Never Let Yourself Grow Up
You’re never too old for toys. A Christmas party taught me that. Our hosts were a married couple about my age — early 30s, friends of friends. They both had jobs with enviable salaries. A big, three-story house. Actual furniture. They were full fledged adults, I thought.
Around 10 pm, the party started to move upstairs. My friend’s husband stayed on his phone, out by the pool. He waved at us. “I’m making a big trade,” he said. “I’ll be up there in a minute.”
It occurred to me I still didn’t know what her husband did. I asked, “Is he talking about stocks or something?”
“No,” she said. “Action figures.”
That’s why the party was moving upstairs — to look at his collection.
They’d devoted an entire room to collectible figurines. Multiple shelves. A closet full of boxes. Avengers. Star Wars. Predator. We’re talking hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars’ worth of toys.
Years later, I still don’t know what my friend’s husband does for a living. But I remember the look on his face when he talked about his trades. He was still a kid, and not ashamed by it at all.
Nobody judged him, either. They were almost inspired. And so was I, even if I didn’t want to admit it at first.
The Lie of adulthood
Most of my friends played almost as much as they worked. They spent hours a week on games, toys, and cartoons. No part of their lives suffered. Most of them were married. Some of them had kids.
Meanwhile, I still lived in a studio apartment. Unmarried. Living off a graduate stipend.
And yet, I felt a lot like an adult. Mainly because I never had “fun” anymore. Sure, my research was exciting. But my job search wasn’t. Neither was dealing with the politics of my dissertation committee.
Many of us think we understand adulthood. We definite it as the opposite of childhood. Adults don’t do certain things.
What a shitty definition.
Or we define adulthood through labor, pain, and sacrifice. Sure, maturity means you put others’ needs first sometimes. You give up some things you want. You delay gratification for a bigger reward.
But you can’t do that all the time. Many of us try. That’s how we wind up miserable, inflicting punishment on others, including our kids. We try to make them grow up, so they stop having the fun that we can’t.
This was starting to happen to me. So it’s a good thing I went to that Christmas party, and looked at those shelves of action figures. Around that time, my friends started suggesting I lighten up. “You should buy a game,” another friend said to me. “It’ll solve all your problems.”
He was a lawyer who spent significant portions of his nights and weekends playing online strategy games. It made him happy.
“Bull shit,” I said. “I can’t even afford a game.”
But I could.
That weekend, I bought my first computer game in almost five years. A simulation game called The Movies. It hooked me immediately. Basically, you run a movie studio. Hire actors. Build sets. Produce films. And release them to the public. It was…incredibly fun. My stress melted off.
Guilt kicked in Sunday night. I’d spent almost all weekend building my movie studio. No time on my dissertation, or grading. It was touch and go for a couple of weeks, but I found a balance.
When you suppress your inner child for years on end, it tends to run amok at the first sign of freedom.
The return of childhood
Consider all the unhealthy habits we develop as adults to cope with strife. Anxiety. Frustration.
Imagine how many times we could medicate ourselves by doing something we enjoy, even if it sounds embarrassing. Like wearing a superhero costume around the house, or napping with a stuffed animal.
Most kids have powerful imaginations. They play pretend and make believe all the time, until they “grow out of it.” But do they grow out of it, or do we shame them out? Adults seem to do everything we can to kill that spirit in kids, and then kids learn to kill it in themselves.
Some of us manage to escape. Even if I did stop buying toys, I never stopped play-pretending. I just do it in my head now, so nobody can judge me. You have no idea how much of my day I spend pretending that I’ll have to start preparing for the zombie apocalypse soon.
I’ve got a long mental to-do list.
For a year, my mind turned a tiny one bedroom apartment into a pilot’s barracks on a sci-fi battleship. At night, I’d look at the sky and imagine myself traveling through outer space.
Godzilla visits UPS
Some adults hate it when others have fun. Especially if that fun looks childish. Another friend of mine worked at a shipping company while saving money for grad school. She got in trouble for playing at work. Specifically, she made a village out of discarded packing materials.
And she made people.
She gave the village people voices and personalities. Sometimes, natural disasters visited my friend’s village. Some of her coworkers thought it was funny. Others complained. It creeped them out.
Her boss made her take it down.
“I’m your most efficient employee,” she argued. It was true. Supervisors praised her speed and reliability.
It didn’t matter. She was acting like a kid at work. And that just wouldn’t do. Her village wasn’t a safety hazard, though. The only policy she’d violated was having fun while doing a great job.
So my friend took her lunch break and pretended she was Godzilla, smashing her village with reckless abandon. If I remember, she got written up. Now she’s a Fulbright fellow, who’s published a book with Oxford UP. Here’s someone who managed to preserve the best parts of her inner kid, despite the world’s contempt, and prospered for it.
Gamify your life
Gamification has been around for decades, but it’s making a comeback. Some teachers criticize the idea. Education should be hard and boring, because it’s meant to prepare kids and teens for dull lives.
Instead, we should be preparing kids for fun and meaningful lives, so they turn into pleasant adults — not jerks who think the only goal worth pursuing is an ever widening profit margin.
Kids already know how to gamify, because it comes naturally. They can turn almost anything into a game, even dishes.
Try it sometime.
The difference between imagination and Walter Mitty style mental illness is that you know you’re temporarily changing reality, for a specific purpose. Doing so doesn’t always mean you’re trying to escape.
Trying so hard to adult is bad for your health. Kids engage in plenty of unhealthy habits too, but play and imagination aren’t among them. The ways we go about it should evolve, not die.
Sometimes adulthood just boils down to understanding that, unlike your video game characters, you really will die if you don’t make that jump. And you can’t live off magic mushrooms.
Acting like a kid
Building a bear at the mall won’t solve all your problems. But if it lifts your mood for a couple of hours, why not? It’s better than spending those two hours stressing over something you can’t control.
Kids play with toys for the same reason adults do. It’s fun. It relieves stress. Provides a momentary escape from our problems.
Before Toys R Us closed down, I bought a doll and a light-up fairy wand for my niece. The cashier made fun of me. Left me sputtering for an explanation. “Not, it’s not f-f-f-or me.” Screw that guy. If I wanted a doll, that’s my choice. Even if I’ll have to buy it online now.
One of the stupidest things we can do is fake adulthood, or deny ourselves something because it’s childish. We deal with enough hardship. So let’s watch cartoons, play games, and eat cereal when we can.