Where Have the Adults Gone? – May 22, 2011

It’s a popular notion that American popular culture has fallen apart and become an embarrassment to a nation that claims superpower status. It’s also widely known that we have become a culture that celebrates youth, even as our population itself is aging. Amid all this dissonance, I look around and wonder, where have all the adults gone?

Some time ago I read in a movie review1 the lament that young people used to go to the movie theater to find out how adults behave. You watched Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy trade banter to see how adults interact verbally. You watched Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to see them interact sexually. You learned something about playfulness and seriousness, but you also learned about honesty and honor.

In Key Largo, when Bogart backs down before Edward G. Robinson’s gangster and is offered the face-saving notion that he must have known the gun in his hand was unloaded, because of its weight, he admits that, no, he didn’t know. That’s an adult speaking, acknowledging a painful truth. Imagine any one of our modern young actors facing up to a moment of hesitation and fear. The teenage bravado currently portrayed by men in their twenties and thirties—the twinkling grin of Leonardo DiCaprio comes to mind—won’t let them. Their shtick is all about “attitude.”

Women don’t have it any better. We see a clutch of actresses in their thirties and forties—epitomized by the perennially hopeful Jennifer Aniston—playing boy-girl dating games. They’re still trying to find love at an age when most people’s hormones are under control and they are going about the serious business of building lives and raising families.

The characters and values shown in the movies can’t help but affect real people.

In recent years I’ve heard several professional women in their mid-thirties refer to their “boyfriends.” The word always causes me to do a psychological double-take, because it’s diction I last heard in high school, along with “going steady” and “heavy petting.” Mature women have husbands, or they speak discreetly of their friends and sometimes of their lovers: men they have chosen as their own, not pretend relationships that are still on trial and probably due for a tearful breakup.

I see men and women both adopting the attitudes of rebellion and rage against society. The movie hero today is invariably a loner with special access to information about corruption and conspiracy, beset on all sides by doubters and the minions of a foolish and stagnant social order.2 That makes for a good story line, and inevitably the hero or heroine wins.3 But it’s just the leitmotif of teenage rebellion.

Rebellion is good for young people. It’s how they separate themselves from their childhood backgrounds and grow. Rebellion is the essence of making new choices for oneself. But like any part of growing up, there’s a time to rebel and a time to put away rebellion, pick up your spear, and join the tribe as a member that others can depend on. Having made your choices, you decide to live with them. Real choices have consequences.

But continual churning, rebelling for its own sake, and complaining at age thirty or forty that the society you live in is a corrupt place not worth your allegiance—that’s a fantasy. Like putting the men in your life on trial as boyfriends, pretend lovers, instead of trusted partners. Worse, continuing the rebellion and adopting the attitude of alienation are an admission of powerlessness: you are unable to change conditions where you can with strength and bravery, and unable to accept conditions as they are with grace and wisdom. Adults make the world and live in it.4

The result of all this movie fantasy we can see in real people delaying the choices that adults make and stick with: committing to a wife or husband, a career, a course of action. All around us are grown children, ending the decade of their twenties and entering their thirties, who are still in school, still dating and trying to find “the one,” still sampling lifestyles and opportunities, still undecided about the direction of their lives. As if they had all the time in the world.

On the one hand, this looks like freedom. You’re not bound yet; you haven’t made a final choice; you’re not required to stand and die for anything. On the other hand, it looks like emptiness.5 Though our culture may celebrate the lone wolf and the rogue elephant, those are both highly social animals who have rejected their pack and herd. The loner doesn’t build society or much of anything. The loner is seldom remembered as a staunch friend, a benefactor, a parent.

So what does it mean to be an adult? I like the definition Robert A. Heinlein gave: someone who knows he’s going to die.6

When you accept—fully, completely, internally, soberly—that you will one day cease to exist, that the temporary reversal of entropy which is life is not a perpetual motion machine, that you are not special, that where everyone else has gone, you too will go, then you change.

If your days are numbered, then you don’t have all the time in the world to decide what kind of life to live, whom to bond with, how to make your mark. Creating meaning in your life and then fulfilling it is a long, slow process for any human. Best to be on your way and moving forward.

For some, this realization is a darkness, a deep hole to be avoided. They react in one of two ways. Either life is meaningless because it will inevitably end; so live for today, gather the rosebuds, stuff your face, and shut your eyes. Or life is so precious that every minute must be preserved; so guard against misadventure, worry about every cough, avoid spicy foods, and avert your eyes.

Either path is a mistake. Because life is limited and sure to end one day, make it count. You can’t go on forever, but you can build something, write something, paint something, raise children and grandchildren, make a stronger society, help your friends, right a wrong, vanquish a lie. Then something bigger and better than you will go on.

It’s this understanding that enables soldiers to go off to war, police officers and fire fighters to walk in the path of trouble, and women to undertake the risks and pains of childbirth. Each in his or her own way accepts that sacrifice may be necessary to live a complete life. What is precious must be risked in order to achieve greater reward.

Those are the deep stories that touch us most: where bravery and sacrifice, love and loss, tell us what it is to be human. Ephemeral, yes, but with some consequence that is everlasting.

1. I’d like to cite a reference here, but this one is lost in the gigabits.

2. When was the last time you saw a police officer, and especially an FBI agent, portrayed as a good guy? Maybe in The Silence of the Lambs. Today they’re all overblown goons in uniform or in dark suits who haven’t yet gotten the word that society is a cesspit and the only option is out.

3. At one time in my writing career, I studied screenplays, thinking they might be a market for me. While every movie story has three acts—hero’s routine life suddenly changes; hero fights against all odds to recover or correct the situation; hero discovers solution to problem and/or achieves vindication—the structure is, in English-major speak, that of a traditional Greek or Roman comedy. The hero is tested and may be inconvenienced, but his losses are temporary and restored in the end. The movie business abhors a true tragedy, where the hero is brought low, loses something that cannot be restored—a wife, a family, personal honor, belief in God—and learns a deeper truth through this suffering. Movie heroes experience suffering, but they do not grow. And the complete consequences of their choices are never realized.

4. I am reminded of the Union leaders after the disastrous first day at Shiloh. General William T. Sherman said to the commander, “Tough day today, Grant.” And Ulysses S. Grant responded, “Yes, but we’ll whip ’em tomorrow.” They could remain steadfast in adversity.

5. Janis Joplin sang in “Me and Bobby McGee” that “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Having nothing to lose means there’s not much you care about or stand for. While that kind of emptiness might be the goal of a Zen master … who actually trusts and depends on Zen masters? They, too, stand outside of society and the business of living.

6. I believe this was in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, but I can’t find the reference. More gigabits of overload.