I found this song recently on a Spotify playlist. I like it because the lyrics capture the sometimes wordless phenomenon that seems to be fairly common among individuals trekking their way through the wide world of adulthood. It seems to be a popular subject for artistic expression as it has been portrayed from many different perspectives in media such as “Stop This Train” by John Mayer, “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Henry Chapin, and the book “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, just to name a few.
This phenomenon, in a nutshell, is a feeling of loss in regards to childhood in the face of adulthood’s challenges.
This theme is all over the lyrics of this particular song as it depicts the stress of adulthood and changing values:
“I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink
But now I’m insecure and I care what people think…
Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out”
Does this ever happen to you? Do you ever notice yourself being overly conscious about what someone (or a whole lot of someones) are thinking about you? Do you wonder why that stresses you out when you might not have been concerned about it when you were younger?
It sure happens to me at times.
How come? It’s not like the world with all of its problems wasn’t there when we were little. The end of the song seems to provide a theory:
“We used to play pretend, give each other different names
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing in our face
Saying, ‘Wake up, you need to make money‘”
Money. The turning of a child into a profitable cog in the economic machine. I think that’s part of it. Perhaps money is a branch of a deeper root that feeds this nostalgic condition.
When people look back on childhood, different words may come to mind. From the descriptions and depictions of childhood that I’ve come across, it seems to me that “carefree” is a common characteristic that many would agree is part of the ideal childhood. To be carefree can be interpreted many ways: without responsibility, without anxiety, without fear. This isn’t the same as being lazy or ignorant.
Think of how a child interacts with the world. They have a very small but growing library of knowledge, experience, and wisdom with which to operate. They haven’t yet learned how to do things efficiently, gracefully, or professionally and haven’t yet been taught the mechanics of qualities like greed, kindness, hatred, love, envy, or generosity. They’re taking everything in and responding to it based on the basic elements of who they are. In other words, they’re just being themselves and they’re really good at it. The concept of “saving face” or “fake it ’till you make it” are as distant to them as stars in another galaxy.
As a child grows up, those distant concepts come closer as they learn them through direct instruction and practice or through indirect observation. As we grow, we understand that there is more to do in life than to just be. We start learning concepts in school, getting grades, being rewarded or punished for our performance, getting jobs, getting paid, getting promoted or demoted. We start to realize that there are certain people we want to impress; friends, family, a potential employer, date, or spouse. Winning their favor feels good. Losing it feels bad.
Here’s a thought: Childhood is about learning to be, which provides the context for an adulthood of learning to do. When you were little, you didn’t need the latest gadgets, cars, a fat paycheck, or be the popular prom king to be content. For the most part, you could probably keep yourself pretty well entertained by running around in the backyard, playing with sticks or drawing with chalk. As an adult, many people seek to build, learn, advance their careers, expand their circle of influence.
I think the tension arises when the culture around us isolates childhood and adulthood from each other, treating them as if they are two completely different and irrelevant worlds. Society doesn’t currently have a great system for rewarding people for being. It’s more focused on the doing. Students are pressured to choose the best colleges, to pursue a major that will land them a job in a secure and profitable field, to strive for a well-polished GPA. Not that good grades and career choices are bad goals but like most things, when they’re taken out of proper context, things can get messy. People start to be valued not for who they are but for what they can do. The message that looms over children like an ominous storm-cloud is often something like, “Enjoy these years because these are the best years of your life.” Does that mean it’s all downhill afterwards and the fun stops? Is it any wonder that adulthood can be intimidating and overly complicated? And is it any wonder, still, that so many people seem dissatisfied with it?
I don’t think that’s the way it has to be though.
Rather than fostering a culture that segregates the wonder of childhood from the productivity of adulthood, we should be bridging them. The order should be something like: because of who you are, therefore do. That way, when the job falls through or you don’t make as much money as everyone else around you, the world doesn’t fall apart. You keep on truckin’. In other words, what you do, make, and produce should be qualities that grow like fruit from the rich soil of your identity. Not the other way around.
In the bible, a very well-educated and formerly highbrow man named Paul wrote something quite profound when he said “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret to being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” What is that secret? “I can do all this through [Jesus] who gives me strength” (Phillippians 4:12-13). Paul knew that his identity was secure in the God that created it. That’s why, even though being hungry and “living in want” were still challenging, he didn’t freak out when those times came. His identity didn’t hinge on whether or not he was able to bring home the bacon. Not exactly the motivation that propel some folks up the rungs of the ol’ corporate ladder.
So what about us? Do we treat ourselves (or others) as though we’re worthless without a six-digit bank account to prove other-wise? Are the raw components of our identities, unmasked in childhood, a far-off blip in our memory that is preserved only in photo albums and fuzzy home-videos?
A lot of good can be done to change the world. But what we do to change it isn’t everything.
Just a thought.