“Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now”
—Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”
When children are born, they have few skills, little ability to protect themselves, but as anyone can see, a wild-eyed curiosity and openness to wonder and beauty, with an unconscious but solid expectation that their parents and community will keep them safe. They are unbridled optimists, drinking deeply of openness and exploration, who have, of necessity, outsourced any cynicism to their parents and community.
Usually we bear the burden of such cynicism and protection willingly, and call it love. This gift of being allowed unselfconscious engagement with the world lets the sense of openness, adventure, wonder, trust, and yes, love grow strong enough that it may survive the coming challenges. Our achievement is a kind of mystical golden orb living somewhere inside the child.
To miss this stage is to risk a life without “juice,” vibrancy, joy, or passion. Sometimes those so deprived accept this as their lot, and other times the need is so strong they attempt to recreate this Garden of Eden as adolescents or adults, when the stakes are considerably higher, and the protections much less.
There comes an age when being enveloped in such protection is no longer helpful. We must leave (or be kicked out of) our garden. We back off from protecting our young. We allow, or cannot prevent, the skinned knee, the failed exam, the betrayal, the broken heart, the loss of a home, or even the death of treasured souls. We try to judge the ability of our children to handle these challenges. We play the role of Titan, of the hero, when we fear the risk is too great, but more importantly, we allow them to face their own fights, feel the spark of their own divinity, and become the heroes of their own stories when they can.
Adolescents (extending through young adulthood) must take and accept from their parents and community the burden of cynicism, the duty to sustain and protect, if they are to become adults. Those who have never moved past the unconscious expectation that others will protect and serve them are pathological optimists. The term may seem odd, because of the positive associations, but if they reject further development, they are immature, reckless, entitled, and self-centered. To them, life is about, “What can you do for me?” (Tell you to “Grow the —- up!” you might hear from the voice in your head.)
The achievements required to become an adult are significant – physical, intellectual, and social skills, knowledge of one’s culture and the world, and an ego capable of self-regulation, culminating in the ability protect and sustain oneself as a peer among adults. These skills, this ego, and this self can be so impressive, that one may not notice the mistake of believing this is the pinnacle of development.
The pathological cynic (who ultimately seems somewhat adolescent) takes pride in his or her defensive and sustaining skills – physical, intellectual, or social. He or she can point out limitless examples of dangers or risks, and dazzle you with his or her prowess in attack, defense, or sustenance – and yes, the world is filled with dangers, and such skills can be really quite useful, but they are also a dead end because the world moves forward only through optimism, through openness, wonder, and trust.
It is through finding a passion, something greater than oneself, often through love, or even more powerfully through becoming a parent, that one begins to remember the mystical golden orb inside. One gains the courage to let it back out, but with full awareness that the beauty and fragility of life coexist, maybe as different names for the same thing. One dares to treasure a fading flower, to try to make a dream real, to love a fallible and fickle human, to bring a fragile child into this dangerous but beautiful world, to hold a smile on one’s face and tears in one’s eyes without demanding that either prevail. To be a full adult is not to be a better version of a worldly young adult, capable of more impressive cynicism, but to contain both the child and the young adult, to contain both optimism and cynicism, wariness and hope.