Living As-If; Choosing My Adulthood

A while back, when I was with my previous partner, I was taking a class preparatory to a possible future conversion to Reform Judaism. My partner was Jewish, and we were contemplating a commitment ceremony and having kids together. So I was taking a class at a local temple. I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to convert, but Reform Judaism held a lot of appeal. For one thing, and perhaps most importantly, I wouldn’t have to believe in God to convert. I wouldn’t even really have to believe in Judaism. I would just have to live as if I believed.

I have liked this idea ever since I heard it. Live As If. My ex used to call it something different — “fake it until it’s true.” I think live as-if is a little clearer, though. One doesn’t have to ever actually buy into one’s story. You don’t have to ever actually believe your line. Just keep behaving as if you do; that’s enough.

This is how I operate my current state of adulthood. And the thing is, the things I fake keep coming true. It’s a tenant of Aristotelian ethics that we are made of the actions we take. That merely intending to be a good person does nothing — you need to act like a good person to be one. And the longer we act in certain ways, the more we become that thing. Right action changes character into right character. This appeals to me. It means that I can act generously so that other people will think better of me, and the generous act still counts as a good despite its selfish motivations. Eventually I will become generous for its own sake.

I think this is a very practical approach that Aristotle and Judaism are taking. If you demand that people, in order to be good, can only ever think good things you end up with a community full of secret guilty liars. No-one’s thoughts are that pure. But if you give people the privacy of their own minds in which to be selfish and mean and vindictive, as long as we all act decently towards each other, your community stands a better chance of working.

It also just flat-out makes me happier, to live as-if. I can know in my secret heart what a rotten person I may be, and it doesn’t matter. I have still accomplished things, I am still successful, I am still a good person as long as I get the dishes done and get the kids to their classes and pay my bills and send thank-you emails. I live as-if I am the kind of person who sends holiday cards, and, lo, there I have sent them. I live as-if I am a person who gets her taxes done early, and, lo, they get done. I live as-if I am a person who takes the initiative on house projects, and — well, actually, I haven’t gotten to that one yet. Perhaps that should be next on my list.

I find this to be a useful tool with which to master adulthood. Anytime I find myself wondering how on earth to do something, or I berate myself for not being more on top of a situation, I ask myself — how would a person who was good at this act? What steps would they take? What would [insert character from a book who does this sort of thing] do? How can I pretend to be that person? This has far more utility to me than that other model for successful adulthood, The Hero’s Journey.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hero’s Journey recently, and its role in my life. I blogged about one aspect of it recently, here, and how the Hero’s Journey is form of narration with limits. But the monomyth hasn’t left my head. I think that the Hero’s Journey contributes to a pervasive sense of unhappiness in first world Western culture.

Now, I’m sure that none of us reading this blog post actually take the Hero’s Journey as a serious model for how to live our lives. Not consciously. But … But I think we do. Here’s the gist:

”A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” — Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

I think far, far too many of us think that this is going to be the course of our lives. And, for about ten-to-fifteen years, it is. The Hero’s Journey is a useful, necessary metaphor for life from about age fifteen to age twenty-five or thirty. You must leave your common-day home and family. You must venture into a worlds full of dangers and prizes and fabulous forces. There will be sex. There will be the potential for violence, or at least conflict. There will be inscrutable gods — bosses, professors, supervisors, foremen. There will be quests such as dealing with your insurance when you are hit by a drunk driver, job interviews, first dates and first breakups. If we didn’t believe that it was all for mighty goals we likely wouldn’t do it. Setting out into the world is uncertain, possibly even frightening. But at the end of it we will be employed, we will own our own homes, we will have love and family and success. At the end of it we will prove to be equal to or better than the common day from which we first ventured. The central theme of this life-meme is that you are completely and inherently awesome, and through a series of challenges your innate awesomeness will be revealed, praised, and rewarded handsomely.

