IN those lax, quiet days leading up to New Year, I found myself killing time staring at a photograph of myself as a young boy that I found rummaging in a box of old mementoes. George Orwell reflected on this experience, in his essay, England Your England: “What have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”
What does it mean, then, to grow up? What do we keep and what do we leave behind? From the inside I am still that small boy. Something distinct, but ineffable – the sense of “me” – remains. And yet how changed I am! Not only uglified by age – the fate of us all – but coarsened, broken, made and remade many times over, falling apart and coming together.
I have experienced things that innocent, hopeful boy could never have imagined in his dreams – or nightmares. All these things have modified, in some sense, my idea of my Self and the way I perceive or understand the world. And yet it remains impossible to say what “growing up” really is (although it is something we frequently urge our children to do when they are petulant or sulky).
We are blunted, no doubt. The openness we have as children by necessity has to close down, as we understand how vulnerable it leaves us to show all, to feel all. Do we gain also? Many seem to think not – as the cracker barrel motto, Don’t Grow Up – It’s A Trap suggests, and many slogans and sayings like it.
But to compare an adult with a child is almost, but not quite, like comparing apples and bananas, so great is the transformation – a transformation that never ceases if you are willing to be open to it.
Perhaps that is the key – that “if”. One hears people say, “Oh, people don’t change” and I suspect in many cases it’s true. People erect the interior house of their world, guarded as best they can against chill winds and earthquakes, embellish it with gewgaws of preconceptions and the furniture of fixed world views. Thus their inner world is rendered both secure and sterile.
Others remember what it was to be a child, to remain open as can be borne. They understand that the price is high. But they understand that to grow up – to truly grow up – is a series of deaths and rebirths, of changes that one cannot resist without becoming ossified. Adolescence, marriage, the birth of children, their leaving of home, the passing of a soul into old age – all these things require acceptance and adaptation and learning. And pain.
We glamorise what it is to be a child nowadays. Once upon a time, we elevated what it was to be a grown up – a fully realised man or woman. When I look at my children, in fact, almost any children, I can see in them an obvious and unavoidable beauty, both physical and spiritual, that must fade or transform as they grow.
But they can be beautiful adults too, and beautiful old people – but they won’t get that way by hanging on to childhood and youth, but by incorporating, or folding, those older parts of themselves into the more recent manifestations.
A human being is not a thing, but a process – a process that we, through our choices, have a role in. I am 60 in a few weeks. I don’t much like it. And yet I can perceive certain sensations or qualities in myself that that six-year-old child in the photograph could not have imagined. I cannot remember what it is to be him. But if he knew what it is to be me, all these decades later, I hope he would find that the remaking of the version of the person he was, was not all loss and diminution. Because that person persists, yet still changing now, tomorrow and the day after that – until the final day. theguardian.com
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