What Makes an Adult?


Convocation Remarks for the Incoming Class of 2019 at Merrimack College:

Not long ago, my youngest daughter Anne and I were crossing a street together. I stepped off the curb into the crosswalk and leaned out so I could see beyond the line of parked cars. As I did so, I reached back to keep my darling daughter from walking before I could be sure it was safe.

My daughter was 21 years old. She was a police officer. She was wearing a uniform and carrying a gun.

I have six kids altogether, and though each has followed his or her own distinctive path before arriving and crossing the threshold from child to adult, they all, at last, arrived.

In our diverse culture, we don’t really have a widely-accepted, universal ceremony that marks the moment that a kid becomes an grown-up. That’s not what we’re doing here today, for instance. Matriculating at Merrimack College is certainly related to achieving adulthood, but is not, itself, that achievement.

There was an official ceremony in which my daughter Anne became a police officer. It wasn’t quite as elaborate as this one, but it was pretty spiffy all the same.

In preparation for this moment, she had attended the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, had been squirted in the eyes with pepper spray, and zapped with a Taser, so she would know what these less-than-lethal weapons feel like from the receiving end. She had learned the laws of the state, and been prepared to assume the particular and awesome responsibility that falls to law enforcement officers, namely the ability to deprive a fellow citizen of his liberty, using force where necessary, including deadly force, and to do this on behalf of the people. With her new badge gleaming and weighty on her chest, she swore on her  honor to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the State of Maine, and to serve and protect the people without fear or favor.

My daughter is and will always be my little schnoogums, my adorable baby girl. But she’s  determined and brave, and she wants to help people.

On her first day at work, she donned her uniform, strapped on her gun belt and her body armor, got into her police cruiser and keyed her mic for the first of what would be many conversations with the radio dispatcher:

“252, Dispatch, I’m 10-8.”

“10-4, 252.”

Like truck drivers, soldiers, and others who must communicate over occasionally untrustworthy radio waves, police officers often replace or supplement spoken English with codes. These vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction: 10-4 always and everywhere means “affirmative,” but while a person with mental health issues in Maine is known as 10-44, in Los Angeles, the LAPD would describe him as “51-50.”

In Maine, 10-8 is the code for “available for service.” I was very, very proud to hear my daughter say it for the first time. And this, I’ve decided, is my definition of what it means to be an adult. An adult is 10-8.

This is not, of course, the only definition of adulthood. By one definition, at least, you all are already adults. You’re 18 years old (give or take). If you are arrested for a crime, you will be charged and tried as if you had all the moral faculties of a grown-up whether or not this is the case. You can vote; buy cigarettes, lottery tickets, and pornography; and join the military. You can get married without your parents’ permission, though you won’t be allowed to drink champagne at the wedding. If you want to partake of alcohol, you’re legally obliged to wait until the next, more or less arbitrary legal threshold, the age of 21. But I’m not talking about legal adulthood, here. You can be a legal adult and still be one of those human beings  concerned primarily with his or her own wants and needs. A child, however adorable, is essentially useless.

An adult is useful.

Being useful is fun. In fact, the great joy of adult life is not that you can buy beer, or choose for yourself whether to eat Skittles for breakfast. Jolly though these things are, the seriously satisfying thing about being an adult is knowing that people can and do trust you, that they rely on you, that you can help, and that your work makes the world a better place.

You’ve chosen a good place in which to grow fully into adulthood. Yours is a college dedicated to the Augustinian values of hospitality, community, and the pursuit of truth, a place oriented toward service as well as — or even as the definition of — success.

But there are a few temptations I’d like to warn you about.

One is that you may not want to grow up. You might be one of those people who would just as soon be useless. You’d like Mommy and Daddy to take care of you forever, while you avoid work and responsibility, and spend  your time taking naps and partying.

This was the temptation my eldest son Zach was faced with. So he took time off between high school and college, and joined the United States Marine Corps. In four short months, Marine Corps boot camp had cured him of laziness and irresponsibility. The Marine Corps can do the same for you. There’s a recruiting office right next door in Lawrence, and since you’re 18 years old, they can sign you right up.

Another temptation is one that well-educated people are peculiarly prone to, and since you’re about to become well-educated, I figure I’d better give you a heads-up. It is the temptation to despair.

Not long ago, I heard a very well-educated, highly-intellectual guy named Andrew Harvey give a talk entitled Transformative Action in Dangerous Times. The professor had an English accent, which made him sound even more intellectual — wish I could imitate it, but I can’t — and he was very passionate. We are now,” he said. “Living in Dangerous Times. A self-conscious conspiracy between corporations, politicians and the media are [sic] deliberately producing an unprecedented global cataclysm,” with wars, famine and the extinction of the snow leopard.

“We must stop denying the truth of this catastrophe, stop clinging to our comforts, utterly transform ourselves in body, mind and heart!” And then we’ll help the poor, and presumably the snow leopard too.

