The myth of adulthood

I recently attended my fortieth high school reunion. I lived in the same small town for the first 18 years of my life; consequently I’ve known a number of people at the reunion since nursery school and kindergarten. Being 3,000 miles away from my birthplace in New York, I’ve lost touch with most of those I knew at five or six, and getting together with them again after all these years was quite moving.

Before the gloss and shine of adolescent personality, let alone so-called adult sophistication is established, our young childhood experience is one of freshness, openness and vulnerability. Such youthful joy is spontaneous and unrestrained by embarrassment; hurt feelings are more immediate and our tearful response is just as quick. In the very young, time itself does not exist conceptually; it is imposed later through parental discipline and routine. And, most significantly, as small children our hearts are completely wide open. In childhood we fall in love every day. We fall in love with the wind in our faces. We fall in love with the sound of autumn leaves beneath our feet. We fall in love with each other. We fall in love with life itself.

Unsurprisingly then, there is something uniquely rich about the friendships and relationships that we establish in childhood. More primal than mere memories, we internalize the experiences of childhood friends, and these imprinted moments capture the essence of the friends we make. Established long before our intellect begins to judge and discriminate on the basis of habitual views and attitudes, such impressions never leave us. And inside each of us, beneath the aggregated layers of justifications and stubbornly held beliefs about ourselves and the world, our essential nature as human beings sits undisturbed and pure, a perfect unspoiled jewel.

Our adult lives are so filled with worry, obsession, craving and anger that it’s difficult to find that soft and open childlike part of ourselves. And often, when we do experience it, we run from it as quickly as we can; it’s too vulnerable, too exposed, too raw. And yet it is precisely what draws us to the tasty and the beautiful, its natural curiosity propels us to explore, and its acute sensitivity protects us.

Of course, by now my early childhood friends have at most only a passing resemblance to their very early selves. Foreheads creased, hair gray or gone, bodies thick or painfully thin, faces lifted or sagging: all betray the reality of gravity and time. And yet, seeing these friends for the first time in so many years, each one was immediately recognizable. The tilt of a head, the turn of a lip, a laugh, a mole, an errant eyebrow; all these erased the years in an instant. The deeply imbedded essence of their childhood selves unmistakable and real, I found myself overcome just by looking at them. Many tears were shed, the first time we had seen each other cry since recess in the playground in first grade.

Adulthood, it turns out, is just a myth; in time we simply all become very large, old children.