The Age of Coming of Age

Image by Karl David Hill
Image by Karl David Hill

“Nobody belongs to us, except in memory.” That’s from one of John Updike’s narrators.


Which is to say … well, lots of things. Don’t you think so? Updike also wrote, “It is easy to love people in memory; the hard thing is to love them when they are there in front of you.” So there’s that. Hard, but doable. Hard, but so, so worth it.


But, sigh, memory? I fear that our memories tend to be like those infinitely regressive images you’ve seen. The closer you look, the more certain you are that it’s not your grandmother’s face you’re remembering: what you’re remembering is your own memory of her face. Or you’re remembering your own memory of your own memory of her face.


ourworldindata_life-expectancy-cumulative-over-200-yearsIn effect, what you’re actually remembering (or mostly remembering) is yourself. So, “nobody belongs to us, except in memory” may make sense only as this: “nobody belongs to us, except ourselves.”


Now, it used to be that we were all so busy trying so hard to survive just one more day that we really didn’t have time to get weary of belonging only to ourselves. Life was short: in 1800, the global average life expectancy was 32 years. Today, though, it’s 70 years. Over 80 in some countries.


I gotta tell you that 85 years of Jim is way, way, way too much Jim for this Jim. If you feel differently about the mini-you inside your mind with its own mini-him/her inside his/her mind and so on ad infinitum, I’m glad for you.


If you get what I’m talking about, though — and I have to assume that out of 100 Traces followers, many of you are getting these posts delivered to your inbox because we share a roughly similar way of looking at the world and ourselves — I say, if you get what I’m talking about, you’re interested as I am in strategies for making it through these 85 years, plus or minus, without going mad.


Of course, there’s always forgetting ourselves on purpose. Through meaningful work, for example, if we make good choices and have the good fortune to achieve that. Similarly, through the kind of study that draws us out of ourselves. And certainly by practicing mindfulness in our daily lives, an eminently worthwhile aspiration and exercise.


That last one is hard to sustain, though, isn’t it? It’s like you succeed finally in seeing the world in color, only to have it fade once again to black and white as your own undeniable selfness reasserts itself.


Image by Eric R. Jeschke


No, on the whole, if we are to live with ourselves for eight and a half decades, we must rely partly on this tactic: reinvention. We subscribe to the belief that … oh, I don’t know … how would you express it? Different ones of you will put it differently:


  • Each of us has multiple personae. We’re one person in this situation, a different person in that. We put on one persona when we’re with John, a different one for Jane. It’s just human nature. It’s our way of acknowledging and accommodating ourselves to the world around us. It’s being “nice,” basically. So, sure, we continually reinvent ourselves.
  • We never stop constructing ourselves. Circumstances can impinge on our freedom to do so, but they can never wholly deprive us of it. “Reinvention” of the self is, at its core, simply an exercise in free will. It’s a profoundly human undertaking. A celebration of our humanity. So, sure, we continually reinvent ourselves.
  • Life is an unending quest for one’s true self. Why unending? Because the quest itself alters us. The longer we search, paradoxically, the farther we wander from our true nature. So, sure, we continually reinvent ourselves, whether we like it or not.


Et cetera.


Dr. Leila Denmark
Dr. Leila Denmark

My point, in case you’re completely bewildered, which seems more probable than not, is that happiness especially in this era of centenarians on every street corner (such as my brother’s erstwhile pediatrician Dr. Leila Denmark, who practiced medicine until the age of 103 and was famous for being a free-thinking iconoclast) depends in great part on novelty or at least its possibility, on the conviction that something new is surely just around this next corner, and naturally since we spend so much darn time cogitating upon our own emotions and plans and opinions and anxieties, it’s essential that we believe that there’s still something new about ourselves to discover or to invent.


Savvy? We’re living so much longer that we’re increasingly challenged to find a reason to keep on living, to use “living” in two somewhat different senses.


Which leads me to my actual topic for this post. Namely, the ubiquity these days of coming-of-age stories, those many recent books and films about the passage from youth to adulthood.


I saw a very good one yesterday: Ira Sach’s Little Men, with Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle. Deftly handled. Nothing sentimental about this movie. So admirably restrained at those points in the plot when a different group of filmmakers would have abandoned restraint.




It got me thinking. What’s the appeal? And why has this particular story (seemingly) become so popular? As a literary theme, it’s been around at least since Homer’s Odyssey, but my sense is that it’s assumed a much greater prominence in the Western cultural landscape in the last century.


Is it simply that, as it’s often said, coming of age involves a loss of innocence, and at some later stage of our lives we develop an understandable nostalgia for that age of innocence?


I can’t believe it’s that we simply want to crawl back into the womb. No. My theory at the moment is that in the face of what I’ve been describing as our need to escape ourselves, to believe that this path we’ve been on for so long is not a dead end, we’re overcome by an atavistic urge to retrace our steps to the beginning, the place where it all started: that is, where we first realized that we’re something other than a mere extension of our parents; that each of us is alone, in an existential sense; that both virtue and vice are in our power; that we are sexual beings; and so on.


That locus of transition from child to adult is where each of us took a first step toward the person we’ve become. Maybe if we revisit that moment, we think, we’ll find our way to a different us.


Here are five of my favorite films in the genre:


Max Pomeranc gives the most natural performance I’ve seen by any child actor


Coming of age in reverse — children help adults rediscover a childlike vitality and hope


Cat Stevens’ soundtrack elevates it from wonderfully quirky to iconic


Difficult to watch, impossible to look away from
Difficult to watch, impossible to look away from


Beautiful — and I don't mean the cinematography only
Beautiful — and I don’t mean the cinematography only





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