Friday, September 16, 2022

The Surprise of Human Adulthood

In recent years I've from time to time heard the lament that the adults aren't in charge anymore, as they were for example in the middle of last century. Along the same lines it's been said of a good person in an otherwise irresponsible organization that he or she is "the adult in the room." Certainly there does seem to be of late a dearth of people willing to put aside their own peculiar interests for the greater good.1

This conception of adulthood stands opposed to adulthood in the broader animal kingdom. Adulthood for most animals is primarily about sexual maturity. Indeed being ready for sexual reproduction is so essential to adulthood that the adult form of some insects cannot even consume food, but can only really move about and mate.

The irony is that the monomaniacal obsession with mating is precisely what keeps many humans from behaving like "an adult", in the human social sense of being responsible.

Humans are unusual that way. Reaching adulthood means the ability to set aside the activity that our bodies have sexual matured to engage in. There's a sense in which being an adult requires being able to reach back to that freedom from concern with mating that is characteristic of the juvenile stage of life.2 I think that's why preserving the sexual innocence of children is important: it gives freedom to the subsequent adult.

An additional point to be made concerns the irony of celebate Christian priests being called "father", when their celebacy is precisely what prevents them from being fathers in the primary sense. Such men are fathers because their celebacy frees them (or should) from the constraints of physiological parenthood, and allows them to act in a detached way for the greater community. They are fathers because fatherhood itself is not about mating (despite in its primary sense usually being a consequence of mating), but is most essentially a posture of care over others from a position of emotional detachment.3


1. Critical theories are no help in this regard, because they claim (self-contradictorily) that it's impossible for anyone to rise above their peculiar interests.

2. This is also true just in physiological terms. Human form is relatively unspecialized and undifferentiated compared to other animals (we don't have fur, claws, fangs, etc). So human bodies retain characteristics of earlier, undifferentiated stages of morphogenesis.

3. Spiritual motherhood is similar, but detachment is more characteristic of fatherhood in its various senses.