A World of Half-Adults

An exclusive excerpt from The Sibling Society

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It's the worst of times; it's the best of times. That's how we feel as we navigate from a paternal society, now discredited, to a society in which impulse is given its way. People don't bother to grow up, and we are all fish swimming in a tank of half-adults. The rule is: Where repression was before, fantasy will now be; we human beings limp along, running after our own fantasy. We can never catch up, and so we defeat ourselves by the simplest possible means: speed. Everywhere we go there's a crowd, and the people all look alike.

We begin to live a lateral life, catch glimpses out of the corners of our eyes, keep the TV set at eye level, watch the scores move horizontally across the screen.

We see what's coming out the sideview mirror. It seems like intimacy; maybe not intimacy as much as proximity; maybe not proximity as much as sameness. Americans who are 20 years old see others who look like them in Bosnia, Greece, China, France, Brazil, Germany, and Russia, wearing the same jeans, listening to the same music, speaking a universal language that computer literacy demands. Sometimes they feel more vitally connected to siblings elsewhere than to family members in the next room.

When we see the millions like ourselves all over the world, our eyes meet uniformity, resemblance, likeness, rather than distinction and differences. Hope rises immediately for the long-desired possibility of community. And yet it would be foolish to overlook the serious implications of this glance to the side, this tilt of the head. 'Mass society, with its demand for work without responsibility, creates a gigantic army of rival siblings,' in Alexander Mitscherlich's words.

Commercial pressures push us backward, toward adolescence, toward childhood. With no effective rituals of initiation, and no real way to know when our slow progress toward adulthood has reached its goal, young men and women in our culture go around in circles. Those who should be adults find it difficult or impossible to offer help to those behind. That pressure seems even more intense than it was in the 1960s, when the cry 'Turn on, tune in, drop out' was so popular. Observers describe many contemporaries as 'children with children of their own.'

'People look younger all the time.' Photographs of men and women a hundred years ago--immigrants, for example--show a certain set of the mouth and jaws that says, 'We're adults. There's nothing we can do about it.'

By contrast, the face of Marilyn Monroe, of Kevin Costner, or of the ordinary person we see on the street says, 'I'm a child. There's nothing I can do about it.'

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