“Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.” Seneca – On the Shortness of Life
I was five…
Do you remember being five years old? I do. And I remember being altogether quite happy with everything being five entailed. There was just one blemish, one thing I couldn’t stand, and that was being treated like a baby.
This didn’t happen too often – my family didn’t baby me, nor did most family friends. I was used to being treated, if not as an equal, then at least as a valid contributor to whatever social situation I was in. And maybe that’s why it felt so patronising – it was rare and acute.
I don’t know if all kids go around feeling this way – I’ve never really asked any – but I can distinctly remember being at birthday parties and thinking “Why are you talking to me like I’m an idiot? I’m a person, just like you. Speak properly.” Like I say, I didn’t need to be treated like an equal, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand the adults’ compulsion to go so far the other way – to put on this strange high-pitched baby voice, and maintain sub-psycopathic levels of eye contact with me. It made me feel as though they were trying to pull the wool over my eyes in some way. It made me feel lied to.
My inner reponse as a child was just to roll my eyes and fight fire with fire – to take the adult before me just as seriously as I felt they were taking me. I didn’t let it bother me too much.
But it did set something into motion that has continued until this day – a keen sense of “What are you trying to hide from me?”
I was sixteen…
The suspicion that I was being cheated of the whole truth by the adults in my life continued all the way through my time at school. At every step, I felt as though there was this animosity between myself and whoever was in charge of me. Every authority figure seemed hell-bent on selling me some different but equally narrow and uninspiring worldview, and for my part I was hell-bent on not believing a single word of it.
But it reached fever pitch towards the end of secondary school, when the teachers began to collectively do the hard-sell on “The Real World.”
The Real World was this weirdly schizophrenic and dystopian vision of what awaited us after leaving school, and they were desperate for us to believe in it. In The Real World, they said, you could technically be, do, and have anything you wanted. Only you probably wouldn’t, because The Real World is a scary, vicious, competitive place, where there are only a certain amount of resources and a certain amount of good jobs and it’s every man for himself and everybody is out to get you all the time…
“… but you’ll be okay if you just do what we say. We’re on your side.”
I looked around in disbelief. People seemed to be nodding their heads, buying it hook, line, and sinker. Jesus, I thought. Oh, hell, let them. Me? I don’t like the sound of this. I’ve struggled to believe a word of what they’ve said for the last eleven years, why the hell would I start believing it now?
What I had known intuitively at five was clearer than ever at sixteen: The adults are up to something. They’re not giving you the whole truth. It’s up to you to figure that out for yourself.
I am almost twenty-nine…
And I was right.
I don’t mean to say that I left school full of confidence in myself and proceeded to go out there and kick the world’s ass and prove my teachers wrong. That would be an incredibly generous reimagining of the last thirteen years of my life. It’s not how it happened at all. But if I’m proud of anything I’ve done, it’s that I did at least make a point to try and figure things out for myself.
And what I figured out was that I was right all along. At least partly.
Because there is no “real world.” There’s just a bunch of adults running around, each one as scared and clueless as the kids, all trying to make the best of whatever shit sandwich the adults in their lives gave them. For most of them, it’s enough just to get through the day.
What I was right about was the fact that the adults hadn’t been giving me the whole the truth, and never had been. But my youthful narcissism led me to believe this was borne of some kind of Machiavellian conspiracy on the adults’ part.
I doubt that very much now, and I suppose the moment my mind changed was the moment I realised that I was an adult.
It happened about six years ago. I met up with my friend one Tuesday night. She was training to be a teacher; I was still training to be a person. We went to the Lescar for a few drinks, and then we went back to hers for a few more drinks. We were laughing and being loud and being idiots, and eventually she said she really needed to go to bed because she had to be up for school at half six. It was about one-thirty. I bid her farewell.
As I walked home, it dawned on me that without any warning, adulthood had crept up on me. I thought about my friend teaching a class full of kids in the morning, and then about the teachers I had had when I was young. I smiled when I realised that it was just as I had suspected all along…
Behind all the bluster and the authority and the suits and the detentions, they didn’t know much more about the way the world worked than I did. They, like me, were making it up as they went along.
I smiled and forgave them for babying me. And for trying to warn me about the evils of the world. They weren’t out to get me. They weren’t trying to deceive me. They weren’t up to something.
They were just trying to get through the day.