An Old Man From Jersey Explains: Growing Up

An old man sits on the steps to a dingy apartment building reading a newspaper. A ten year old boy stand on the grass nearby about to ask a question.

So I was sitting on the front steps to my apartment building the other day watching the people walk by when this kid comes up to me and says, “Hey mister.”

I say, “What do you want, kid?”

He says, “Can you explain to me how to grow up?”

I think about it for a minute, and then I ask him, “Where do you want me to start from?”

“From the beginning.” The kid says.

So I think about it some more and decide this is the first thing a kid needs to understand about growing up. “How you do something depends on what you’re trying to do. So you’re gonna need to define what constitutes a grown up before you can figure out how to become a grown up. That’s the first thing.”

“My momma is a grown up.”

“Uh, yeeaaah. About that…it looks like we’re gonna have to back up. I guess the first thing you need to know is what a grown up isn’t. The second thing you need to know is what a grown up is.

The thing is, your momma doesn’t know what a grown up is. She woke up one day between the age of 3 and 6 and found herself stranded in this great, big, beautiful, lonely, indifferent universe. She didn’t have any idea who she was, where she was or what was going on, but her parents…that would be your grandparents…were there to teach her everything they knew…or at least as much of what they knew as they were inclined to teach her.

Now, parents are like Gods to children. You fear and respect your momma like God, and your momma feared and respected her parents like Gods too. Naturally, she assumed she could trust them to show her the ropes. She started mimicking their actions and beliefs because she assumed whatever they did is what everyone is supposed to do.

That’s how she learned how to navigate the clusterfuck of life. Don’t tell your momma I used that word. Thing is though, your grandparents, they never gave your momma an instruction book to life that explains what a grown up is and gives step by step instructions on how to become one. Now you tell me. Do you think you could build a watch without any instructions?”

“I can’t even tell time.”

“Well growing up is a bit more complicated than putting a watch together, and your momma only got a few pieces of the instructions from your grandparents by watching them, but those were only pieces.

Well, eventually she started going to school and meeting people from outside her house. All these people, they acted like they knew what was going on too. So she copied them too, but inevitably she started getting conflicting messages. Every once and a while she’d meet someone who would tell her that the things she did and believed in were wrong. Every once and a while she’d meet someone who did and believed things she felt wrong based on her understanding of how the world is supposed to work.

Now how do you suppose your mama figured out what to believe? I’ll tell you what she didn’t do. She never sat down with a pencil and paper and worked out the difference between right and wrong, what a grown up is, or how to become one.

I don’t mean to speak ill of your mother. She’s a wonderful woman, but when she was around your age she would just reject any idea that contradicted what she didn’t already believe. It’s not because she was a bad person. She believed what she was taught by the people she trusted. So when someone told her something that contradicted her basic understanding of the world she wouldn’t believe em’. It’s only natural.

As you mama got older and her brain finished developing she became capable of higher level thought.  After that she started thinking critically about things on those occasions when she’d meet a person with an idea that challenged hers. Thing is though, she’d only think critically when life brought a challenge to her door. She never really pushed the envelope herself. So her personal growth was pretty haphazard. Do you know what ‘haphazard’ means?”

“No sir.”

“Don’t call me ‘Sir.’ Remember all people were created equal. Anyway, ‘haphazard’ means like, ‘random’ or ‘completely by chance.’ See what I mean?”

“Yes. Si-“

“The third thing you need to know about growing up is that it doesn’t happen by itself any more than you could accidentally put a watch together. You gotta put your mind to it and work on it everyday.”

“Hey, you just jumped to the third thing, but you haven’t even explained the second thing, what an adult is.”

“You got a good memory kid. I was seeing if you were paying attention. Anyway, who says I can’t throw the third thing in there when I think it’s a good time to mention it?”

“Okay, I guess you’re right. But before you get to what an adult is, I gotta know, if my momma’s not a grown up then what is she?”

“That’s what I was trying to tell you. Your dear mother…is a product of her environment. She’s a combination of the behaviors and beliefs of her family and the culture she was raised in. On the one hand, that might not seem like such a bad thing, and some people would say that’s what a grown up is: someone who has fully assimilated to their culture. Usually when someone tells you to grow up that’s what they really mean. They’re telling you to assimilate to their standards.

