The Peter Pan Syndrome

Mar 15, 2001 |J. Budziszewski

Ever feel like running from responsibility? In many ways, college is the perfect place to hide.

As we left campus to catch a bite of lunch, Zack stopped at a pastel green building the locals call Guacamole Memorial. It's a private dorm, the largest in the student ghetto. He glanced at his Mickey Mouse watch. "D'you mind if we turn in here first, Prof? I forgot something."

"Would you like me to wait outside?"

"No, you can come in."

All in all I wished I hadn't; faculty could hardly be more conspicuous in a place like this. Besides, it was co-ed, and as we passed girls in various stages of dress, I felt as though I were visiting a house of ill repute. Zack noticed my uneasiness and laughed.

"After a while you get used to it, Professor T."

"I don't see how."

"There are two theories about that. One is that with all these girls living on the same floor you do, you start feeling like they're sisters. Incest taboo, you know?"

"What's the other theory?"

"Well, there's a lot of incest."

A few paces further was his door. Turning the key, he said "C'mon in. Don't step on the skateboard. I'll be just a sec."

My eyes scanned the room. On the bed was a water gun version of an AK-47 assault rifle; next to it, a pile of comic books. On the desk perched a video game console, decorated with five or six Beanie Babies and a Pokémon. From the ceiling hung a model of a Star Wars craft — I think it was the Millennium Falcon. On the floor, a business textbook was opened to the section on Bayesian analysis; alongside it, a copy of Horton Hears a Who was opened to the section where Horton is vindicated. A couple of limp mylar balloons were attached by laces to a pair of sour athletic shoes. Zack thrust his arm into a pile of clothes, thrashed around, and pulled out a leather wallet. "That's lucky," he said. "I was worried that the washing machine might have hurt it. Let's go."

By prearrangement, we headed for the Edge of Night. He ordered a fried egg sandwich, I called for my usual Reuben. No sooner had we given thanks than he got down to business.

"The reason I invited you to lunch, Professor Theophilus, is that I wanted to ask your opinion about something."

"Go ahead."

"What's wrong with me?"

I studied him across the table. "What makes you think there's something wrong with you?"

"Lots of things. For one, next semester I graduate, and I've just been admitted to the M.A. program in my field."

"Do you call that bad?"

"It is if you don't need an M.A."

"But, Zack, if you don't need one —"

"Then why am I planning on getting one? That's just it: I don't know."

"I see."

"Here's another thing. There's this girl, Julie. I think you know her."

"I've seen you with her. Nice girl."

"Well, I'm crazy in love with her. And she says she loves me too."

"Do you call that bad?"

"It is if I don't want to marry her."

"Don't you?"

"I do and I don't."

"Why?"

"That's just it: I don't know that either." He ran both hands through his hair. "I'll never find anyone like her. I can see myself growing old with her. If I don't act soon I'll lose her forever. But I keep telling myself that I can't."

"Do you feel that you're not good enough for her?"

"Of course I'm not good enough for her — nobody could be. But that's not it."

"What is it, then?"

"I must be crazy! Do you think I'm crazy?"

"I wouldn't say crazy."

"What would you say? That I can't handle responsibility?"

I pulled at my beard and considered him. "I happen to know your advisor, Zack. He has nothing but good to say about your senior thesis. And last year, when you ran the Speakers Program for the Student Christian Council, I heard that you were the best chairman they'd ever had. So it isn't that you can't handle responsibility."

He was silent.

"I think you're just afraid to grow up."

"I'm terrified to grow up," he blurted. "Lots of my friends are too. Some of them even more than me. Except they don't know it, or else they think that's normal. Why are so many people like that?"

"A better question would be 'Why are you like that?'"

"I don't know. I guess I think I'll make a mess of things."

He changed the subject.

"Were people of your age afraid of growing up?"

"Lots of people my age still haven't grown up," I said.

"Has it always been that way?"

"I'd say 'No.' Historically, some people have been afraid of growing up, but most have looked forward to it. Even adolescence is an invention of modern times. Prolonged adolescence is more recent still."

"How recent?"

"1950s or 60s, I'd say."

"Isn't that your generation?"

"Yes, we have a lot to answer for."

"What made it different from the generations that came before?"

"Lots of things."

"Like what?"

"Too many to list them all."

"Then list some of them."

I sighed. "Too much free time. Too few responsibilities. Too much disposable income. Enormous high schools in which teens imitated each other instead of grown-ups. Mass higher education for people who weren't really interested in it. Separation of the generations as families moved around to catch economic opportunities. Loss of traditions. Rise of 'experts.' Decline of Christian faith. Resulting loss of the eternal perspective. With that, an increasing inability to set distant goals even for this life. That's just for starters."

"What do you mean, 'just for starters'?"

"I mean that there's an even bigger reason for the change."

"What?"

"The collapse of sexual mores. And with sexual mores went something else: The ancient tacit covenant among all women. You see, once enough young women stopped holding out for marriage, the bargaining position of the ones who did hold out was undercut. As my grandmother used to say, 'Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?'"

"Like most of my friends do."

"Right. But the next part of the story concerns you particularly."

"How do you mean?"

"The other big result of sexual laxity was that divorce rates shot up like rockets. This had all sorts of bad effects. A child idealizes his parents. If they couldn't stay married, he thinks, then how could he? He may even blame himself for the divorce. And so he expects to make a mess of things, as adults always do."

Zack looked stricken.

"Worse yet, a lot of divorce means that a lot of kids grow up without dads. If a boy's father deserts his mother, the very idea of fatherhood is diminished in his eyes. That's a catastrophe, and I don't just mean that he's sad about it. To a small boy, his father is more than his father — he's his vision of his future, his portrait of adult manhood. If that vision is discredited, then growing up itself is discredited."

The stricken look on Zack's face continued to deepen.

"This sense of disillusionment spreads through the —"

"Please stop, Professor T."

"I'm sorry."

"No, it's okay. I just need to stop listening for a minute."

We finished our sandwiches. I asked for an espresso. Zack signalled for a refill on his soft drink. He set it down, took a long breath, then exhaled.

We looked at each other.

"So how does a guy —"

"A man, Zack. You're 22."

"I don't feel like one."

"But you are one."

"Then how does — a man — of 22 — start growing up?"

I thought for a little while.

"There are two main things. One was known even to the pagans. The other is a mystery of Christian faith."

"Go on."

"The thing that even the pagans knew is that in order to grow up, you've got to start acting like a grown-up. It's the same with every trait of character. To become courageous, you practice the actions of courageous people. To become frank and open-hearted, you practice the actions of frank and open-hearted people. Whatever you do consistently, for good or ill, you become."

His brow furrowed. "That sounds circular."

"Think about it."

"What's the other one — the Christian thing?"

"Your earthly model of manhood may have been defective, even absent, but a flawless one once walked on earth and reigns in heaven, from which He will return in power. Focus your gaze on the perfect Manhood of the perfect Father's Son. Study it, pray about it, meditate on it — and copy it."

For a long time Zack looked at me goggle-eyed. Then he collected himself, folded his arms, and smirked.

"So you say. But if I'm supposed to do that, then what's Julie supposed to do?"

I wasn't about to be sidetracked.

"Well, Zack," I said, "she can hold you to it."

Copyright © 2001 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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