“He knew what made him happy, and what made him mad, and what to do about each. In this way he was a true adult.” — From Richard Ford’s book The Sportswriter.
I loved this line the moment I saw it in a recent Lapham’s Quarterly, the one about “Sports & Games.” Since first reading it two months ago, I’ve thought of it often, in conversations ranging from light issues like taste in food to more serious talk about fidelity, love, the things that define what quality of person you are in relationships.
What excites me most about those two sentences is the way they swiftly get at something we don’t talk about enough: what it means to be an adult. It’s a problematic word, adult, because I don’t think it means simply adding years or responsibilities; there are plenty of people in their middle years with important jobs and families that I wouldn’t consider adults, but why? What’s missing?
One of my dearest friends in the world, a woman named Att who helped raise me during difficult times for my parents (much longer story there, but suffice it to say Att is the most curious person I’ve ever known, and one of my best friends even with an age differential of some fifty years), gave me her thoughts on the subject when I was last in St. Louis half a year ago. She said that people don’t live long enough to become adults, it’s just an accident that we grow old and die so quickly, without figuring anything out. Those aren’t her exact words, but what I took from her statement was that we should be willing to forgive people, no matter their age or station, because we’re all still learning and failing and fumbling on as children.
That simple idea — you never become an adult — is striking even if you disagree. Which I do. So back to the Ford quote and why the seemingly funny line (a joke!) is serious.
I tend to use a kind of general filter to answer the first part of Ford’s construction, namely, to answer what makes me happy and what makes me mad. But I’m starting to wish I didn’t have to wait for that filter to spring into action before deciding what would make me happiest in a given situation. I feel reactive in that way, reactive to my own happiness. The most common negative result is that I spend a good deal of time on something that makes me mad, while not realizing earlier how to act on it and move on.
Which brings us to the active part: “…and what to do about each.” That part that drives me crazy. How often do I face a situation that makes me mad, and I have no idea what to do about it, or, even worse, that I have an idea of what to do but no resolve or means to act.
I guess that’s where I’ll end this rant for now. Let’s call this part of an ongoing probe in how to better pursue those things that make me truly happy and avoid the trap of what I should do, but which makes me, well, mad.