My father recently turned sixty-five, which is the conventionally accepted retirement age here in the UK. He has no plans to actually stop working, but he has already quit his life-long career in the motor trade, in pursuit of a simpler, less stressful existence.
A few months ago, he called me, telling me of his plan to bring his career to a close and find something else to do. I listened with interest as he made the case for his decision. He seemed to have thought everything through quite thoroughly, and I assumed that he was going into detail just because he was nervous about the boldness of the move, and wanted to reassure himself.
Then he asked me if I thought it was a good idea.
My response was presumably coherent, because the conversation continued without incident, but I don’t remember what I said. I was too busy processing the sudden sense of panic.
I had no problem with being asked my opinion - I have, or can manufacture, an opinion on just about anything - but it’s a different matter entirely to be asked whether a major life decision is a good idea or not. It’s the implicit sense that you somehow know better, and that the decision may hinge on your approval.
He’s my father, and it seems that the tables had turned: now he was coming to me for advice, instead of the other way around. An invisible threshold had apparently been passed, and the rules had changed. I’d have expected to get a letter in the mail, perhaps from the government, calmly outlining this new situation and what would be required of me.
I felt a sudden pressure to somehow be wise, which of course brought the immediate realisation that I actually have no idea what I’m doing. I can’t see the future. I can’t advise a sixty-five-year-old man about his career choices, no matter how rationally and carefully I consider his situation and weigh the options. It was terrifying. I was completely unprepared.
I think my advice was reasonable, and he seemed to think so too, because he went ahead with it. I felt like I’d narrowly escaped having my bluff called.
I had encountered one of the transition points in life, where our authority changes overnight. Parenthood is of course the primary one, turning a scared, clueless proto-adult into a trusted expert on all subjects in the course of just a handful of years. That’s a pleasure I’ve yet to experience. Another, earlier, example is the magical attaining of the age of majority in your own culture: suddenly you can be trusted with all the responsibilities and privileges that society can bestow upon you, as the clock ticks past midnight on some arbitrary anniversary of your birth.
Those two examples are both of the same type: they’re an abrupt assumption of maturity. The third one - the one I experienced - is slightly different. I felt that a mantle had been passed, and to the wrong person. There was an element of guilt to it, along with the nerves. I’d somehow supplanted my own father’s position, which he’d willingly handed to me. It’s one thing to tell a credulous child how the universe works, but it’s quite another to offer advice to someone who has had far more life experience than I have.
The obvious lesson is that no-one is actually wiser, in the true sense of the word. We can offer advice not because we’re more experienced, but just because we’re a little less inexperienced. We’ve played this particular level before, even though we’re still stuck on the next one. That’s a profound and unsettling realisation.
I’m someone who has never laid claim to adulthood. I enjoy its privileges, but inwardly I’m certainly still a child. I’ve given to petulance and puerility, and flights of wistful fantasy. I still fly in my dreams, and have never stopped feeling vaguely like I’ve been truant from high school.
I don’t even feel that I’ve made any progress in terms of maturity. I go through each day putting on a confident face, setting my shoulders square, making lots of eye contact, enunciating carefully, and waiting for someone to (finally) ask if they can perhaps speak to one of my parents instead. I’m thirty-five years old, and I’m a married man.
My father’s question forced me to reconsider my own position as an adult, and then to consider your position too - because we’re all in the same boat. You didn’t receive that book of wisdom either, and that’s no coincidence. There wasn’t a problem with the mail. You and I weren’t unlucky: there’s just no book. And by direct consequence, in our most secret hearts, there are no adults either.
Consider that for a moment. The people who run the country. The trusted holders of the launch codes. The fighter pilots. The economists. The surgeons. The diplomats. The shapers of young minds. The politicians, and the police officers, and the plumbers. The parents, and their children who have all grown up. Every one of them, still a child inside. It’s a frightening thought, but after a moment it also gains a sort of clownish wonder, doesn’t it? It’s like a grand pantomime, with everyone taking themselves ever so seriously.
We’re all pretending, all the time. Putting on our suits, picking up our car keys, and going forth into the world. Humming the theme from that cartoon we used to watch, and sometimes missing our mothers. We are all unprepared, just as I was for my father’s earnest question.
That particular experience changed me a little, I think. I felt I had better pull my socks up and at least strive for some measure of faux-sageness. I wouldn’t want to let him down, after all. And so I try.
Perhaps that’s all that maturity actually is, and ever has been: suddenly caring about how damned immature you know you actually are, and really not wanting to be found out on it.
I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.
This article originally appeared in issue 26 of The Loop Magazine. I also have an article (on how dissatisfaction gave me permission to want to improve things) in issue 27, out now.
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