There are stages to life. This, at least, is not a new idea. Neither are the stages I posit: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Each stage is one of preparation, leading naturally to the next. Childhood is becoming an animal being; adolescence is becoming a social being; adulthood is becoming a human being; and old age is becoming an immortal being. Since old age has likely piqued curiosity, let me simply say that it’s about living not for the sake of your life but for the sake of the icon you can be after death, an idea that will be useful to those who come after, abandoning your mortal shell and your mortal self. But old age is far off, and it can be ignored for now.
Childhood is when we learn our most elemental skills as living beings. We learn how to move, act, and perceive, as well as our basic skills of communication. We learn our basic forms of understanding, our basic aesthetic tenets, and the fundamental assumptions we use to judge the world. In childhood, we come to learn the world and our boundaries, test them, and discover our own strength. A child well brought up is strong, capable, and possessed of a keen animal intelligence. That is, they best resemble a healthy and strong beast, with their own native tendencies (gregarious, skittish, adventurous, etc) and a deep and primal vitality. “And what about the sickly ones?” You know what I mean. There are sickly people and animals that nevertheless have vital characters. Whatever frailty their form offers is often beyond choosing, but the anima can be nurtured (and equally, starved) in any being.
Following this, when the animal is formed, the human enters adolescence and learns society. This is where most people push most strongly against their elders in favor of the company of their peers. They form their own groups and determine their positions within them, and begin picking and choosing at roles and identities in a more sophisticated play-pretend. Most of their basic capacities are already present, so they begin leveraging them for one societal advantage or another. They get better at playing these games in all sorts of ways, and learn to effectively move and assert themselves within groups of different sorts. Childhood provides the I, but adolescence provides the I compared to others, the I against others. It’s not a coincidence that this is where the interest in sex originates. The end of adolescence comes when the person becomes sick of playing games all the time, playing for petty social advantage with whatever rivals show up, sick of wandering around social circles empty-handed, and decide to achieve something real for themselves.
Adulthood, then, is best understood as building power and constructing an estate. Adulthood is about collecting skills for oneself, tools for one’s collection, and repute and comrades for one’s circle. This is the distinct human characteristic; when we say animals are acting human, it ought to be for how they are fulfilling these aims. The sound of it is male, with the typically patriarchal term “estate,” but the desire to build power, competence, possessions, and connections is unisex. In early adulthood, the goal is to gain these things for the sake of having them, but as adulthood continues on they become desired for the sake of lending and eventually giving those resources to one’s children. The end of adulthood is when the last tools have been ceded to one’s children, now adults in their own right, and one is left in their care with no worldly possessions remaining. All that’s left is, as they say, the immortal soul.
It goes without saying: this is a sketch, and neither the specifics or the order of events is absolute. Quite often, a child born into poor circumstances will skip a stage or two for the sake of survival. They will later circle around to what they missed, naturally seeking the full experience, as soon as their situation permits. Some never get the chance. It’s the archetypal sad story, not grand enough to be a tragedy, just a little thread of sorrow untwined at the end. It defies being told, because it lacks the right structure: no beginning, middle, or end. It starts somewhere, although it’s hard to put a finger on an event besides the convenient birth, but there are no real events through the life, and its end is not a grand climax of drama followed by the falling action of the aftermath nor the last sentence in an epilogue to adventure, just the spot on the page where the ink runs out and things end. In a word, it’s unsatisfying, and that hollowness is more heartbreaking than we can stand to imagine.
If broken and tragically halted development is a story that resists telling, then the other failure to grow is a story that repeats itself without ending – not growth experienced out of order and cut short, but growth that never manifests at all, a person moving through stages normally until they get stuck in one. Alone writes about one form of this, which is pathological narcissism: rather than selecting one path out of many and “settling down,” giving up on social games and adoptive identities, the late adolescent stays true to them in some fashion. As they grow into their thirties, forties, this leaves them just as easily manipulated as a teenager, but with far more severe consequences. I won’t belabor the point, and instead move to the others.
Eternal adulthood isn’t much to speak of. An adult already has plenty to offer to those around them, being a full human, so the failure to develop into old age is just a minor disappointment rather than a disaster. It tends to happen when the aging adult misses a few good opportunities to hand over the reins and stays focused on the present rather than on eternity. The result for them is a slightly dry eulogy, speaking of the many and undeniable boons they delivered to their community, but never reaching the point of being lost for words – having to express some benefit that escapes the explicit, something divine in its effect. The difference is between bettering the bodies of those around you and bettering their souls, and even if society struggles to tell the difference, none of its members do. Nevertheless, a dry eulogy is nothing shameful, and the only reason to point this out is to show how much more there can be. The goal is ultimately to escape this world, to reach something better, and that something can only be realized through the wisdom of a human in their immortal growth.
