Adulthood Across Three Continents

Adulthood came fast for me. At least I believe so. Growing up an only child with alcoholic parents whilst knocking around the 3rd world from the time I was an infant was the cause of that. In the 60s and 70s there weren’t a lot of kids my own age, so perforce, I ended up around adults most of the time. In places like East Pakistan (before it became Bangladesh), Kuwait, and Sierra Leone there just weren’t that many expat families back then, and those that had children, had children who were in their late teens. Moving every two to three years accustoms one to impermanence too. You get to know someone, then you’re gone thousands of miles away. When that happens, you start acting generally more mature and autonomous. At least I did.

The first time I was around people my own age (in my early teens) was when I was sent to a boarding school in England. This was when my dad was working in West Africa. It didn’t work out well. And, although I was mature for my age, I didn’t understand why I didn’t fit in. I felt too mature to be with the other students, but I didn’t have enough experience to be able to disguise it. Thinking back, I guess I tried, but I suspect it didn’t work that well.

So, what is being an adult? In many societies, there is a rite of passage associated with the coming of adulthood. I don’t think I had one. Unless surviving the parents long enough to get sent off to a boarding school counts. That was age 12. And I was quite eager to get away from them. The other major definition involves age, in most countries this is when you turn 21. (As an aside, I have always been puzzled why in the United States, you’re considered adult enough at the age of 18 to fight and die for one’s country, but you can’t drink alcohol until you’re 21.)

But what does it really mean to be an adult? Well, that is an easy one for me: being responsible, at least for your own actions. By that measure I know precious few adults. I certainly don’t believe it to be age related. I think that the measure of being an adult is a combination of self-awareness and the ability to take responsibility for one’s own actions. We all live in a world where it is difficult, if not impossible, to live unaffected by the actions of others, or for others to be unaffected by your actions. As such, coming to adulthood means recognizing that and living your life accordingly.

An additional point about being an adult is independence. A two-edged sword at the best of times. But it is hard to be truly autonomous. For me, there are always some people you depend on. I try to make that burden light on my friends, but it is nice to have them there. The world is too complicated these days to completely stand alone. I guess it is possible to live Jack Reacher style… but I have no particular desire to live quite that minimalist a lifestyle.

I was fortunate. My parents (to whom I bear no animosity by the way) did, in fact, keep me supported financially until I was finished with university and had entered the military. However, I realized when I was quite young that I was the only one responsible for what I did with my life. I think a lot of that was seeing how the world actually was. I saw true poverty in Asia at a very young age. Not to mention being exposed to what armed conflict can do to a population. Seeing the world in those colors had a permanent effect on me.

As I get older, my expectations of ‘adults’ are getting more stringent. I have higher expectations and I’m far less tolerant of tomfoolery. We only have so much time in this world, and I have no intention of wasting it on adults who act like children. As Louis L’Amour said:

"Do not let yourself be bothered by the inconsequential. One has only so much time in this world, so devote it to the work and the people most important to you, to those you love and things that matter. One can waste half a lifetime with people one doesn’t really like, or doing things when one would be better off somewhere else.“

I have no doubt in my mind that my sense of adulthood was radically accelerated by being a TCK. Not solely by that, of course, but it was a major factor. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that this (my adulthood) is a work in progress. It is only as a function of trying to explore the world more, that I am reading broadly again: economics, science, philosophy, to name my main areas. It is exciting that one is never too old to learn and change. And as a result, adulthood is not a milestone that one reaches, at least not for me. My parting thought is that adulthood is something that is never set in stone; It is something that can continually be improved upon and is changeable based on one’s environment.