One evening several years ago, I was taking a walk and saw something big flapping in the wind. As I got closer, I realized it was a giant plastic bag that was stuck to a tree. I thought to myself, “Someone should clean that up,” and I walked on.
It was one of those thoughts where you actually hear the specific words in your head – Someone should clean that up. And one word in particular stuck in my mind: Someone.
Then it felt like my body was compelled to slow down, and a higher part of my consciousness seemed to be telling me, “Look more closely at this pattern.”
Someone should deal with what I dislike. Make it better for me.
I turned around. I disentangled the bag from the tree. I balled it up, found a nearby dumpster, and threw it away. And though it was just one bag, it was symbolic of a shift. The shift wasn’t that I now pick up all the litter I see wherever I go. It was a recognition of how I want the world to be different without participating in the process, and it was a reminder of my ability to choose my perspective and to act on my own behalf.
Then there was one more insight from that soul place: This is (part of) what being an adult means. As children we expect our caregivers to make the world right for us; as adults, we act on our own behalf. It struck me that growing up has little to do with how many years you’ve been alive. You could be 80 years old and still expecting the world to make things right for you.
Over the following months, I paid closer attention to people who were active in consciously shaping their world. It was so inspiring. I noticed that sometimes this approach to life issued from an attitude of optimism and empowerment, like, “I have gifts to share!” or “I want to be an active participant in changing my environment.” And other times it came from an attitude of mistrust and pessimism, like, “You can’t count on anyone; that’s why you have to do everything yourself” or “People are going to mess it up if I don’t step in.”
Gradually, another characteristic of growing up was revealed: letting go of fixed positions. In those who strove to improve their world, there was always flexibility and a willingness to see more than one side of an issue, because the truth is rarely black-and-white. Children like things in absolute terms: this superhero is good and the other guy is bad; broccoli is healthy and candy is unhealthy; sharing is the right thing to do and not sharing is wrong. But adults recognize that such formulaic ways of thinking often fall short. Only by engaging with life openly and organically, with a strong appetite for the truth, do we stand to grow and evolve. This brings lots of grey and apparent paradox, but the adult mind can handle it.
How do you define growing up? What challenges you about being an adult? Share in the comments section below.
Dr. Peter Borten