How do I become an adult?

I missed the memo on how to grow up

By Cary Tennis
Published September 30, 2009 7:07AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've had a pretty fortunate life and I was born with a number of positive qualities and talents, but as I get older I seem to do them less and less justice. I don't know how to bring out the best in myself and it scares me. School was always easy for me (though looking back, I was not always very engaged with it) and as result I went to a top university and did well there, discovering on my graduation day that I had been in the top tier of my class.

But after that I began to feel like there was some kind of memo on adulthood that I missed. I'm in my mid-20s and while the people I grew up with are in grad school or making lots of money or contributing something useful to society, I am working as an assistant in a small office that is tangentially related to what I'm interested in (I have a passion in life, even if it's not important to mainstream society and there's no clear path to following it) and feeling relieved that I can pay rent every month. Not only that, but I'm a terrible assistant. My boss is very nice and gives me enough rope to hang myself and that's apparently what I've decided to do. It's gotten to the point where I spend most of my days daydreaming or learning about random things online, and no one seems to notice how little I work. I feel very guilty about this, which you think logically would make me want to stop, and I do, but then I just don't. I continue to indulge in escapism. Every day there's this kind of a struggle between the part of me that knows that it's wrong to be letting my personal issues affect other people, and the part of me that says, Who gives a shit? Why does any of this even matter?

I have let it break down my mental state over the course of the past year and while I have been maintaining a positive social life, lately I have been having trouble doing basic things like sleeping and eating. I have tried many things to reverse the tides -- reading self-help books, starting up yoga, seeing a therapist (he's helpful, but busy), taking antidepressants and quitting, taking stimulants and quitting. While I feel like these things sort of make me able to hang on and shift the weight of things around on a day-by-day basis, I can't tell if I'm getting anywhere. I've successfully overcome two depressive episodes in the past and I know a lot about positive psychology, but trying to become a student of it right now feels like spreading a veneer of platitudes over a "True Blood"-esque maenad-induced darkness that seems to keep cropping up in my life and getting the better of me.

The thing is, I don't think that pushing away the darkness is the right answer. Perhaps I'm misguided in thinking this, but I have this impression that I have to go inside it and find out whatever is in there, and -- strangle it? Chase it away? Pour boiling water over it? I don't know because I can't see what it is!

Anyway, I feel ashamed of myself because I know I could contribute good things to the world, but right now I'm not, and in fact, I feel like I'm on the path to becoming a detractor. Instead of putting things out into the world I let myself succumb to the seduction of my imagination, where everything is better and easier and more comfortable and yet more thrilling at the same time. I know I need to work harder on the thing that I'm passionate about but I feel like all this BS is clouding my ability to. I'm writing you this letter today because I've written a hundred letters to you in my head and, ugh, well, it's a step. Any suggestions?

The Maenad

Dear Maenad,

So here you are, a remarkable individual, talented, passionate, seeking your unique place in the world. Meanwhile you are wasting away as an office assistant and finding for some strange reason you do not seem to feel vitally engaged. As you enter this crisis of soul, what are the "responsible adults" around you doing? Giving you pills? How very helpful.

There was indeed a memo on adulthood that you missed. You are getting it right now. Your distress is the memo. Adulthood -- or your fate, shall we say -- is staring you in the face, like a tiger that has crept up on you in the night. It is looking at you, wondering, When should I devour this child? Is it time?

You open your eyes in terror. The tiger looks at its watch.

Being devoured by the tiger that is adulthood is not so bad. The tiger eats you, digests you and drops you on the forest floor, not as a turd but as a cocoon. When you awaken and find the strength to break your shell, you emerge, eventually, as an adult and an apprentice.

You are transformed in the belly of the tiger. You are remade.

At least, that is my fanciful reimagining of the system of human transformation and growth articulated in the book "Nature and the Human Soul," by Bill Plotkin. (I tell you, I am at present possessed by this book!)

"The process of becoming a true adult," says Plotkin, "is the process of coming to know one's ultimate place as an individual." You have to know what he means by "place." By "place" he sort of means soul; or, that is, by "soul" he sort of means "place." Or, well, look, get this book and read it and see if you can find yourself in it. But I warn you: He also says, "A person must be psychospiritually prepared for the underworld journey, the descent to soul ... Embarking on the journey unprepared is particularly risky and likely to result in failure."

It is time to start wandering, as Plotkin would say. It is time to seek that one place where you uniquely belong.

My guess is that your great passion will guide you. Your great passion may not be the thing itself that you seek; perhaps your great passion is a vessel for the thing itself. You do not tell us what this passion is -- perhaps to say its name desecrates it. Since you cannot say the name of this thing you seek, you must go and seek it by wandering, not knowing how to get where you are going, but going nevertheless.

So that is the mystery I propose to you. I cannot do much more. For though I'm 56 years old, in the scheme of human development that Plotkin proposes, I myself am basically still in adolescence.

It is a humbling realization but explains much -- like my choice of clothes.

Adolescent though I may be, I think I can honestly assert this: Your problems are not of your making. You are being asked to live a meaningless life, and when you have trouble adjusting to this meaningless life, they give you pills to make the symptoms go away.

I find that scenario chilling. My generation was unhappy but no one claimed we needed pills. The World War II generation that looked on us with horror wanted to beat the crap out of us but they did not assume we needed psychological help, or that we were pathological. They thought we were crazy, narcissistic, ungrateful fools but they did not try to give us drugs. We did not grow up in a therapeutic culture; we grew up in a war culture. Many of us were destroyed by what we perceived as a war on us by our parents' generation; many of us descended to the underworld prematurely and failed. Many of us became addicts of one sort or another.

And a great many of us remained adolescents, unable to earn the respect of our offspring, passing on to our children only the lessons of our own protracted adolescence.

To sum up: You know what time it is. The tiger knows what time it is, too. It is time for you to become an adult. But you do not know how to do it. Of course you don't know how to do it! You are not really supposed to know how to do it.  The way you learn how to do it is by wandering. But you also need to find a guide. I suggest that guides are available, perhaps through the network of people in Mr. Plotkin's world. I do not know. I have just begun to look into this.

One thing Plotkin proposes is that nature itself holds many answers; if you cannot find a guide, you may find some provisional direction in your connection to nature itself. I suggest you take a look at Plotkin's book, and set out in a westerly direction.

How to become adults? Page 251 has a little bit to say on that -- and 319, and 127 ...

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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