The Consolations of Growing Up

23 Oct

Last week I unwisely finished reading The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman shortly after watching the end of Peter Pan (2003) on TV. Both of them have bittersweet endings involving the hero or heroine growing up and leaving behind friends or family who are unable to join them – either because they are ghosts (in the case of The Graveyard Book) or because they are Peter Pan, and have vowed never to grow up. Both of them left me in tears – although, to be fair to myself, I had been working rather hard, feeling stressed and staying up too late, which can make anything seem worth crying about.

Absorbed in quick succession these works can leave you feeling that “to grow up is such a barbarous business”, that growing older is not just a tragedy but also some kind of failure, as if every year you allow to slip by is a betrayal of the happiness of your youth. For me personally it doesn’t help that I’m approaching a milestone. Not that this is your average milestone, mind you. I’m not turning thirty or having a child or anything, but I will soon be older than Alexander the Great ever was. That probably means nothing to you but I’ve idolised him since I was 17, and now that I’m about to outlive him (barring accident), it’s impossible not to notice that he achieved more with his life by this point than I have.

Fortunately, I have an excellent antidote to all this morose calendar-watching. I am currently studying the life of St Augustine, another towering figure from antiquity who, like Alexander, suffers a lot of misunderstanding and bad press. Unlike Alexander, though, Augustine spent quite a lot of his youth faffing around, getting into trouble and wondering what it all means. It wasn’t until he was about the age that Alexander died (incidentally also about the same age that Jesus died – a strangely significant age, apparently) that he surrendered to God, pulled himself together, and made something of his hitherto pointless life. He went on to write some of the greatest works of Christian literature and to use his remarkable rhetorical powers trying to bring unity to the church and godliness to people’s lives. He lived to be 75.

Most of us don’t achieve that much with our early lives. Although there are always exceptions, like Alexander the Great, Pitt the Younger and Premiership footballers, most of us are just getting started by the time we’re thirty – which is fine, because there’s a lot of life still to come. In fact, much as we may look back with fondness on the “blue remembered hills” of our childhoods, we tend to get better at almost everything with age. Adults are more skillful than kids. I find I can knit better than I could as a child, translating Latin has mysteriously become easier (although it’s still extremely hard), and don’t even get me started on child actors or (shudder) children singing.

In fact, it’s not even clear if the sadness in Peter Pan is that Wendy must grow up, or that Peter never will. Their separation is caused by the combination of those two factors, not by one or the other. So I will be sad to overtake Alexander and leave him behind me, eternally youthful, but perhaps more for his sake than mine. After all, getting older might sometimes be pants, but it’s better than the alternative.

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