, the present and the future. Nurturing and protecting. Celebrating. Grieving. Sharing the stories, rituals and wisdom that will help the next generation to thrive. Then accepting when it’s time to become and elder. Helping others build the next level of wisdom for the next level of challenges that will inevitably come. And enjoy the love and respect of their community because people appreciate that time and experience matter. They know things. They have seen it before.
As a former nurse, I have been privileged and humbled to share the last few days, weeks and months of people’s lives. Care for elders when their bodies and minds began to fail them. And I always wanted to listen and learn. See how people face into the realities of life coming to an end with dignity and courage. So that hopefully, when my time comes, I will be able to. I want to feel like I am ‘all used up’. Have made the most of this short but incredible life. And even though I know there will be sadness and fear, will be able to celebrate how lucky I am to have lived at all and give way gracefully.
And I watch young people protest about how we grownups are letting their future go to the dogs. Keeping up the exhausting frenzy of work and consumption – if you’re lucky. Seeing more and more people fall into poverty as our economy becomes ever more efficient at weeding out pesky labour and funneling wealth upwards. Experiencing the effects of breaking life support systems across our planet – fires, floods, storms. Freshwater now salty. Soil no longer producing nutritious food. Air, water, land poisoned. Exhausted. By us.
Which makes me wonder – how do we become proper grownups that take responsibility for the results of our actions? Ones who integrate the Haudenosaunee 7th Generation principle into every decision we make. Expand that to include generations far away from us in space, as well as time – considering the wellbeing of those who are the seventh step away from me in the supply chains of the goods and services I buy. Realise the interconnectedness of life. Of suffering. Of hope. Of health. And take satisfaction from our participation in life in all its fullness for our allotted time. Relish getting older, rather than pining for youth. Extract ourselves from the way of life we have built that is making us sick and miserable. Putting all the gains in science, art, culture at risk as we discover the truth that it’s the last doubling of an exponential growth curve that really counts.
I don’t know the answers. But I believe they lie in our culture. How we view ourselves and our place in the world. And I am determined to ask questions. Push others to ask them too. For if we can’t even question what is and try to create something better when we know it’s killing us, then we truly are in a dire place. And that is far from OK.