I think about this whenever I see people refer to the much-quoted Hyperbole and a Half comic, This is Why I’ll Never Be an Adult. Specifically when I see people quote “CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!” There’s a line that the author of Hyperbole says, just after that panel. She says, “It’s like I think that adulthood is something that can be earned like a trophy in one monumental burst of effort and then admired and coveted for the rest of one’s life.”

Oh, my. Oh my oh my oh my. What a horrible fallacy. How absolutely doomed to failure.

Because, see, life isn’t the Hero’s Journey. It’s not a quest. It’s not even a platformer game, in which you keep advancing through the levels until you win and are done. When you finish all the levels in life you are dead. Nobody’s going to hand you a medal for taking out the trash, no, not even when it’s overflowing. And there will be more trash tomorrow, which you will need to take out again.

I was thirty-two years old before I figured this out. You’ll note that is two years after I had kids. Two years after buying my second house. Five years after becoming an air traffic controller, for pete’s sake! And I was still, always, waiting for my damn prize. For someone to recognize that I was the specialest snowflake and that I was winning the game. This route lies … incredible disappointment. Waiting for external validation for merely going about your life does not, in my experience, lead to happiness. But there’s another life-meme-myth-thingy to follow, one that I find much more rewarding. Living as-if.

There’s another quotation that I always think of and paraphrase:

“Adulthood isn’t an award they’ll give you for being a good child. You can waste… years, trying to get someone to give that respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough. No. You have to just… take it. Give it to yourself, I suppose. Say, I’m sorry you feel like that and walk away. But that’s hard.” — Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign

Give it to yourself. Take adulthood and walk away. Live as-if. Fake it until it’s true. Take right action regardless of how you feel about it. Finally, at the age of thirty-two, I did this. I started acting as if I were a responsible adult, and as Aristotle predicted, somehow it came true. But the really damn difficult part is, if you don’t adjust your expectations of reward it is disappointing. You can’t fake being an adult while secretly hoping for the parade to be thrown in your honor at any moment. That Hero’s parade never comes, and eventually you will give up on this whole virtue thing because nothing good enough to be satisfying ever happens to you.

The good part is, though, succeeding at adulthood is internally rewarding. It is rewarding to me to not worry whether I paid my bills this month or if they got lost in my stack of unopened mail. It is rewarding to me to not disappoint my children. It is rewarding to me to not argue with J because I forgot to do something important. It is rewarding to me to see the kitchen counter, however briefly, before it is buried in dishes again. These things are rewarding to me because I am not waiting for my hero’s journey to come to an end. I’m no longer waiting for the castle and princess and kingship to which I am so clearly entitled, by virtue of my quest-completion. I now choose to reward myself.

I’m not on a quest anymore. I’m not finishing One Difficult Thing and then retiring to a life of ease and sloth. Life isn’t the fairy tale, it’s Sondheim’s Ever After from the musical Into the Woods. Towards the end of the second act the Baker is lamenting the course his life has taken after the adventures in the Woods. After the fairy tale has ended, that is. He’s afraid because he doesn’t know what to do next, or how to live his life. Another character tells him to start with what he can control. Take satisfaction and reward in the challenges of the every day, and derive internal pride from your accomplishments. As the Baker’s baby boy is crying, he is told “just calm the child.” No quests, no giants, no magic beans or curses. To quiet a crying infant; just start with that and the rest will come, one thing at a time. There’s no shortage of Next Things. There’s no shortage of Things Successfully Completed, though, either. And it’s through the completion of life’s small, everyday goals that we live.

I’m a lot happier now than I used to be. I’m happier because I’m not waiting for an impossibility. I’m not waiting for my adventure to begin, my reward to materialize. My reward is right here in the day-to-day fabric of my life. I choose to live as if my life was important in its current state, without the application of mighty goals and noble quests. I live my life as if what I do matters each day. I live my life as if I have value as I am. I live my life as if, and all of those things are now simply true.