“Nobody feels like an adult. It’s the world’s dirty secret.”
I took a night off from binge drinking (the American way) to watch Josh Radnor‘s (How I Met Your Mother) new film Liberal Arts, about a 35-year old college admissions adviser who embarks on a relationship with a 19-year old college student, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Radnor’s character, Jesse, visits an old professor (Richard Jenkins) at his alma mater, Kenyon, and seemingly falls in love with the college experience all over again. He seems both malcontent and lonely, but that all changes once he arrives at Kenyon due in part to meeting Zibby (Olsen), befriending a depressed student named Dean (who seemed loosely based on David Foster Wallace and carries a copy of Infinite Jest), and meeting a free-spirited Nat (Zac Efron).
Jesse comes dangerously close to taking Zibby’s virginity, but declines because he knows that her first time should be more of a transcendental experience. A conversation he has with Prof. Hoberg (Jenkins) about life concludes with Hoberg saying “Nobody feels like an adult. It’s the world’s dirty secret.” This helps Jesse realize that perhaps he shouldn’t be living through the college experience again, and that he may be interested in Zibby for the wrong reasons.
But all that aside, I want to talk about the quote itself and the message behind it. As a recent college graduate I’m in the purgatory of college life and adult life, and the majority of adults I encounter have nothing good to say about adult life. People hate their jobs or they hate adulthood, or anything post-high school or post-college. But they see it as a vicious cycle, as a fundamental requirement of living an earthly life. And to me, that’s essentially giving up on happiness. That’s like saying “there are some beautiful parts of life but you fail to recognize them until they pass, and then you spend the rest of your life wanting to return to that time.” I could be wrong, but that doesn’t sound like a healthy attitude. Maybe some people will peak in high school or college and trudge into the adult world miserably, reminiscing on varsity letterman jackets or campus bar-hopping on weeknights. Then they get a job and a routine and become comfortable, content, then bored.
Jenkins character says “Nobody feels like an adult,” and I partially agree with that. There are people who are adults yet desperately want to feel younger, and so live vicariously through younger children, friends, relatives, etc. They technically do feel like adults but try not to by reminiscing and living through others. Then there are people who actually don’t feel like adults because they are children at heart. They relish life and never stop developing and evolving. We don’t often associate development and learning with people above the age of 22, but those are basic processes that should never stop as long as we breathe.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines that actually proved to be profoundly influential, and it comes from an unlikely source. In the film Dazed and Confused, Jason London plays Pink, a soon-to-be high school senior. Toward the end of the movie he says to his friends “if I ever start referring to these years as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.” And I reference that quote because it reminds me, no matter what point of my life I’m in, that I never want to look back and think my best days are behind me. If you do that, what do you have to live for? A fistful of memories and a mouthful of platitudes?
You should never be an adult.
In Liberal Arts, Jesse finds happiness once he is able to accept life for what it is and where he’s at. I know that sounds cliche, but the funny thing about cliches is that they’re scarily true. He recovers from his college reversion and finds both love and happiness. But it all starts with accepting and not getting caught up in romantic nostalgia. Jesse becomes happy once Prof. Hoberg tells him nobody feels like an adult. And while there are surely some people in the world who “feel like adults”, I can assure you they’re not happy. Why do you think we look at the word adult with a negative connotation? It reflects the dull, the banal. Adult is defined in Webster’s as someone “fully grown or developed.” So if you’re still developing, growing, or evolving, I’ve got news for you: you’re not an adult. And by definition you should never be an adult. Because if you’re done changing, learning, and advancing, you’re stagnant. And that’s when you become an adult. If you get comfortable, predictable, overly-routine and dry, you stop developing. Think of those people in your life who fall into each category, and think which category you fall into. Will you quit developing and become an “adult”?
Again, I’m reminded of a quote, this time from a song titled “Mistaken for Strangers” by The National. The speaker describes people in the song as going through “another uninnocent, elegant fall / into the unmagnificent lives of adults.” The speaker equates being an adult with a lack of magnificence, or a boring and plain existence. A magnificent adult life does not exist, because happiness does not exist when you stop growing and developing. The good news is you can always start developing again. You can quit being so comfortable, reminiscing on younger years and waiting to die, and get out and live. That’s how we develop, experience. And oftentimes we derive meaning from experience. You may be an adult now, but you can stop. And you may become an adult in the future, but if you value happiness, I beg you not! You should never be an adult.