The problem here is that every culture all over the world since the beginning of civilization have believed their culture had it figured out, but every culture all over the world since the beginning of civilization has had different standards of behavior and beliefs. So depending on what culture you grew up in, you’d take for granted different ideas about what it means to be a grown up. Now, how can all these people be right if they’re all different?”

“My momma took me to an Amish town one time. They seemed pretty nice.”

“Uh…yeah…anyway.  Where I was going with that was…well, yeah, okay. We’ll start with the nice Amish people. They’re a good example for what I was going to say, and that was that every culture developed their beliefs and behaviors in response to their environment. That’s why the Jews worshipped an angry tribal God, why a couple thousand years later Jesus changed the idea of God, why the Eskimos wear parkas and have like a hundred words for “snow,” why pretty much every Mexican food is some combination of corn, flour, beans and tomatoes, why the children of the people who grew up in the wild west frontier of America tend to be a little less refined than the children of people who grew up in one of Europe’s old, old city cultures and why the Amish live the way they do: because culture develops as a reaction to whatever random environment a group of people find themselves living in, and over generations of addressing life’s problems the best practices just become the way. When people move or their environment changes then their culture changes. And it’s culture changes. And I’m not just talking about rain and snow here. Roads, technology, access to education, economies, governments, these are all environmental factors that cultures have to adapt to…but that’s more than you need to know.

Look, one thing that’s true everywhere in the world is that life’s hard. If you want to survive you gotta learn how to be responsible, and what it takes to survive changes depending on your environment. So all these cultures were right in one sense.”

“So an adult is someone who is responsible, and someone who is responsible is someone who knows how to survive.

“Look at you. You’re a quick one, kid, but that’s not the whole answer even though a lot of parents raise their kids like it is. Responsibility is a paradox. You probably don’t know what that word means, but it doesn’t matter.

If being responsible means learning and doing whatever it takes to survive then the most responsible thing to do would be to work all day everyday and make all the money you can and never have any fun. There comes a point where obsessing over survival defeats the purpose of surviving.

“So what’s the purpose of surviving?”

“It’s the same for you and me as it is for a flower, to grow to your full potential and bloom, not because it accomplishes anything else in the world but just for the sake of experiencing the majesty of existing for its own sake, and since what you experience is defined by who you are then in order to experience life to its fullest you have to become you to your fullest. So that’s what it means to be a grown up, to become you to the fullest extent possible.”

“Are you a grown up? You seem pretty smart.”

“I’m not dumb enough to claim to be anything but lost, but if you want some good examples of grown ups, there’s Leonardo Da Vinci, Socrates, Benjamin Franklin, Confucius, people like that.”

“I don’t know all of those people, but the ones I do know were really, really smart. I mean, they were born smart. I won’t ever be that smart.”

“Kid, if you put as much effort into growing as you do making excuses and defending where you’re at you could become 10 times greater than Leonoardo Da Vinci.

Okay, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, but sometimes the truth hurts. Anyway, it’s not all about being smart. It’s about being you.  Being smart is just one facet of who you are. Granted, part of growing up is figuring out life and getting your bearings straight in this great, big, beautiful, lonely, indifferent universe. If you don’t have a bag of philosophies to explain your way around this place you’ll wander around lost your whole life and never get anywhere.

That’s why every culture is wrong. They don’t have life figured out. So assimilating to your culture is going to keep you a kid your entire life even if it does teach you how to survive. You gotta transcend your culture intellectually in order to grow up.

But growing up isn’t just about surviving and understanding the world around you. What happens if you’re stuck on a deserted island where nothing you ever do will ever matter outside of yourself and you can never go anywhere else? Would your life be meaningless? No. Of course it wouldn’t.  Why? Because you’d still be you, and that was the whole point all along anyway.

In order to finish growing up you gotta figure out who you are, how you became who you are…so as your not controlled by your past, who you want to be and what you’re going to do to become who you want to be.”

“What do I do after I become who I want to be?”

“After that you just…be. And you can do that anywhere. Why, you can do it right on your front porch steps even.”

“Huh. Well, I just got one more question.”


“So why isn’t my momma a grown up? She seems like her to me.”

“…Because your momma never really decided who she wanted to be. She let the world decide that for her.”

“Huh. Well I Gotta go home now. I’m already late.”

“I thought you couldn’t tell time. Eh, whateva, run along. Say hello to your mother for me.”

Check out the rest of the Old Man From Jersey series of philosophical comics:


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