The professor sounded intelligent, as I say, and passionate, but not especially optimistic. Makes sense: the chances are extremely good that we won’t utterly transform ourselves in body, mind and heart, and so the poor and the snow leopard, and all of us really,  are doomed.

Now, I’m a preacher, myself, and I know that it is actually a lot more fun to give a fire-and-brimstone sort of sermon than a “Things aren’t all that bad” sermon. “We are all sinners in the hands of an angry God” really wakes up the folk in the back pews, and I was tempted to do this today: “God is gazing down upon the seething cauldron of sin that is Andover, Massachusetts, and surely He will send the fire this time?”

Maybe it’s just the human attraction to melodrama that makes despair tempting? Or maybe it’s that, if the world is about to end, we might as well go with the beer and Skittles, the party and the naps?

You may be more familiar with religious predictions of Apocalypse, but secular apocalyptics are probably more common on college campuses, even Augustinian ones. The secular apocalyptic will see a plastic grocery bag caught in a tree, or a traffic jam on 495  and grimly declare that there are too many people using too little birth control and too many fossil fuels … the end is near.

The secular apocalyptic will, however, be offended if you point out the similarities between her point of view and that of the preacher who thinks same-sex marriage will provoke God to send the fire this time. The secular apocalyptic, after all, is rational and well-educated. She is drawing her conclusions from history, from science, from facts. And so she, of course, is right.

In 1968, a very smart, rational, educated guy named Paul Erlich, a professor of biology at Stanford University, wrote the following about the state of the world:  “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” He made this prediction in a book called The Population Bomb.

Another book, written around the same time by William and Paul Paddock, agreed: “By 1975, a disaster of unprecedented magnitude will face the world. Famines, greater than any in history, will ravage the undeveloped nations. The swelling population is blotting up the earth’s food,” and, they confidently added, “Our technology will be unable to increase food production in time to avert the deaths of tens of millions of people by starvation.”

I was about six years old when these books were published. My parents read them, along with a whole lot of other Americans. They were big hits, bestsellers. You, on the other hand, weren’t even a gleam in your daddy’s eye, so perhaps I should explain that no, the world didn’t experience mass starvation in the decades between my birth and yours. Our technology was, it turned out, more than able to increase food production in time to avert disaster.

In fact, the percentage of people living on the edge of starvation has fallen by 80 percent since 1970. When I was a kid, more than one in four people around the world lived on a dollar a day or less, the standard measure for starvation-level poverty. Today, only about one in twenty live on that little. As the economist Arthur C. Brooks declares in The Conservative Heart, “This is the greatest anti-poverty achievement in world history.”

Yet 86 percent of Americans think global poverty is getting worse, not better, and more than two-thirds of us do not believe it is possible substantially to reduce extreme poverty in the world in the next few decades — even though, in the past thirty years, we’ve been doing just that. Oddly enough, the college educated are no exception. I would like for all of you to be the exception. As you begin your years at Merrimack, your own, personal training for useful, service-oriented adulthood, I want to inoculate you against the temptation of despair. Clinging to childhood, going to parties and taking naps are all tempting enough without adding in the notion that any effort made on behalf of humanity is doomed to failure, and any gifts of adult service are meaningless.

Maybe there would be some excuse for giving up hope if the world really was coming to an end, but it isn’t. The world is not getting worse, it’s getting better, and it is getting better through the hard work of adults who have made themselves useful, who have sought the necessary training, experienced the necessary pain, and have signed on 10-8 with the great Dispatcher and heard Him answer 10-4.

Even if, right this minute, you feel anxious, useless, hungry, and sleepy; even if you still feel like you  need your Mama to check the road for you before you cross it, you’re here. And you have chosen to commit yourself to spending the next four years finding out about the world and yourself, learning how you can serve and whom you can serve. (Well done!)

Keep going. Trust the process, and trust in the goal: Being a grown-up in the service of God and neighbor is more satisfying and way more fun than you can even begin to imagine.

Four years from now, your parents, your teachers — and me, too, I hope — will have the pleasure of  seeing the results, and celebrating all the ways that the Merrimack  class of 2019 is signing on 10-8.

10-4! May your life be blessed and a blessing, and may it bring you joy.

Published in Culture, General, Religion & Philosophy
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There are 33 comments.

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  1. Arizona Patriot Member
    Arizona Patriot

    Great speech.

    I had trouble getting past the name Merrimack College.  I kept thinking there must be a joke in there somewhere, about the trustees burning the place down, followed by a southern takeover and re-opening as Virginia College.

    • #31
  2. AUMom Member

    Available for service—I like that. Thank you.

    • #32
  3. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup

    Arizona Patriot:Great speech.

    I had trouble getting past the name Merrimack College. I kept thinking there must be a joke in there somewhere, about the trustees burning the place down, followed by a southern takeover and re-opening as Virginia College.

    I did that too! I kept picturing one of those “cheese box” armored boats…

    • #33
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