Sometimes I don’t feel much like a grown-up.
On paper, it seems like I should qualify. My wife and I have been married nearly seven years after tying the knot when we were both 34. We have three children (Henry, 5; Annabeth, almost 3; Maggie, 1), as well as an obligatory minivan and station wagon to cart them wherever we need to go. We have a modest house in the same neighborhood where my wife grew up in Colorado Springs. And we’ve both been working in our respective professions (me, writing; my wife, church ministry) for about 15 years or so now. Oh, and we pay our taxes. That’s definitely something grown-ups do, right?
For all that, however, sometimes I don’t feel like a grown-up. Let me explain.
When you’re a child, it’s obvious who the grown-ups are. For starters, they sit at a different table at Christmas and Thanksgiving. And they always have stuff to do. They have jobs and “pay the bills,” whatever that means. They frequently seem slightly preoccupied, or grumpy, or both. Most importantly, they have privileges that you don’t: They get to stay up late and keep watching TV when you have to go to bed; they can sneak a cookie before breakfast if they want; and, of course, they can drive a car.
Oddly, it’s that mundane stuff that apparently makes us want to be one. A grown-up, that is. Attaining that coveted status seems to be a nearly universal longing. After all, how often do we ask a child today (or did we get asked when we were little), “What do you want to be when you grow up?” How often in our younger years did we daydream, “When I’m grown up, I’m going to _________”? At the moment, my 5-year-old son is deeply infatuated with the idea of being a construction worker who gets to drive front-end loaders. When he’s feeling generous, he lets me know that I can come visit him at work someday and drive tractors with him if I want to.
Here’s where all this grown-up stuff gets a bit confusing.
I think, by God’s incredible grace, I have nearly everything I ever really hoped for. Everything that really matters, anyway. I don’t have a Ferrari and I’ve never been to Bora Bora and I’ve never gotten to go backstage at a Bon Jovi concert, but apart from those flights of fancy, many of my childhood longings and dreams have pretty much been fulfilled. I should be content. Always happy, right?
Except that I’m not. Not all the time, anyway.
Sometimes a sense of shapeless longing creeps in, something that I once thought being a “grown-up” should cure permanently. In his song “The Heart of the Matter,” Don Henley describes it as “a yearning undefined.” I have everything I ever really wanted, yet still my heart gets restless at times, discontent, longing for something undefined, longing for … more.
Slowly, I’m realizing that being a grown-up has very little to do with objective criteria like marital status, paying a mortgage or holding a job. I’m realizing that it has more to do with what I do with that “yearning undefined.” That’s the real measure of maturity, I think.
In those moments, I have two choices: I can let my longings consume me, always pushing me to chase the next thing I think might satisfy me. Or I can seek to relinquish my yearning to God and ask Him to fill me. In a word, to lead me toward authentic contentment.
In those moments, though, that choice isn’t always so clear-cut. When that vague sense of discontent begins to gnaw at my heart, it’s so very easy to hop on the Internet, to page through something ridiculous like an IKEA catalog and dream of how life would be better if I just had snazzier black cherry bookshelves for the den. (And, yes, for the record, I have seen Fight Club.) To check my Facebook profile to see if anyone’s written on my Wall. It’s easy to go to the fridge for a bite to eat (“Where did all those cookies go?”), to fall prey to the alluring thought that if I just had a slightly newer minivan, a slightly cleaner house, slightly fewer bills to pay, a slightly less demanding schedule, everything would just be OK.
So what, then, does it mean to be a grown-up? I think the maturity I’m talking about has to do with learning to take all those urges, all those desires, all those undefined yearnings, and offering them to God. We say, Lord, here is what my heart thinks it needs right now, but would You take that desire and shape it and help me not to seek from a person, place or thing something I can only receive through You?
That’s hard to do sometimes. And, ironically, it’s something I probably did more consistently in my long season of singleness than I do now as a full-fledged, card-carrying, Subaru Legacy-driving husband and father of three living in suburbia.
But then again, no one ever said becoming a grown-up was easy.