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I recently found out, on the very same day, that one of my friends was engaged to be married and was expecting his first child, and that another had been diagnosed with late-stage cancer.
I felt terrible. Such a tragic waste of life. So much needless suffering. As to the other friend, I’m hopeful that against long odds, chemo can reverse the cancer’s progress.
I’m thirty-three, the age of Jesus when he was crucified. Much like the world’s most beloved fictional character, I’m unmarried, I don’t have kids, and I’m unemployed. In my case, I plan to stay that way, embracing a lifestyle that the vast majority of people here in 21st-century America regard as vacuous and depressing—if not utterly abhorrent.
What I don’t understand, especially at this gloomy moment of history, is—why?
We’ve obviously reached a sort of watershed moment in which we’re finally willing to question and upend sacred cows. These days, you don’t have to move in my fringe-dweller circle to regularly encounter discussions about just what we’re going to do now that capitalism has finally and decisively shat the bed. Likewise, I believe we’ve reached a point where professing religious belief may not get you hung, but will certainly get you mocked as soon as you leave the room. Slowly, finally, we’re casting off the metaphorical chains.
And yet, for some reason, most people haven’t confronted the rottenest sorriest sham of them all: adulthood.
Sociologists and cultural commentators have nibbled around the edges of this subject lately. In the past couple of years there’s been much discussion about the twentysomething drift—that post-collegiate anomie characterized by experimentation and mobility and, post-crash, by extended respites in that room mom and dad wanted to use for storing the NordicTrack. The consensus seems to be that it’s an extended adolescence, a sort of last hurrah before resigning oneself to the grim business of settling down.
But that’s not quite right. In my mind—hell, in my own life—what’s happening isn’t just the delayed onset of adulthood. It’s the refusal of adulthood entirely. It’s not failure to thrive. It’s an awareness that thriving kind of blows. Like almost everything in life, “adulthood” turns out to be the exact opposite of what we’re told it is.
Before we can examine any rejection of adulthood, we have to define adulthood. Let’s start with marriage, which I think we can all agree is one of the pillars—if not the pillar—of American adulthood.
So, why do people get married?
Marriage originally evolved as a way for people to have sex without being stoned to death in the village square. While this is still necessary in some places—a couple was stoned as punishment for premarital sex just last year in Afghanistan—in the good ol’ U.S. of A., bars and Internet dating have made sex as plentiful and easy to acquire as mediocre Thai food.
So, why do people still get married?
Easier access, I suppose. The only thing Americans love more than security is convenience. But while studies may show that married people have more sex than singles, that’s like pointing out that the man who spends fifty dollars on McDonald’s receives more calories than the man who spends fifty dollars on sushi, and is thus better fed. One of the main elements of sexual pleasure is novelty, and after the first year or so, that’s been killed deader than an unmarried fornicator in Afghanistan. Anyone out there in the real world knows that single people have far better sex than the average married person, who just clicks off the bedroom flat-screen to be confronted with the same tired genitals every night.
I know. I’ve been there. (No, I wasn’t “technically” married—no robed shaman read incantations from his magical tome as we exchanged sacred rings—but we monogamously cohabitated and shared expenses. We were married.)
There’s nothing inherently original about these complaints—I’m sure cavemen hooted in bored frustration as they retired from the communal fire to the conjugal lean-to for what seemed like the millionth time ever—but what makes them arguably more tragic than ever right now is that social conditions have finally changed enough that we shouldn’t have to suffer through matrimonial drudgery. I mean, this isn’t Hester Prynne’s America anymore. It’s not even the America where a two-career professional-type couple can count on their joint incomes to stave off national economic calamity. So why are we acting like not marrying up will get you cast out of the village?
It’s not like we don’t know any better: While almost forty percent of the population, according to a U.S. Census Bureau study, believes that marriage, as an institution, is “obsolete,” twice that number get married at some point in their lives. So why does that other forty percent keep shooting themselves in the foot?
Couples who stay together over the long run don’t seem happy so much as codependent. A friend of mine used to get horribly depressed because they “didn’t have a significant other.” While this may not strike you initially as all that troubling, think about the difference between meeting someone and deciding that your life will be positively enhanced by their continued presence (rare) and meeting someone and deciding they meet the minimum requirements for your urgently vacant “significant other” position (depressingly common). This, my friends, is marriage in a nutshell; a shit product that only exists to fill a need created by clever social marketing (“marriage = adulthood,” “sex is bad/dirty/dangerous”). It’s a social Febreeze, if you will.
In the end, the only rationale that strikes me as remotely sensible is that marriage is essentially a partnership whose purpose is to rear children.
Which opens a whole other can of worms…
The second pillar of adulthood, one that’s inextricably connected to the first, is having kids.
But these days, the only thing more forehead-slappingly stupid than “accidentally” having a kid is having one on purpose. The data (if you’re a big “data” person) is unambiguous on this point: Kids ruin your life. Every survey, every study, has shown that after having children, quality of life goes into a steeper nosedive than United 93. Testosterone levels in the father declines with each child. Kids literally emasculate you.
So why do people have kids? We don’t need kids like we used to. We don’t need them to provide free labor during the harvest. We don’t need to have ten so two survive. There’s no rival tribe we have to outnumber. In fact, today, in 2012, when you consider the environmental and social costs of bringing yet another pants-wetting, in-the-mall-screaming, airplane-seat-kicking little primate onto the severely overcrowded planet, having a kid is basically a middle finger to the rest of humanity. If not recycling or driving an SUV is farting in the proverbial elevator, having a kid is pushing the “emergency stop” button, dropping your pants, and spraying diarrhea onto everyone’s shoes—metaphorically speaking.
But asking people to justify their decision to have kids is a dead-end. Logic, I’ve come to realize, is the wrong approach to this one. People feel like having kids, so they do it. (An ex told me that when she hit thirty, the biological lust for offspring became stronger than her sex drive, which is maybe the most chilling thing I’ve ever heard.) When I ask, this is often brought up as a defense of having kids: “It’s natural!” But this is a non-argument. Many things occur in nature with startling frequency—including murder, rape, and infanticide—but we don’t defend them on the same basis.
If you really try to pin a breeder down, they usually give you some garbled rationale involving “the human race” or “passing on their genes.” But does that pass the smell test? Does “the human race” need you—you, specifically—to keep it going? Fuck no. What does “passing on one’s genes” even really mean? Genghis Khan spread his seed to a degree that will never be surpassed, raping his way across Eurasia to a staggering 0.5 percent market share of everyone living today. And…? If anything, this feat of genetic dissemination proves the essential pointlessness of reproduction. Doesn’t the sheer diversity of Genghis Khan’s descendants prove that there’s nothing to pass on?
A corollary of the “passing on one’s genes” argument is the “you live on through your children” argument. This is not exactly true. Decades from now, when your children sample a glass of fine wine or gaze upon an otherworldly sunset, you will not in any part be there. You will be dead. If you live on in your children as anything, it will be an occasional nagging voice in the back of their mind, admonishing them from leaving work early to go get drunk which, if they possess any degree of independence at all, they’ll promptly ignore.
After all, isn’t the obligation of youth to subvert and destroy what’s come before? I’ve always said that anyone who hasn’t renounced their parents is not a real adult. We all know someone who’s followed in their parents’ footsteps, entering the family business, having pints with Dad, and parroting his ill-considered opinions; these are not real humans any more than RuPaul is Carmen Miranda. These are grown up children playing dress-up forever. And that’s having kids in a nutshell: If you’re any kind of parent at all, they’ll grow up to repudiate you and all you stand for. (Hi, Mom!)
The fact is, kids don’t just ruin your life; they steal it. As a parent, you have produced your replacement. You are a flip phone; your baby is an iPhone. Their future used to be your future. Life is a zero-sum game, and you are now the zero. The most chilling part is that this irrelevance isn’t an unfortunate side effect of having a child; it’s the very reason most people have a child.
I’ve seen it again and again. In the handful of years before people decide to have kids, they reach a certain plateau: get married, buy a house, get the “assistant” prefix sheared off their job title. Now what? The finality of the “life” they chose starts to set in, a “future” of endless commutes, rote intercourse, and mortgage payments. Their dreams are dead, so why not give those ping-pong balls a tumble, have a kid and see if it can do better? I mean, Obama’s parents were just reg’lar folks! Anything could happen, right? Right?
Wrong. Congratulations, you made more mediocrity. If you want to see people who’ve truly abandoned all hope, go to a lottery machine or a maternity ward.
Or visit an office.
The third pillar of adulthood, after all, is the career. I should know: I don’t have one, which is the main reason I’m regarded as an outlier here in this modern Washington of ours. To be loveless and childless may be thought of as failures, or even eccentricities. But to not even have a career at which to fail, well, that’s just odd.
Or is it? This being America (God bless it!), all you have to give up in exchange for enough money to feed yourself and keep a roof over your head, with two weeks of pretend-freedom a year, is your soul. Thanks, but no thanks.
Still, long after I renounced the idea of a “career,” I still felt guilty about not “contributing to society.” Ever since childhood, we’re told that holding down a job is commensurate with being an independent adult. That without our “contributions,” society could very well collapse into anarchy. We revile a “welfare leech” who depends on the government for money and health care, yet when someone depends on an employer for such things, we call them respectable. Does this actually make sense?
The welfare exploiter at least does no harm. Or if he does, it’s only to himself. On the other hand, there are vast areas of our economy in which the “work” done is either absurdly pointless (office work) or actively makes the world a worse place (marketing, advertising). For every pediatric surgeon or death-row inmate advocate, there are a thousand tobacco marketers, reality TV producers, and sweatshop sneaker moguls. That most workers fail to do good is probably no surprise, but that most fail to do no harm is really depressing.
Face it: Your job either contributes nothing to nothing, or actively contributes to stupefaction and ruin. In contrast, my milking of the unemployment system for six of the past ten years is relative sainthood. Someone alert the Pope.
And then there’s that myth of “independence.” They—the propagandists, the oppressors, the fatcats at the top of the Ponzi schemes, the cringe (but you know it’s true) one-percenters, and your stupid parents—would have us believe that the only route to “independence” is employment. But the “independence” of the employed is so conditional as to be nonexistent: i.e., you’re independent as long as you keep coming to work every single day in perpetuity. (Similar to the “freedom” found in today’s America; you’re free to do anything, as long as you do nothing.) And not to get all Marxy here, but your work always benefits your superiors more than it benefits you; your boss’s boss’ boss’ boss is getting rich, while you can barely make your Kia payment.
The closer you look, the more that “independence” of yours looks like slavery. That’s adulthood for you.
The killing irony of “adulthood” is that what’s sold as “maturity” is just a cosmetic reconfiguring of infantile dependence. We roll our eyes when a man lives with his parents, but applaud him when he becomes a parent. As if there’s a difference! When he transfers his mouth from the teat of his family to the teat of an employer, we buy him an ice cream cake and treat him like he’s fucking Thoreau, as if he’s made any substantial change in life orientation.
But he’s not progressing. In truth, he’s probably giving up a good portion of what makes him human. And in return he receives…what? The monk, when he turns from life, at least gains spiritual enlightenment. The adult, on the other hand, descends into a cosseted fog of drudgery and consumerism, weighted down by responsibilities and debt—debt! Of all the concepts that have lost their allure in this century!—his drives blunted by cheap surrogates. Relegated to the second tier of pleasures: food (the fetishization of a necessity, the sanctification of something that’s going to be shooting out your ass in 72 hours), vicarious drama (sports, reality television, porn), travel (the novelty of temporary dislocation). What could be sadder than becoming a tourist in life?
Yet, that’s adulthood. Live less, less deeply. It’s a coping mechanism for people who are tired of living but still have decades of biological life to go.
I mean, there’s a reason they call it settling down, and really, that little phrase says it all. If they just called it “settling,” that would still get the point across—you could do better, you’re choosing not to—but they tacked “down” on there, just to be absolutely clear about the trajectory you’ve taken. You’re settling, down. Downwards. Declining. Plummeting. Goodbye.
So what, you may ask, is the alternative?
Well, if this was O, The Oprah Magazine, this would indeed be the part of the article that offered a bullet-point prescription for how to live as an authentic adult, along with a recommendation for a good panini maker. But as Turgenev said, the responsibility of the artist is only to render the problem authentically, not to propose solutions. Call it a copout if you will, but perhaps it’s this same weakness for pat solutions that drives us (well, you) to blindly sign onto terrible ideas like marriage, children, and career. The move from childhood to adulthood—authentic adulthood, not today’s ubiquitous counterfeit version—is really about the shift from a state of fear to a state of, to quote everyone’s favorite brand of ’90s-era windshield decals, no fear.
At risk of coming off as something I am most definitely not—a Positive Petey, an embracer and advocate of new experiences and drinking deep from the cup of life—I would protest that the main flaw of “adulthood” is that at base it’s about limiting your experiences, out of an overwhelming fear and dread—of what exactly you’re not quite sure—which is to say, out of cowardice. Being an “adult” consists chiefly of hedging against the unknown—securing those paychecks and that health plan, “put[ting] a ring on it,” assuring your DNA’s survival.
And if you spend your best years systematically excluding the possibility of grace, doesn’t it follow that you’re going to be miserable? I mean, I’m surprised that most midlife crises take the relatively harmless forms of sports cars and affairs. If I’d stayed on that path, my fortieth birthday might have found me in a clock tower with a high-powered rifle.
As it is, I don’t know where I’ll be when I hit that milestone. Ten years ago, when I was graduating college, any acceptable future I could conceive of included a career, a wife, and a family. Lucky for me, I grew up.