Staying in childhood is far more serious. We’re all familiar with it, in some form or other: think of the kids in middle or high school who seemed to hit puberty late. They’re left a little distant, a little confused, as the world develops past them at a breakneck pace. Usually they catch up, but the ones who don’t end up a little lost, a little puzzled, happy and eager to be told what to want and what to do, rebellious at times but easily reconciled, charmed by every new toy they find, and loving loving loving to dress up and play pretend, though never comfortable when put in real positions of responsibility… I’m sure you’ve already guessed, but these are millennial characteristics, and the future of a thirty-something uncomfortable with power is not bright.
Hotel Concierge has written far more about the reality of this, from the position of an outside observer and an inside experiencer, so let me simply say: childlike regression is awful, especially for the person experiencing it. Take, for instance, the rise of anxiety. Anxiety is a natural human response for situations where one’s capabilities do not suffice for the task at hand, and the logical discharge for it is to get help. But what if you don’t feel capable of anything? Then everything becomes anxiety-inducing, and you need help with everything – at which point there is nothing in your possession, nothing that requires you, and thus no purpose for your existence. This is where depression slips in, the feeling that everything is hollow and meaningless because it is hollow and meaningless. Thus sedatives, relativism, and if nothing else works, suicide – unless one of the people you seek help from tells you that you can do ______, where it doesn’t matter what ______ is, just that now you have the one thing you can do and so you spend all your time doing it, and leave everything else to everyone else. Better if that one thing involves a lot of following instructions. Perhaps they’ll even tell you why it matters.
On a larger scale, this means an increased love of guides and services, under the guise of expert knowledge and “convenience,” instead of working things out independently. This isn’t to knock on guides or services, I’d damn well rather hire an electrician than get electrocuted and I’m not screwing around with my registry keys without at least a quick Google, and a massive amount has gone wrong because of people irresponsibly trying to “wing it,” but there’s such a thing as appropriate conditions for all that. There are things that humans are expected to handle on their own, and at the very least, you should be prepared to be the master of your own estate. If you can’t do that, then what business do you have controlling anything? That isn’t a snide jab, that’s expressing the already-existing psychology, which means I can make two more predictions: birthrates will keep going down, and whatever happens after the baby boomers die and all their (high-ranking, control-oriented) jobs are opened up to the general public will be a disaster.
None of this is to be cruel. This is stating the reality, and inherent in any well-stated situation is the question: what comes next? If this is what’s wrong, then how do we fix it? First answer: this is a personal problem, which means it has a personal solution. This cannot be answered on the level of society without being answered individually by each of its members. Second answer: but it does have a general form, and that can be discussed generally, as a form to fit over each solitary case.
What lies behind childish lingering is a total inability to judge. This makes sense, once you think about it: how could anyone, even the most sheltered and useless person, be incompetent in everything? Simple: they lack the faculty of judgment, which lets them determine what competence in any given area looks like. If they can tell good from bad, then they have a clear path to become competent, which means that although any given case of getting in over one’s head can produce anxiety, the very idea of participating no longer does. The bad outcomes of participating are no longer outside of one’s control, and although fucking up always sucks, it’s infinitely better to be the active cause of one’s own pain (compare, unfortunately, cutting). Causing it correlates to controlling it, and controlling it means you can make it go away. If you can tell good from bad, you can therefore have faith in (and proof of) improvement, and that faith can bear you through many hardships without ever descending into suffering. There are many skills left to discover, but they develop naturally out of this foundation of good judgment and hope.
Thus the converse, being incapable of judging good from bad, actually precludes competence and does worse. Without judgment of your own, action still must be taken in some capacity, but it must be framed by others. Let me be clear: children are fundamentally logical creatures, and perfectly capable of drawing statements out to their conclusions. The bizarre beliefs children hold have nothing to do with irrationality, they are the opposite, they are extraordinarily rational and rigorously apply the few facts and few judgments they have with all the fervency of youth, but lack context and the competence and confidence for individual judgment.
