Although I’ve found many beautiful things about growing up, maturing, and becoming more settled in who I am and what I value, there are times that I still question my “progress” within the benchmarks that are set by mainstream society.
To me, maturity is a shifting and growing in-depth understanding of ourselves, how we operate in relation to others, and how our past experiences and traumas influence our feelings, attitudes, and actions.
According to society’s unspoken rules, someone of my age should be going out every weekend, getting married, establishing a successful, progressing career, etc. But what if my behavior doesn’t match what society has defined as growing up? What if I end up being a 65-year-old who has had the same, linear job for decades? Will the world fall into shambles?
Here are some of the expected steps/rites of passage, spoken and unspoken, of “growing up” that aren’t so much for me.
1.“Grow Up” as “Get Over It”
As it turns out, the words “grow up” can actually stunt one’s maturity, self-expression, and personal transformation.
In my younger years – as is the case for many of us – I heard the words “grow up” only in negative contexts: from bullies who would tell me to “grow up,” as a way to keep me from expressing emotion, etc.
When we’re told to “grow up” in response to our emotions – whether it be sadness, silliness, anger, etc. – it suggests that to be mature, we have to bottle up what it is we’re feeling to make it easier. It also suggests that adulthood is the place where emotions are easier to deal with, and we spend much of our lives trying to get to that place, ignoring our feelings in the process.
It’s important that we learn ways to hold our own emotions, but sometimes when we’re told to “get over” something, the message that hear is that it’d be better if we not have them at all.
What if the words “grow up” instead meant that we sit with our emotions, explore where they came from, and find ways to comfort ourselves? What if we were taught from an early age to honor the moods and emotions that we have and to care for them, rather than push them down?
2. That “Professionalism” Thing
“So Michal, when are you getting your doctorate?” Dang, can I get a break from the last degree?
Many of us have grown accustomed to these types of questions from family during the holidays – they want to know what we’re up to, who we’re with, when we’re having children, etc.
Much of what I’ve come to understand “growing up” or “acting my age” to mean is within the context of defining my worth in a capitalist, racist, patriarchal “democracy.” Meaning, if I don’t produce and compete a certain amount, I am not growing, and I am not worthy of recognition.
To me, having a lifelong passion has always been more important than a lifelong career, mostly because I was told early on that my true passions had no bearing in reality – if I could not make money with them, they were not worth pursuing.
And what U.S. society defines as “age appropriate” or “professional” is often connected to notions of privilege and whiteness. For instance, “speaking properly” is both related to culture and education, where “properly” almost always means a certain class, educational status, etc. But you could have a “perfect” English, colonized vocabulary and still not know who you are or what you value.
“Maturity” should not be associated with external status like what kind of job you have or what kind of car you drive – it runs deeper than these capitalist notions.
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3. “You’re Too Young To Understand”
There are certain things that I have learned with age, and many more that I will continue to learn along the way. I’ve had to look into my past to see certain patterns and repair the wounds of time.
And yet, I think there’s a significant difference between gaining more knowledge over time, and assuming that age is synonymous with maturity.
When my pops used to tell me that I was “too young” to understand something, I’d go into a silent fit of rage. His intentions were to protect me from certain experiences, but he (and countless other well-meaning adults) added to the voices of self-doubt that had been stacking up in my few (r)evolutions around the sun.
What I was searching for was someone to ask me questions, to get me to examine why I thought or felt the way I did, not to discourage me because of my physical age.
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The ageist assumption that children and younger people are “too young” to understand life, love, etc. is too simple. Life experiences – not solely physical age – heavily influence our survival strategies and maturity – some people have lived many, many lives on this earth (and some before!) And more importantly, to see adults as the only holders of knowledge actually stunts our own growth.
I look into the eyes of my eight-year-old brother and find more wisdom and pureness than anywhere else. When I am present enough, he teaches me how to love my fully, how to fall into fits of excessive silliness, and how to put my full heart into things that I love.
If I believe that only one age group of (older) people can be my teacher, what lessons am I missing?
[Feature Image: A framed photo of a person wearing a donkey’s head. They are wearing a red dress and are sitting on a bed. The walls are wood paneled. The window is covered in red curtains. There are stuffed toys on the bed. Source: j-No]