According to an article I recently read, a large number of kids say they want to become pilots when they grow up. I am still not sure what I would like to be should I ever grow up, but I can tell you with certainty that I never dreamed of becoming a pilot when I was a child. The idea that I might be able to fly an airplane didn’t strike me until I was in high school; when driving around the suburban streets of Orange County, California, a friend and I saw a sign on a junior college marquee advertising flying classes. We looked at each other and decided that would be fun, but neither of us had the time nor money, and besides, by the fifth grade I had already decided to become a psychologist (after glancing through my brother’s high school psychology textbook), so the idea of flying evaporated into the rather thin mist from whence it came.
Years before, while attempting to grow up in New York, I don’t remember any one of my friends ever saying they wanted to be a pilot. That could be because I only had one or two friends, or more likely it was because I grew up around lower middle-class Jewish kids, and we were culturally programmed to be doctors or lawyers, whether we wanted to or not. If we failed at those endeavors, we could become some sort of accountant—a kind of mini-lawyer, or maybe a dentist or podiatrist if we couldn’t get into medical school.
Flying around 8 miles in the air didn’t seem culturally acceptable, although there were certainly those who did it. (Take a look at the inspiring documentary “Above and Beyond” about Jewish WWII pilots involved in the founding of Israel.) I can only imagine my mother’s reaction if I told her I wanted to be a pilot when I grew up. “A pilot? What kind of job is that?”
Fast forward—and believe me it was fast—about 35 years, and at the ripe old age of about 50 I earned my pilot’s certificate. I had already become a doctor, but not a real doctor, of course, because psychologists only doctored the mind and couldn’t do orthopedic surgery, take tonsils out or smash a Jewish nose to bits and make it look less ethnic. All psychologists could do was help make people feel less ethnic.
But I feel pretty good about having become a psychologist, especially after having such a gratifying career, and even better about getting my pilot’s certificate. But the growing up part? Not sure I have ever been there or done that.
Of course, growing up means different things to different people. Most of my psychologist buddies might be inclined to offer an oblique definition, struggling painfully to avoid jargon and likely failing, saying something like, “Well, it’s the ability to differentiate yourself from your parents, you know, well uh, like to individuate (jargon alert)– to find your own identity and function independently in the world.” Okay, got it.
To my parents, growing up undoubtedly meant making it on your own, which meant using your own means to create enough personal capital to support one’s lifestyle and care for the next generation, who will undoubtedly be incapable of growing up given how much my generation will spoil them.
To me, growing up means taking responsibility for my actions, suffering the consequences gracefully, and learning how to forgive when I have the least inclination to do so.
The way to do this, traditionally, was to go to school, find some sort of career, start at the bottom and work one’s way up. The shortest route to anywhere is a straight line, so working one’s way up in one’s chosen career was considered the best path to a successful and meaningful life. Getting married and having babies who then get married and have babies, and then eventually go on cruises to the Bahamas, or move at least part-time to Florida were the things to do. It was, I repeat, all very linear.
I am happy to see that many so-called millennials don’t subscribe to this notion. Blessed or cursed with more choices and support from the previous generation, it is now au current for one’s life course to be more like that described years ago by anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson in her revelatory book “Composing a Life”. A life, as she instantiates by following several women mentors who reached the epitome of their careers and then switched to completely different careers, can look more like a quilt made up of entirely different squares but patched together to create something beautiful.
I like this metaphor, because in it one doesn’t grow up simply by moving in a straight line from one milestone to another on the same, narrow course. I am not disparaging that notion, having myself followed a fairly straight line from fifth grade to fiftieth. What I don’t like about the straight line, though, is that it implies that growing up has something to do with reaching a certain destination, rather than recognizing that in life, the destination can also be the journey itself. In the quilt metaphor, one merely needs to pause at any point and reflect upon the beauty of the quilt that has been pieced together so far to understand that one has already composed a life.
I don’t know that I have ever grown up, or will ever grow up, if growing up means getting the next aviation rating, having a thick enough academic vita, or reaching a certain number in my bank account. Those targets keep moving. And if I am correct in my view that growing up means finding grace in taking responsibility for my actions, not blaming others and deeply forgiving those who have harmed me (including myself), I’m pretty sure I may never get there. In the meantime, I guess, I will strive not only to reach those goals, but pause for a moment now and then to reflect upon the life that has been lived so far, and find a bit of gratitude for where I have come along the straight line, and the beauty of the ever unfinished quilt I have managed to piece together so far.