So the children’s actions, belief, logic is guided by their parents and guardians, who nominally are tasked with their best interests in mind. The judgments we give children are personal and personalized, aimed to help and not hurt them – and what for the child who has grown up in body if not mind, who no longer has so tight of a community but still has need of it? They must still receive judgments, but now it isn’t family who does it, but rather…
Fill in the blank: TV, ads, employers, whoever. That’s the point: if you lack judgment of your own, you’re helpless about whose judgments you accept. The only measures left are whoever seems most persuasive, most pleasant, whoever talks themselves up and promises the things you want, or that they tell you that you want. The advantage leaps to branding: whoever has the strongest brand wins your loyalty. Consider the purchases you make: are they for the real merit of the thing, the real advantages you have perceived and can perceive outside of the world’s influence, or are they for how the thing has been advertised, described? We all know the answer, you and I and the organic label, the razors for men and women, and all the tag lines under the gilded sun. With no knowledge or ability of one’s own, the child, us, you, trusts implicitly the signs and symbols and judgments given. This puts you entirely in the hands of whoever offers you the most pleasant judgments to use as your own, the ones which justify your powerlessness: belief in the overpowering other. It could be corporations which you blame, men, women, old folk, whichever race, it doesn’t matter as long as it externalizes the responsibility and affirms hitting the snooze button on your growth for one more year. It could even be belief in the benevolent other, categorizing oneself as sick (depressed, anxious) and gushing with sweet faith in family, government, and psychiatry. I doubt I need to say this, but those promises are lies, deceit, they cannot help you, only power can help you. And power, for its part, lies in the ability to judge good from bad, right from wrong, true from false, and whatever other categories you lay down.
And the only place to do that is in the dark. The lights of our society are blinding, and that harsh glare will paralyze efforts. Put more explicitly: act in full sight of society, the panoptic media, and they will turn your actions into images. You already know this, at least implicitly, how the gaze of others prevents change. Think of how, in your youth, you might have felt ready for some adjustment in character and practice, but couldn’t bring yourself to do it in front of your parents’ eyes. You couldn’t take up this hobby, start taking care of this chore, because they wouldn’t have the decency to ignore it. They would, instead, turn it into a big event, a story, turning your decisions and actions into some kind of image of yourself, simultaneously locking you into a past which you did not experience and a future you did not consent to. Better to stay the same, until you leave, get out of their sight, can act with no eyes on you again…
There is an argument, which goes: God’s omniscience and free will are incompatible, for if all is known, all action will accord to that knowledge. Consider that our knowledge expands by the day.
There’s a lovely little example of adulthood and old age in the evolution of Maslowe’s highest rung of the hierarchy of needs, self-actualization. When he first put the idea to paper, self-actualization was about realizing one’s own potential, with the emphasis on realizing. This is adulthood, where the human being becomes truly human. In later years, he reworked it to be more about spirituality, legacy, and values. This was a result of him gaining perspective and, as it were, growing up.
Although what I said was true, let me be more precise. Anxiety is the feeling that things are going to happen to you entirely outside of your control. An (unfortunately) extremely common example is trauma, where something terrible happens (or nearly happens) to someone outside of their control. Afterwards, they compare the situation they were in at the time of the trauma to the situation they are in at any given point in time, and if they can’t find a meaningful difference in control, their anxiety spikes – purely from applied reasoning. When “situations with no meaningful difference” cover an untenable proportion of the person’s life, then we diagnose PTSD, but it’s also important to note that there are perfectly reasonable situations to feel anxious. If you’ve seen someone get mauled by the garbage compactor at your place of work, then you should be extremely anxious every time lockout/tagout isn’t in effect. Conversely, a good way to deal with trauma is to find ways to increase control in whatever ways you can – since the initial anxiety is totally about control, gaining it will lower the anxiety. This is where my earlier gloss comes into play: for people who fear power, they are constantly under the perception that their capabilities are insufficient, and thus in any situation where they’re in charge, they feel that bad things can happen to them outside of their control, since they have none at all. Instead, they’re happier when people who know take charge, because even though things are still outside of their control, now they can believe that bad things won’t happen to them. For this reason, a (not the) typical end-of-childhood moment is not when they leave the nest and get hurt by something, but when the parent fails to protect them from something. The belief that someone else can handle it is shattered, anxiety fills every moment, and they either turn into a shivering wreck or take the only logical way out, which is to become powerful themselves.
This is, again, incomplete. Children from young ages will try to form their own halting judgments, independent from what they’re being told, typified by their early art. But if they are swamped with judgments stronger than theirs, through overbearing parents or the debilitating hellforce of the media, they will fall silent and start loyally parroting. In contrast, if they are permitted to judge wildly and without constraint, then they will become spoiled and arrogant. What they desire and need is guidance in judgment, not to be told answers but to be shown the moves. If they don’t get this early, they will have to teach themselves later.
It’s probably worth stating: this does not mean stop taking your meds. I don’t know what your chemistry is right now and can’t take responsibility for that decision. What it means is: no matter what your current situation, there is a choice between leaving it in others’ hands and taking it into your own. N.B.: The latter does not preclude asking for help.