“The child is the father to the man.”
–William Wordsworth, poet
Psychologists will tell you that your adult persona, the person you ultimately become, isn’t fixed until you are well into your twenties. More specifically, they say that most women have reached that point by the age of 25, while many men don’t get there until their early thirties.
That assessment may be correct, but I’m not convinced the lifeline progression it suggests works quite that simply. In many ways, I think I’m still developing a sense of myself as I approach my sixty-eighth birthday. At the same time, I see many of the characteristics I have long identified as the guy I know as having been set in my childhood years.
It’s an imponderable subject, to be sure, the idea that we become someone who is specifically and uniquely identifiable and that that someone assumes a fixed identity at some specific point in our life. The subject, or at least the idea of the subject, is explored in Richard Linklater’s remarkable film, “Boyhood,” which is as artistic an exploration of the topic as the cinema industry has produced.
The film opens with a shot of the central character as a six-year old. He’s lying on the ground, staring up at the sky. What’s he thinking? Why is he seemingly transfixed by what many of his peers would consider too ordinary to pay any attention to? Is this young child destined to be a philosopher or an artist or an astronaut? Is his destiny fixed at that early age?
The film, of course, is fiction, so when the youngster grows into a young man who continues to be introspective and artistic and even a tad philosophical, that arc is a construct, a device, developed by Linklater to present a perspective. That he accomplishes his goal so beautifully and lovingly is why the film is the masterpiece of his career. But it doesn’t answer the imponderable question; it only raises it.
Other attempts to explore the subject have been more direct and real. Michael Apted’s “Seven Up” series, tracing the lives of fourteen British boys/men and girls/women with new updates released as full-length documentaries every seven years, shows the then seven-year olds as 56-year old men and women in the latest installment. The series is fascinating to a point, much as the chronicle of anyone’s life, with snapshots taken every seven years, might be.
Snapshots, however, don’t really tell a complete story. They just present a moment in time, a moment that may represent a meaningful event or encounter that will have lasting impact and will define forever the person, or that may quickly become the smallest of incidents in the life of the person, soon to be all but forgotten or overwhelmed by succeeding events and encounters.
Traditional Freudian psychoanalysis plays on the imponderability of childhood events and experiences. Freud identified critical stages in a child’s development, but he ignored the later years of adolescence and adulthood, thereby locking his brand of psychotherapy in a stultifying box that may create more neuroses than it cures.
More modern forms of psychotherapy are only marginally more successful in providing insights of the nature that Linklater and Apted are intent on exploring. Behaviorists seek ways to make patients more productive and functional, but their methods are only slightly more sophisticated than the self-help experts who claim to have magic secrets that can cure all manner of dysfunctional behavior.
I am told, and can indeed recall, that as I child I was often far more serious of mien than my peers. At an early age I would lose myself in thoughts about my existence and how it was supposed to make sense. At the age of seventeen, suffering from a broken heart at the loss of a girlfriend’s affection, I seriously contemplated suicide. I plotted the manner of my death to the point of planning it. What stopped me was this thought: I want to see what I’m going to turn out to be.
Fifty years later (almost to the day), I’m still not sure I have my answer. Yes, I certainly have an identity—law professor, writer, husband, father, Dodger fan, political junkie, and a personality—extrovert, intense, opinionated, pensive, outspoken, but I’m still discovering things about myself and ways that I approach events and circumstances in my life that suggest I am still a work in progress.
Is it not so for all of us? We all come out of the womb with the genes our parents gave us. They dictate how we will look, how tall we’ll be, how long we’ll have a head of hair to comb, how susceptible we’ll be to life-threatening diseases and fatal afflictions, and how much potential we have to be a star athlete or an intellectual scholar.
But then life intercedes and plots a wholly variant course for us. Maybe it’s the third grade teacher who turns us on to the joys of reading, or the scoutmaster who helps us discover the wonders of nature, or the first love that leaves us forever in search of a romanticized view of an intimate relationship, or a college spring break that introduces us to a hedonistic existence, or the death of a friend that destroys our faith in God.
Any or all of those kinds of events, all of them pure happenstance from an objective perspective, can mold or change the course of our evolution into the person we ultimately become.
And, of course, the process never stops. The world is always becoming, evolving from one era to another. So, too, are we ever-changing in our perspectives and in our identities, even as we see in the child we were the parent of the adult we have become.
It’s a journey, a perilous, mysterious, fascinating journey. For as long as we are able to experience it, we continue to find new ways to understand it. And, of course, we never really do. Like Sisyphus, we just keep pushing the rock up the mountain, never knowing what is waiting for us at the top.