I was watching a commercial by a mortgage company wherein a man and woman fall in love, buy a home, and fill it with children. All in thirty seconds. It’s the trifecta of adulthood, isn’t it? I’ve coined it the three P’s of maturity: partnership, property, and progeny. We might throw in some custom benchmarks (international travel, degrees in higher education, a specific job title) but the three P’s comprise the standard checklist by which our culture gauges whether or not we’ve “arrived” as adults. I’m going to let you in on a secret: No matter how hard you try to check off that list, you’ll never arrive.
Although I didn’t really expect to marry, I still looked at my married friends with a degree of longing. It wasn’t just for the partnership, but the self-worth I imagined came with covenant. Marriage was a benchmark, a piece of evidence that would prove I had reached a certain level of emotional maturity. As long as I was single, I feared being caught in a kind of arrested development—a man-child who had never fully grown up, regardless of how many hairs had turned gray (or, let’s be honest, fallen out). My immediate family would continue to be only my parents and older sister, making me the baby of the family even when my 40th birthday loomed on the horizon.
So when Constantino and I married, it was something I could check off the list. It was one thing I could point to as irrefutable proof of being an adult. But it didn’t feel that way. In fact, in the first few months of marriage I’ve felt more like a fraud, like someone allowed into a country club who doesn’t really belong. Part of that may be lingering fears that others won’t see our same-sex marriage as legitimate. But part of it, too, is that instead of proving my emotional preparedness, marriage has shown me all of the ways in which I’m inadequate: Not a good enough listener? Check. Not affirming and affectionate enough? Check. Always trying to fix people? So many checks.
Rather than substantiating my adulthood, marriage has instead illuminated many of the ways in which I fall short. In reality, then, these benchmarks don’t prove any level of maturity. They’re more like “stress tests” that point out our weaknesses. If you’re the kind of person who thrives on self-improvement, that’s a good thing. The responsibilities of marriage, children, and homeownership will give you an unfiltered, unembellished look into your soul. And it’s often not pretty.
Conversely, there’s no reason to believe that those who haven’t unlocked these achievements are any less far along in their maturity. This is where the church repeatedly gets it wrong; it honors the traditional family unit as the Christian ideal, the thing to which we must all aspire. Consequently, this becomes reflected in church leadership, where we see the family man as the only valid “shepherd” of the community and single people as the “flock” in need of shepherding. But marriage and children require no certifications or training. Indeed, some of the wisest, most mature people I know lack all three P’s.
These benchmarks, then, are really not benchmarks at all. They’re merely life circumstances that have only tangential associations to our maturity and good standing as adults. I believe God does care about our circumstances, but His true investment is in how we develop in response to and regardless of the circumstances. God is cultivating the hearts of all who allow Him, but we don’t all develop in the same way. Some plants grow, flower, and die all in one year. Others take years before they blossom. Still other plants, like ferns, never flower but are some of the oldest and most resilient organisms on Earth. There is no metric for comparing which is better.
I love checklists and measurable outcomes, which makes me easily deluded into deriving worth from them. Now that we’re married, I’ve already started eyeing the next step. I look with longing at my friends who have children, and admire how grown-up and self-realized they seem. And I’ve long since admired my friends who own homes in Southern California (which is like owning five homes anywhere else). How together their lives must be. The problem is, those who live by the checklist die by it, too. There is always another checkbox: a promotion, a vacation home, grandchildren. We can never “arrive” because we will always be clamoring for what’s next. We will be riding up an infinite escalator.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that there is no such thing as “arriving.” Personal and spiritual growth is a process that happens by degree and without end. Franciscan friar Richard Rohr talks about shifting our perspective of power from hierarchical to egalitarian, from “pyramidal thinking” to “circular thinking.” This philosophy has application to our own sense of self-worth, and our tendency to build up pyramids in our hearts until we’ve reached a place where we feel we have “arrived.” But just like there is no true end to our checklist into adulthood, there is no capstone to the pyramid of self-realization. And that's OK. Rohr writes: “Let’s not keep looking to the top of the pyramid...There’s nothing worthwhile up there that is not also down here.”
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland.
Image by TheElitePost, shared through imgur.
Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram: