Thursday, April 25, 2013
On Never Growing Up...
I’ve been told my whole life that I’d give up or grow out of my convictions. Certainly, there are a lot of things I’ve grown out of, for example:
* Ding-Dong-Ditch and prank phone calls
* The Electric Company and my membership in the Sonny and Cher Fan Club
* Grape Fanta and Bubble Yum
* Black fingernail polish and purple hair dye
* Bad-for-me boyfriends and waking up with hangovers
These things come and go, as they should. The idea of dropping my core values like they are last year’s embarrassing fashion trend, though, is something entirely different. I have been assured by people most of my life that I would do just that, though. Quite simply, they were wrong.
When I was fifteen and a new vegetarian, I was told in no uncertain terms that I would go back to meat the first time I really craved a hamburger, and I was told as a young feminist activist that when I eventually understood “how the world works,” I would just learn to accept it. Neither of these predictions repeated to me as fact by so many people came true. At all. As a new vegan, I was told by countless people that I would abandon my veganism once it stopped being convenient and as a new mother, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to sustain my goals of breastfeeding and cloth-diapering.
These gloomy forecasts were repeated to me in a matter-of-fact, confident manner by those who, by their own accounts, had tried and failed to maintain those same aspirations. People who had once been “like me” took it upon themselves to debrief me on my inevitable future defeat, letting me know that eventually, I would settle into a comfortable place of acquiescence with the Real World, just as they had. I’d be humbled. I’d realize that these were just impulsive, ill-considered whims. In the mean time, my puerile zest was kind of sweet and adorable.
There are some key designations society tries to affix to those who reject the status quo. One is that it is arrogant to do so, and another is that it is naive. There are some even more cynical insinuations about those of us who are guided by our values, implying that it means we are self-absorbed, rude, immature, attention-seeking. The skeptics can pull the “I was once like you so I can speak of this with authority” card to try to legitimize their opinions and get the final word. “I know better than you because I once was you,” as one former vegetarian told me.
Why are people often so resentful of values-driven action? Why is our society so dead-set on trampling down those who are being led by their passions and values? Why do those of us with deep convictions ignite a desire in so many others to keep us in our place even if we are just minding our own business? What is behind this pessimistic drive?
I’ve been lucky enough to be able to reconnect with old friends in recent years and it’s so interesting to me how many tell me the same thing after we’ve caught up with each other: “You haven’t changed.” Not in a negative way but in an admiring way. Even after becoming a mother, even after a few grey hairs, even when it can no longer be attributable it to naiveté, I am still who I always was. I can only wonder, though, why I wouldn’t still be passionate about the things I cared about when they first knew me. What does this say about us, and society’s expectations of us, as we mature beyond that first blush of our enthusiasm?
Our society considers idealism and convictions to be endearing but childish qualities that we will eventually grow out of, once the we’ve been disappointed too many times or had enough of life’s hard lessons knock them out of us. There are those of us, though, who have been disappointed plenty and who have had lots of life experiences and yet we still retain our core values. Why are we perceived as such rarities? I have to say, I’ve only felt my beliefs and determination flourish over the years, the fire burning brighter as I check days off the calendar. Yes, the rougher edges that come with youthful zeal have been softened some, and I can certainly accept the complex nuances of human behavior more now than I did as a neophyte. Instead of knocking me down, though, life’s turbulence just serves to make me less easily distracted and more focused on the things that excite me and bring me joy, which, naturally, includes some things people think I would have grown out of long ago. Do I have a preternatural discipline? An iron will? I wish I could say so but, no, I don’t. I am just living proof that there is no reason that our unique ethical drives, as personal to us as our own fingerprints, should be expected to wither away over time. We still retain our fingerprints as we grow older. Why shouldn’t we still have our unique passions?
I think that one belief that might age us most is accepting the false dichotomy that tells us that we must give up the things we love and compromise our values for what we believe we should be doing with our lives. Giving them up because of this faulty idea makes us cynical, older than our years, resentful and even suspicious of those who haven’t. When I think of people who really thrived in their elder years - Georgia O’Keefe, Howard Zinn, Gandhi, Martha Graham, Studs Terkel as well as every senior with enduring, quirky, consuming passions - all I can think is, “Thank goodness they didn’t tamper down their enthusiasm and drive in exchange for some slippers and an easy chair.” Thank goodness for that.
I have not given up my values and convictions but even as they have become more nuanced and complex over the years, they have also become more heartfelt and integrated to who I am. They have also become more personal. Giving them up would be giving up essential parts of myself and that’s not going to happen. They are still unfolding and ripening, too. I know that I am not alone with this.
Let’s hear it for never growing up. Never, ever do it. The best things in the world depend on this.