A Long Afternoon
by Margaret Gass
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It was my favorite riddle as a young student in junior high: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” The answer is, of course, man. Man crawls on four legs as an infant, learns to walk on his own two legs as an adult, and then requires help again in old age--represented in the riddle by the cane that a third “leg.” I loved the riddle’s imagery and it’s simplicity. I looked forward to the afternoon. It’s been a long afternoon.
We spend most of our lives in the afternoon, many of us wondering what happened to the day. It is the stage of life in which we spend the most time, and yet it is the one about which we know the least. The “experts” have studied infancy and childhood, and we are bombarded with information designed to give our children the happiest, healthiest, best, “perfect” childhood, assuming, of course, that we believe the experts. The study of geriatrics is also big business, especially within the last thirty years. A dear friend got her doctorate in geriatric studies at a time when most had never heard of the word…and now we hear nearly every day how to make this stage of life better, or just skip it all together.
The experts on “adulthood” disagree. Every day we learn through some new study how yesterday’s study is no longer true. Just in the afternoon of my own life, eggs have taken a beating: “Eat eggs--they’re brain food.” “The incredible, edible egg.” “Eggs are bad for you.” “Eggs have too much cholesterol and lead to heat attacks.” “Avoid eggs.” The experts gave us egg substitutes, convinced us to give up our eggs, or at least feel guilty if we didn’t. Then a new study came out last year: “Eggs aren’t as bad for us as scientists once thought--in fact, they may be the perfect food.” Aahhh…that would make it incredible once more.
Those experts dabble in every aspect of our adult lives. Self-help books abound to help us get more out of life. We spend our afternoons searching for meaning. Ironically, we can’t even agree on what it means to be an adult. Are we adults after high school? College? Marriage? Career? Are we adults at 18? 21? 30? We don’t know.
A Congressman from Tennessee wants to allow eighteen-year-olds in the NBA. Most of his arguments are compelling. Teens may compete in tennis, golf, gymnastics, hockey, and ice skating as professionals; they are barred from doing so in basketball and football. We must be twenty-one to drink, but at eighteen we can vote, sign contracts, and go to war as members of the military. We just can’t play in the NBA.
Perhaps that’s because adulthood is more than a number on a page--or it should be. Adulthood implies maturity, responsibility, and wisdom…doesn’t it? Shouldn’t it? I’m a parent with a mortgage, two jobs, and a son entering the afternoon. I’ve spent years telling him that a man is defined not by what is in his pants, but what is in his heart. All males are not men, at least not the kind of men most moms want their sons to be. We spend too much time telling our kids to grow up when most of us aren’t grown ourselves.
And though I am a fairly responsible adult, I sometimes feel as if I am just a kid playing house, as if my life is just a game, and I can play later. I can’t. And neither can my son. Though I don’t know exactly when morning became afternoon for me, I want my son to have a good afternoon…and I’ve discovered that I can’t guarantee that for him any more than I can for myself. That’s why I’m glad to know the One who created our days. It’s going to be a long afternoon…
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This is excellent. What a good analogy. And I've known 70 year olds who had never reached adulthood.
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