Are you a grown-up yet?

Do you know anyone who is?

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He got more than I did . . . Oh no you don't . . . back off . . . get out of here.' The selfish, competitive complaints of rivalrous siblings have a familiar ring to them. They sound a lot like the contentious debates between Republican and Democratic members of Congress, or interdepartmental fault-finding and finger-pointing in a downsizing workplace. According to poet, storyteller, and author Robert Bly, whose book Iron John was a runaway best seller, we have become a nation of squabbling siblings. We have abandoned our children to day care centers and our elders to old folks homes, while we, like Peter Pan, simply 'won't grow up.'

In this sibling society that Bly describes, we tolerate no one above us and have no concern for anyone below us. We live with, work with, and hang out with people 'like us.' We cast sidelong glances for direction, rather than looking up or down. We have brought down hierarchy by questioning and challenging authority, but we have not replaced it with anything like a true democracy. Instead, we have mass culture, consumer culture. We question, challenge, and bring each other down. Anyone who pokes his or her head above the crowd gets it cut off. As Bly puts it, 'We have no longing for the good, no deep understanding of evil. We shy away from great triumph and deep sorrow. We have no elders and no children; no past and no future. What we are left with is spiritual flatness. The talk show replaces the family. Instead of art we have the Internet. In place of community we have the mall.'

Author Gail Sheehy observes the same scene but draws very different conclusions. In an excerpt of her new book, New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time (not available on this WWW site section ) , she charts a revolution in the adult life cycle: '40 feels like 30, and 50 feels like what 40 used to be.' Life, says Sheehy, is speeding up, yet it takes us longer to grow up and much longer to grow old. But, unlike Bly, Sheehy finds the 'new adult life cycle' filled with possibility.

Perhaps Bly and Sheehy would agree, though, that the best hope for the future is for those of us who would be 'adults' to focus less on having it all (for ourselves) and more on helping the young and the disenfranchised around us. Or, as Bly said recently, 'Forget about talk shows, and crookedness, and rotten freshman Republican congressmen, and retiring in Phoenix. Turn away from this competely and turn back and face the children and the ancestors.'