Adolescence is not a state one would want to inhabit voluntarily, especially after experiencing the unpleasantness the first time. Passing from childhood to maturity, both physically and emotionally, is about as much fun as getting lost in a repetitive anxiety nightmare. That’s why it’s ironic how often I’ve been in discussions recently of doing just that—repeating adolescence willingly in order to secure a better old age. Of course that’s not the way someone trying to convince me puts it. They’d lose my attention quickly that way.
No, it’s usually a discussion of how to fashion a fuller, more useful and interesting ‘further life’, as Mary Catherine Bateson has written of it. They refer to that second half of life, or whatever fraction of the whole one happens to have left after raising children and working for the social affirmation and physical comfort money can bring. What to do with the now extended life-span and how to make the most of it is a subject of much debate, as it should be, taking into account the expanded time we’ll be spending on this earth if we’re lucky.
I’ve been comfortable with the idea that adopting the resourcefulness, creativity and eagerness of our early years in order to create more exciting and productive later years is essential. I’m even accepting of the fact that one must become adolescent in regard to new challenges, attempting things not done before and that we have no expertise in to trick the brain into thinking ‘young’ again. I count on the fact that hard earned wisdom will offer the assurance of patience, something most of us had much less of in adolescence, thereby softening the hard edge of new learning. But it’s a revelation to wake up to the fact that this new life learning is often thrust on us with an unfamiliar life as well. That double jeopardy wasn’t something I counted on, nor was it discussed in those ‘How To’ books championing a vibrant second life.
The staggering blow of losing a spouse suddenly just at the threshold of that second adult life presents a throwback to an adolescence of an entirely different kind. I know there’s no coincidence in the way that word, ‘adolescence’, keeps bobbing up to the surface of my discussions with old friends and doctors. But this is not the charming return to the adventures of a younger outlook before life jaded our perceptions. Far from it. This is that awkward, unhappy, angry, anxious and exiled existence none of us even want to remember let alone return to. This is the adolescence of earthshaking transition from one life to another—the one we’re never sure we can make, the jump we’re afraid to take. Who knew my husband’s death would send me back to that harrowing world of not belonging? Of insecurity? Of fear and self-doubt, and excruciating loneliness? Apparently some people did, but I wasn’t one of them. Becoming an adolescent again was the last thing I ever expected would happen.
It makes me wonder, as I listen to a friend more than a decade my senior explain this phenomenon, why there hasn’t been more written about it. Or maybe there has been and I just never paid attention, believing I’d never need to. And when it’s pointed out I purposefully avoided the transition from adolescence to maturity in my ‘first’ life by marrying early, I’m uncomfortably aware that I can’t do that in this ‘second’ life. The transition will have to be made this time because there’s no choice, and I’ll have to live in that painful world of the adolescent as long as it takes to grow up into a new life.
Of course it’s different with my ‘First Life’s’ experience behind me, but I can see how futile it is to deflect the things we’re afraid of at any time, because we’re always going to have to face them sooner or later. I only hope growing up too fast that first time won’t damn me to the hell of adolescence too long this time. I’d rather look forward to the heaven of my ‘Further Life’.