“Don’t grow up. Grow forever.” — anonymous
Valuing prolonged adolescence sounds counterintuitive, I know. Indeed, our culture abounds with examples of the worst sort of prolonged adolescence, such as narcissistic baby boomers desperately and pathetically trying to hold onto the things of youth. I have often quoted the Mary Renault character who said, “Man must make his peace with his seasons or the gods will laugh at him.” It can be dangerous to cling to the Puer Aeternus, the archetype of the eternal youth. And yet there is also the creative, inspiring and metamorphic side of the prolongation of adolescence, a more hidden side of the paradox of prolonged youth that also needs to be honored.
From an evolutionary and developmental point of view, it is often an advantage to be a late bloomer. A general trend we see in nature is that the more complex the organism, and the more potential it has for individuality, the longer it needs to develop. Baby spiders and scorpions seem to come into the world already fully locked and loaded with everything they need to know to be spiders and scorpions. They seem to have pre-installed operating systems of instincts allowing them to function as miniature adults at soon as they hatch. Spiders and scorpions are not late bloomers, they don’t spend years wondering what they will be when they grow up. Spiders and scorpions seem to hit the ground running, without the slightest doubt or insecurity about who they are supposed to be, and what they are supposed to do. They are also hard-wired and mechanical compared to more individualized creatures like us. They are prodigies of self-sufficiency, competence without training, action without hesitation. Adolescence for spiders and scorpions doesn’t stretch for decades into middle age. To a person of painful self-consciousness, like J. Alfred Prufrock , to be an action-oriented exoskeleton seems an enviable thing,
“I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
But the lifestyle of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas may not be as enviable as J. Alfred imagines. For the late bloomer, the path of the fully formed man of action may seem enviable — the glamour of an instinct-driven life ensconced in an attractive exoskeleton, the imagined lives of square-jawed muscular types stepping out of glossy magazine pages and action films — and yet there is much to be said for being a mutating introvert, not yet identified with a glossy exterior on a path of unhesitating action.
The more evolved animals seem to take longer before they are ready to hit the ground running. Human development can slow and stagnate, stretch out too long, but it can also end too soon, and we have the prematurely adult types, those whose identity has been locked and loaded since middle school or high school. They are not experiencing prolonged adolescence; they are formed adolescent types prolonging themselves into stagnant adulthood.
But some highly individualized mutants retain the metamorphic aspect of adolescence, and have not fully formed. Some inner will for transformation will not allow them to rigidify into a finished adult form even though it might be decades since biological adolescence should have ended. This type of late blooming has its painful drawbacks, but also its developmental advantages. The longer and more labyrinthine the path of developmental, the more individualized and novel may be the results.
The world is overpopulated with finished exoskeletal types. The exoskeletal folks have already been locked and loaded with fundamentalisms and absolutisms that tell them everything they think they need to know. Exoskeletal folk are busy scuttling forth, acting out. But the world also needs more interiorized folk, the personifications of evolution’s attempts to experiment with the human form, those who live in prolonged states of metamorphosis.
Consider this a propitious time to allow the metamorphosis of prolonged adolescence, and honor the path of the late bloomer.