16 December, 2011

The shift from childhood to adulthood, Or: does growing up mean you've "changed"?

Ever since I came to the unsettling realization that I'm "grown up", I've been fascinated by the subtlety of this process, particularly as it affects one's ways of thinking. How do kids think compared to how adults think?

One thing I've noticed is how easy it becomes once one hits, say about twenty, to start underestimating kids. "Oh, he's only ten, he doesn't understand," one thinks...and then one realizes, with a bit of a start, that one understood X or Y quite well at ten oneself. At some point, the move into the adult world at least mostly complete, one begins to separate the experience of being a child from that of being an adult. Yet this is constantly gainsaid by one's own memories, in which the experiences aren't distinctly divided at any point. More simply, you are still "yourself" in your memories of being ten. Not "a ten year old".

Certainly, thought becomes increasingly capable of nuance and tolerant of incompleteness; one loses a certain amount of one's previous faith in reason to carry through to the bitter end of all inquiry, and then realizes that's not such a bad thing. One becomes increasingly capable of making distinctions (between people and their ideas, between the "good" aspects of certain beliefs and the ones that are less than supportable, etc). But what I can't help finding fascinating is how constant one's basic principles, both intellectual and moral, and even one's interests, remain from about the age of four on. In other words, the aspects of one's identity susceptible to alteration seem to be given their penultimate form fairly early on in life.

Not that one can't change these later; the process of change in adulthood is, however, slow and difficult, working against one's "character".

It might be helpful if I allowed myself a moment to expand on my current ideas about character. "Character" is something that I understand to be a product of free will interacting with surrounding material circumstances which it cannot control. Therefore it is fully "chosen" in the moral/determinative sense, the sense that insofar as one is inclined to certain interests, one chooses freely to pursue them, and, more importantly, insofar as one understands right and wrong one's actions are free and may be judged according to the extent to which, within the constraints of that understanding of right and wrong, one chooses the "good". However, character is also "determined" to an extent by material circumstances (a notion perfectly compatible with Catholic theology if you note that God would have put different individuals in different material circumstances expecting people to react to them accordingly; you can find plenty of support for the notion in St. Paul). One's interests, one's intellectual preoccupations, and even (in a fallen world where natural law may be imperfectly perceived) one's understanding of right and wrong can be largely determined according to material circumstances. This is not to say that "material circumstances determine action"; acts are always to at least some extent the product of free will, unless you're talking about something like sleepwalking.* However, I do see the range of action to be determined by circumstance, which, when you're looking at moral issues, will have certain ramifications when it comes to culpability. What sort of ramifications and to what extent? Ha, well, that's why we've got that little reminder to "judge not lest ye be judged".

In short, I'm basically advocating a view that merges elements of the traditionally contradictory Greek moira and persona understandings of character, and that does so invoking the Christian distinction between absolute morality and individual culpability. That is, action considered purely vs. the state of the soul.

La di da.

To get back to what I was saying about the development of character, however: character can, in my view, develop, but the culmination of material constraints over the years, compounded by the force of habit (another material aspect--repetition--though one driven, at least initially, by choice), ensures that "character" is something quite deeply ingrained in an individual.  It's not simply a "mask" that one can put on and take off as the Greek notion of persona describes it. When you choose, you're choosing in the context of an ever-lengthening series of past actions, accumulated habits, and the material circumstances both totally out of your control and those which you had once chosen but which are now out of your control. Obviously, that's not to say character equates to one's moira either; one isn't "fated" to act a certain way. But unless you have a fairly strong will to change (and a fairly strong reason to do so), who you were and how you thought as a child is likely to stay constant in many important respects as time passes.

Now what got me thinking on this train of thought may serve to demonstrate how constant certain aspects of one's character (in this case mostly interests, which, yes, I do think belong in a consideration of character, and I could and probably will someday go into a long exposition of Elizabeth Bennet's apparently shallow "And of all this I might have been the mistress" reason for warming to Darcy...). Specifically, I was remembering the mass of childhood writing I found while cleaning out my room in early September. I found it rather amusing to see how little some things change. Oh, I really have been interested in X for all that long? Oh, wait, I've been thinking about that since then? For example:

