What exactly does it mean to be grown up? How do we know when we are? Is it based on age or achieved by merely reaching physical maturity? There are legal definitions for being an adult, but is that the same as being a grown up? Do others endow us with the status of grown up or do we make that determination for ourselves? Is growing old the same as growing up? Does being grown up mean having all the answers or always knowing what to do? Does asking these questions mean I’m not grown up, because I’m finding that the older I get the more questions I have, and the fewer answers.
When I was a child, a grown up was anyone over five feet tall. Or anyone who told me what to do, except for my older sister, of course. Grown ups were people who knew everything, were always right, and always did the right thing. During childhood, being a grown up was something that was used either to entice, “Just be patient. You’ll get to do that when you grow up,” or deter behavior, “Don’t be so anxious to grow up. You’ll have to do that soon enough.” Being grown up was a position to be desired or dreaded depending on the circumstances.
Lately, the prospect of ever being all grown up seems suspect. I’ve begun to entertain the possibility that there is no such thing as grown up. At least, not in the way I was groomed to think about grown ups. Maybe it’s an unattainable state. Or if attainable, not sustainable. Perhaps it’s not a constant state of being at all, but a continuous process of becoming. Contemplating this matter prompted the memory of an incident that occurred years ago, in what now seems like another lifetime.
In those days, I was actively involved in the practice of marriage and family therapy. While serving on the board of the state association, I organized and launched a statewide program offering free marriage check ups annually for several years on Valentine’s Day. In addition to seeing clients privately, I conducted parent education classes at a nonprofit agency. A local parenting magazine asked me to write a monthly column and the bookstore invited me to host a monthly book club for reviewing and discussing newly published parenting books. The newspaper often called for quotes regarding the impact of current events on families. I was regularly a guest on local radio and television programs offering advice on how to manage the challenges parents and families were facing. Sharing my expertise and passion for supporting and strengthening family relationships was exciting and rewarding.
One day, out of the blue, I received a phone call inviting me to appear on a syndicated talk show on one of the national television networks. They wanted me to meet with a troubled family, basically conducting a therapy session, in front of a live studio audience. In addition to arranging for my travel and paying all my expenses, they would reimburse me for my time. Upon recovering from the initial shock and regaining the use of my voice and legs, I asked if I could have some time to consider the offer. They obliged, requesting a decision within 24 hours.
Needless to say, I was both flabbergasted and flattered. The chance to add my voice to the national conversation about families was incredibly tempting. Imagine what this kind of exposure could do for my career, not to mention the extra money. And who in their right mind wouldn’t jump at the chance to be on a well-known, popular TV show?
Before making a decision, I figured it might be a good idea to actually watch the show. While I was familiar with it, I was not a regular viewer. With a young child at home, I was not a regular viewer of anything that wasn’t on public television or aired before nine o’clock at night.
Anxiously, I waited for the next episode. Full of optimistic anticipation, my husband and I tuned in to watch. Slowly our enthusiasm waned, dissolving into dismay. The host appeared more determined to create hype than provide help. What I observed flew in the face of everything I believed about treating families with respect in the privacy of a therapeutic relationship. (This was during the early years of what has become known as tabloid television.) Nevertheless, in an effort to avoid making a rash decision, I decided to consult friends and colleagues.
“Wow, that’s so exciting,” and “Congratulations! That’s so cool!” were common reactions. Others said, “What a fantastic opportunity. You’d be crazy to pass this up,” and “If you don’t do it, somebody else will,” none of which made deciding any easier.
Late into the night, my husband and I debated the pros and cons of doing the show. What would I be missing out on if I didn’t do it? What would I be giving up if I did? Would I be endorsing the use of people’s personal problems for entertainment? Would that be compromising my integrity? Could I reconcile participating in this type of television with my personal and professional beliefs regarding the practice of family therapy?
Exhausted, but still grappling with the dilemma, my husband finally said, “Look. Ultimately it’s your decision. You know I’ll support you no matter what you do. I may not agree, but I’ll support you. But consider this. I know our son is too young to watch this show now. But if he were old enough, is it a show you would allow him to watch? And if you were on it, is it something you would want him to see? Would you be proud for him to see you doing this?”
Early the next morning, after a sleepless night, one of my dearest friends returned my call. I told her about the show and our discussion the night before. In her calm, non-anxious manner she said, “Your son is gonna love you no matter what you do.”
“Yes, but what’s he going to think of me?” I asked.
“And what are you going to think of yourself?” she added. “When you can answer those two questions, you’ll know what to do.”
So, in case you haven’t guessed, I’ve never been on network television. Have I ever wondered what it might have been like if I had? Sure. Have I ever regretted the decision not to? No. What I might have gained could never compare with what I might have lost.
Every day is filled with decisions. For each decision there are at least two options, to do it or not to do it. But most decisions present a whole range of choices, making them far more complicated since each choice carries with it consequences. Accepting responsibility, being accountable for the consequences, whatever they may be…intended or not…desirable or not…is the challenge. The freedom to choose, but not freedom from the consequences of those choices. That may very well be the privilege and the price of growing up.
Recollecting this experience reminded me that however good or noble the intentions, my choices can have undesirable consequences. Although this situation was satisfyingly resolved, that is not invariably the case. I have certainly made choices, said and done things I regret. Viewing those instances critically, honestly, however painful, can turn poor choices into teachable moments…mistakes into invaluable life lessons. Fortunately, there is never a wrong time to do the right thing.
While operating under the assumption that no one decision…no single act defines me, I also know that everything I do is a reflection of me. It is by my choices that I reveal who I truly am. And I am happiest…most content with myself, when what I do aligns with what I profess to believe.
On the occasion when that alignment occurs, there is a serenity…a sense of assurance that emanates from my very core and spreads throughout my entire being. I catch a glimpse of the best version of myself. And it’s when I see it, when I find myself in the midst of it, that I know it’s possible. Knowing it’s possible to attain inspires me to continue seeking to dwell there…in the best version of myself. The existence of that realm gives me hope, even though permanent residence has, so far, eluded me.
Maybe that’s what it means to be grown up…possessing the awareness that each day offers the prospect of deciding whether or not to embrace and inhabit the best version of myself. In that case, my inclination, that grown up may not be a static condition reached by following a linear progression, is reasonable. Rather, it may be a dynamic, ongoing process, more spiral in nature, characterized by both new and recurring situations that require making decisions. At any point in time, I may be closer to or further away from my best self, depending on the choices I make.
Accepting sole responsibility for the extent to which I succeed in this quest is the very definition of awesome…both fantastic and frightening. Whether absolute success is achievable remains to be seen. Aiming for continuous improvement seems more realistic. And so, kindled with the desire to know, to grow, to seek wisdom through experience, I keep moving forward. When faced with challenging decisions, these questions serve as guides, “Is this choice grown up worthy? Does it reflect the best version of myself? If this were the last thing I ever did…if these were the last words I ever said…is this how I would want to be remembered?”