Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When did you realize that you had become a grown-up?

Last year I entered an essay contest for Real Simple magazine.  The question posed was, When did you realize that you had become a grown-up?  While I didn't win, I still wanted to share my response with you.  Some of it has probably been mentioned in previous blog posts, so forgive me for any repetition.  Here goes:
I sat at a red light on my way back to the office from my lunch break.  The homeless man on the corner caught my eye, but I quickly shifted my gaze out of embarrassment.  If I didn’t acknowledge I saw him, then I wouldn’t have to do the awkward head shake implying I wasn’t giving him any money.  No sooner had that thought passed through my mind, when another one quickly took its place.  Why did I just do that? The light turned green and I continued my drive to my office, bewildered at the experience I just had.  There’s no denying I had averted my gaze numerous times in the past in similar situations, but never before had I consciously questioned myself about it afterwards.

I can’t say with certainty where I learned my behavior towards homeless people, but it was definitely something I had been doing since as long as I could remember.  I sat at my office desk that afternoon and tried to think of good reasons why I should ignore destitute people seeking my help.  I filtered through a myriad of thoughts. Why doesn’t he just get a job?  Why should I give him money when I have to work hard for it?  How can I be sure he’ll use it on food or water?  I knew I was just repeating phrases I had heard other people use in the justification of their behavior.  As I thought about it longer, some new questions emerged.  What if he is hungry?  What if my dollar goes towards the only meal he’ll eat today?  What if my generosity makes him smile?  It was like the clich√© light bulb switching on in my head.  No matter which way I looked at it, that man was worse off in life than I was.  He was standing on a corner in tattered clothes, in the blazing heat, asking for help.  If I chose to give him a dollar, it wouldn’t have even mattered what he spent it on – it would undoubtedly have been something that made him happier that day.  The potential cost to me?  A soda at lunch; a lunch I was probably eating with my coworkers in a climate-controlled, over-priced, full-service restaurant.  It really put the situation into perspective when I thought about it in those terms.  I had definitely reached grown-up status that day.

As children, we tend to adopt the philosophies and tendencies of our parents, older siblings, grandparents, and other elders.  We don’t usually have to justify our behavior or attitude regarding certain issues, because it was inherited. For better or worse, these tendencies often go unevaluated as we get older.  It reminds me of the story of the new bride who cut off the ends of the roast before cooking, emulating the actions of her mother and grandmother before her, only to find the grandmother started that tradition because her pan was too small.  This tale, in its many variations, is intended to teach the importance of understanding why we do certain things.  It’s the reasoning behind a tradition that is the most crucial part, not merely the act of repetition.

The change in my attitude concerning homeless people was only the beginning for my “growing up” and it epitomized what was to come.  It was the catalyst that made me realize there were many traditions I needed to question and many issues I needed to address with a fresh, open mind.  My religion, my political affiliation, my views concerning people who were different than myself – these were all blindly inherited from others. No longer could I use my age as an excuse for not critically evaluating my thoughts and actions.  I needed to determine the reasons for the things that I did and the beliefs that I held.  Now, as a grown-up, I am obligated to analyze and make informed, personal decisions.  Whether the results coincide with my parents or siblings or friends is unimportant.  What is important is that they are MY beliefs, and were arrived at through careful, deliberate consideration.
Some people dread growing up because of the fear of increased responsibilities, decreased free time, and the inevitable journey closer to death.  I think the day I grew up was the best day of my life, however!  As a result of that day, I am more compassionate, more generous, more humanistic, more empathetic, more analytical, and more focused on living my life to the fullest, in the short time that I have.  I decided what my purpose in life should be, and I wholeheartedly began living it on a daily basis.  As it turns out, I was 25 years old when this happened.  I had already graduated from college, gotten married, and entered the workforce in the years before that.  I think people can look back on any of those milestones and justifiably credit them for their passage into adulthood.  However, it wasn’t until that day, sitting in my car at a red light avoiding eye contact with a homeless man, that I truly grew up.

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