Paralysis and becoming an adult: Part one

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on July 18, 2017 # Health, Mobility

Like many a Boomer, I grew up in a middle-class house in a middle-class town in the middle of the country in the middle 1950’s. Life for kids like us – the first with rec rooms, fast food, and parents hovering over us, feeding our every consumer demand --- was pretty comfortable, with round-the-clock TV and little or no hard work or real suffering. Sports were about the only way you were tested and if that became too much, you could quit and listen to Elvis all day.

Now there have three generations of kids raised in much the same sheltered, indulged way, living in a cultural cocoon. Historically, the great test of one’s courage and mettle, at least for men, was war, but most college kids my age avoided Vietnam. Now no college kid gives it a second thought. We have farmed out war to the young, poor, and uneducated.

This softening of young Americans is the subject of a new bestseller by Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse called “The Vanishing American Adult.” Sasse is a conservative Republican, but his message goes beyond politics: we increasingly live in a world of adult-children and childlike adults.

As a kid, Mr. Sasse learned from his farmer father that a sign of growing up was “the compulsion to…attempt and finish hard things, even if I didn’t want to…” Hard things are anathema to many young Americans. Heck, over 50% of them can’t bother to vote. Material indulgence and the avoidance of conflict has led to a parental capitulation: “lowering expectations, cushioning all blows, and tolerating aimlessness.” “Safe-spaces” on college campuses are a fine example of cushioning blows. And how many 30-year-olds do you know out there who drifting in their lives, doing menial work, and still trying to “find themselves.”

This is not a new concern, but little has been done about it. The latest generation, by many accounts, is more sheltered and more aimless than ever. They are good at “adulting” – going through the motions of work, marriage, and paying taxes, but at the first sign of a crisis, they look for a buffer. They are afraid of suffering.

So where does paralysis fit in here? Sasse notes that the one thing often responsible for shocking someone out of a perpetual adolescence is what he calls an “existential panic.” Paralysis certainly fits that category. Such a panic, as painful as it is, is also instructive. It’s a test and if you are currently living and thriving with paralysis, you have no doubt passed the test.

Resilience, as Sasse and many others have recently noted, is not inborn. It has to be cultivated and challenged to be strengthened. Many an existential panic can, ironically, enhance your resilience – loss of a spouse, coming out as gay, financial ruin. Sasse quotes the Greek dramatist, Aeschylus, with this sobering thought: “He who learns must suffer… (there is) wisdom through the awful grace of enduring pain.” You don’t ask for these things, but they can often help you grow – grow into an adult – rather than destroy you.

None of this may apply to you personally, especially if you have a hard life in addition to the paralysis or your paralysis leads to other chronic health problems. Even so, and often with vital outside assistance, you can take command of your life, and as the Bible says, “put away childish things.” Or maybe you just flat don’t want to grow up. Many artists and celebrities fit that category.

Sasse wishes kids could learn the hard lessons of independence, resilience, and self-mastery, and parents could guide them, without having to be knocked over by a life-changing trauma. All I know is that I have seen emotional adolescents turned into emotional adults through such nightmares. In fact, at age 51, I was one of them. And that’s for next time.

(Ref: “The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-Of-Age Crisis --- And How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance,” Ben Sasse, St. Martin’s, 2017.)

© 2017 Allen Rucker

Purchase Allen's book:

The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life