  •  The fact that I've been writing so long at all is the most obvious example. Tucked away in the corner of some box I found a tiny notebook in which I had been writing a story around the age of five...the estimate comes from the fact that I was writing it about "baby Jo-jo," who would be my now-seventeen-year-old brother. Who would be mortified, of course, to have such a name recalled now. Good thing he doesn't read blogs. It was basically about the difficulties of taking a baby to the hairdresser for my mom's appointment; I remember starting the story in the salon because the hairdresser had just given me the notebook. This story also had the fantastically idiosyncratic name of "Mer-mee-mook book". I do not remember why, but I suspect it may have had something to do with the fact that I always found rhyming extraordinarily funny. I do remember tucking it in the box soon after coming home with the intention of writing another chapter that never would be written; starting and leaving writing unfinished is another habit I've kept unfortunately intact over the years.
  • I also kept a diary from the ages of six to eight, according to the dates. That's not to say that I kept it with any discipline. There's a total of about fifteen entries in there. What one can gather from them, however, is telling. For one, my rather inordinate pride in my family has been around for at least sixteen years! And here I thought it had developed in college. Nope. There's plenty of boasting about how "My sister is learning to read. I am very proud of her." "Jo-Jo is learning X". "William is the best baby." And many more extravagant claims for which I cannot remember the priceless wording. Much of the rest is devoted to talking about how great our animals are and my feelings when they died. Okay, not everything has remained so constant.
  • An early entry records what I believe was probably my first "poem" (or so I dubbed it):
    • Papa is walking and walking,/While Mama is talking and talking.
    • Not altogether unobservant, I suppose. Apparently my interest in writing poetry, despite the stubborn hatred of reading it that lasted until I was in my senior year of high school, goes back a bit. I do remember being highly critical of all attempts, however. They usually ended up in the fire, which is rather a bad thing now, considering how amusing it is to look back on such things.
  • I also discovered a "eulogy" I had written for our first cat, who perished in the most traumatic way possible by being hit by a car on my seventh birthday. It didn't make it any better that I was the one to find the body. Ah well. The eulogy was touching. Bearing excellent testimony to the obsession with cats that is still strong in our family, even taken to extremes by my brothers, the younger of whom seem to turn every conversation to the topic of: "Penelope just learned how to jump on our shoulders," etc.
  • A list of "life plans" dated August 1997 includes these directives: 
    • Write
    • Find out how everything works
    • Visit Russia (and yes, I am still fascinated by that country, having since hosted [or had my parents host] several Russian exchange students, read tons of Russian history and novels, compiled three full play lists of Russian music [classical, folk, and Orthodox chant], and commenced study of the Russian language)
    • Read War and Peace (at that age I only knew that it was a big book and people would be impressed if I read it), the whole Bible, and any other important books I could find
    • Learn Irish (this one sadly died off; my interests did grow a bit more practical with time)
    • Go to Europe
    • Practice the piano every day (if only) 
    • Go to Colby College (I did actually apply, but then turned down admission in favor of UD in one of those nearly inexplicable changes of opinion that proves providential in the long run)
    • Learn how to cook really well
    • Get good at archery (I had gotten a real bow as a birthday present that year; again, not all interests are permanent--partly because of lack of time and opportunity) 
  • There were plenty of other "to-do" lists, mostly compiled in cooperation with my siblings. The various lists included directions for how to:
    • Stop fighting (haha, that one never worked)
    • Train for the Olympics
    • Send money to Africa
    • Only that last was ever remotely successful. However, the interests in doing all these things have remained to one extent or another. No Olympics, nor any interest in getting to them, but I do at least want to be as good as possible at running.
  • Some very elementary musings about what it means to be "good" that I wrote after a long conversation with my mom about Scarlett O'Hara, Bill Clinton, and Rush Limbaugh, in which she essentially introduced me to the idea that one must always distinguish between a person's value as a person, their "potential," as she put it, and their actions. Also that you need to give people the benefit of the doubt regarding their intentions; as I understand it in retrospect, it was basically a simplified version of the culpability vs. morality distinction. Scarlett's infamous "Even if I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again" speech had disturbed me greatly, I recall, and was the catalyst for the conversation. Which we had in the cellar while Mum was doing the laundry. Since then, it's been one of my core ideas (homeschooling works out pretty darn well when your mom is clever enough to put basic philosophical concepts into simple language and make them seem natural to little kids).
  • One of my personal favorites out of everything I found, however, was a short essay on how "Knowledge is Power". You can't say that conviction has changed much over the years. It basically defended reading as a form of knowledge (was this an assignment or an argument that my reading time shouldn't be limited? I don't remember) and went on at length to elaborate on the various ways that knowing things will give you an edge in life, both materially and spiritually. As I may have mentioned before, the unbridled optimism of this conviction has been tempered. But the gist remains the same. So very amusing.

*Which I wouldn't actually consider to be an 'action' per se.

1 comment:

Greg Piv said...

I actually thought about this matter when I've been interacting with my younger brothers. More of a "do they consider X to be important, or can they even consider it to be important?"

I think being adult comes from the realization of why one has to do certain things, regardless of whether they're "nice" or "enjoyable" or "fun". While not an abrogation of fun, it's in essence the ability to postpone, or altogether reject, enjoyment of certain things for a greater purpose.

Because, I believe that children are, at the beginning, essentially hedonists, and they won't really do anything that causes them pain. In that way they have to be taught morality, or at least be brought to understand their innate inner ethics. It's a very complicated and long process.

I doubt I attained any semblance of real maturity until well into high school or perhaps into college. By the time I was a senior, I couldn't stand my HS freshman self, and then in college, I couldn't stand my high school self at all. However, I've found a sort of tolerance for "self" since I went to Rome...