Tuesday, 17 May 2011

In Defense of Growing Up

In Defense of Growing Up
On the Relationship Between Happiness, Fear, and Innocence


In his survey of religious views on the search for happiness, Richard Schoch concludes with the "paradox" that "happiness feels like growing up." He argues that the process (for it is not a destination) of living a happy life is in fact the process of carefully and deliberately shaping how our lives unfold, and realizing whatever potential it is that we imagine we have. Transforming your life from potential to reality is, he argues, like growing up and is the way to live a good life.

This remains, however, somewhat paradoxical. Happiness (as some classic philosophers would argue) derives from a lack of stress and worry. What could be more stressful than the realization that any action we take now cannot be undone: that in making decisions we collapse the infinitum of possibility into just a single reality? If the choices we make are wrong, then the world becomes wrong and can never be corrected.

Growing up often feels like waking up. The fears of your childhood seem so trivial and surmountable when compared to the things that stress you now that it is no wonder that the poet cries: "what would you give for your kid-fears?" Like the dreamer awaking to the difficulties and horrors of real life, it is tempting to long to go back to sleep: to desire a return to innocence.

Since human experience is what really matters, it is only these experiences of fear or happiness or stress or bliss that are truly real. The idea, then, is that if fear and stress are real, any means to avoid them are ethical: including to ignore them. The simplest and best solution is to just never know that there is anything to fear: to reject from your world-view those things that strike dread in the heart and to thus avoid the barrier of suffering on our path to happiness. To put the idea in three words: "ignorance is bliss"

Even the best attempts at avoiding suffering, however, are doomed to fail. Even as children we had fears. Perhaps these fears seem trivial now, but I assure you that at the time they seemed very real. And here is where this line of thinking runs into a sticky point: if fears are real, than even the most childish of fears is actually the equal of the most "mature" of fears: for what matters is not what is feared but the experience of fear itself.

But this is not to ignore the very real catharsis and "bliss" that comes with falling asleep or contemplating ignorance. Where this catharsis comes from is not from an exchange of fears as we grow up, for one is equal to the other, but rather from the relinquishing of fear. We romanticize our life as children because we have outgrown the fears and troubles that we had then. It is the process of coming out of ignorance, of trivializing our suffering, that makes it blissful; not the original state of ignorance itself.

As we come into adulthood, we are faced with an odd realization: we are "grown up" (as a kid would say) and yet we don't really _feel_ grown up at all. It is hard to pick a day and say "on that day, I woke up and was an adult." This is because the process, like any kind of growth, is gradual and barely perceptible. We are uncomfortable saying that we are grown up, however, not just because it happens gradually, but because we know in our hearts that we are still not grown up.

To say that you _can_ grow up is to imply that you can "graduate" from life, knowing everything there is to know. You can hardly reach the state of being grown up, just as you can't reach the state of being happy: while there is life in you there is unhappiness and there is ignorance also.

The process of growing up is that of relinquishing our attachments. As we grow up we overcome our fear of the bed-monster, desire for the pacifier, and need to know everything. We learn to control ourselves: to sleep at regular hours, eat our vegetables, ignore pain we cannot control and shit in a toilet instead of our pants. It is this process of overcoming our attachments to the physical world and learning to temper our behavior that allows us to judiciously shape our lives, and is thus both the marker of maturity and of happiness.

Even for as far as we have come in controlling our desires, tempering our fears and directing our actions, there is still a very far way to go. The bliss of childhood lies not in our naivety or lack of restraint but merely in the extraordinary progress we made down the path of maturity.

What I offer here is a modest correction of an idea popularized by Peter Pan: To retain the happiness of childhood throughout your life you must not refuse to grow up, but rather you must refuse to ever stop growing up.