I think I speak for all of us when I say that we all struggle to find our footing in the world during the transition from childhood to adulthood. Growing up to become an adult is a difficult and arduous journey that forces us to decide whether to hold on to our childhood self or to let it go. Most often, we are forced to stuff the child into the deepest recesses of our brain, where we hope to forget them so that we can move on with our adulthood.
Now I know I’ve painted a dark picture, but the truth seldom shines in the light. However, there is one question that is worth asking: why are we forced to suppress our childhood self? Why are we forced to grow up only to fulfill societal expectations that may not suit all of us?
The answer can be found in one powerful tale that tells the story of a boy who chose not to grow up: Peter Pan. We’ve all read or heard of this story by Scottish novelist J. M. Barrie, but few of us may have thought about the overarching statement that Barrie is trying to make about the many reasons for and against growing up and what ‘growth’ really means. I’ll present just one theory that looks at the other side of the story: the side that explores why Peter left, and what that may potentially reveal about ourselves.
Barrie writes that Peter left his parents as an infant, because he heard them talking about his impending transition into a man and couldn’t bear going through with it. We are led to believe that he left because he didn’t want to grow up. But what if he left because he specifically did not want to grow into his parents and society’s definition of a man?
If we closely examine Peter’s adventures in Neverland, we can see that he does grow—he grows up psychically but not physically. He leads a group of lost boys, fights Captain Hook, and saves people. Granted, all of these tasks are not seen as typical adult responsibilities, but that is only so in the eyes of society. Peter became what he believed he wanted to be. He became a man on his own terms. Even though it seems he never grows up, he displays strength, courage, care, and love. He even has a friendship with Tinker Bell, proving that he can be in relationship. Peter retains all the qualities a grown man has without ever giving up on the child in himself.
From the perspective of our society, we would declare Peter a child. Why? Because he doesn’t have a paying job. Because he doesn’t have a family. Because he is uneducated. Because he’s irresponsible. But again, all these limitations are only set by our society. Now, I am not saying that we should overthrow the system, but I think we should acknowledge that sometimes we don’t want to be the responsible, mature adults society tells us we have to be. Sometimes we just want to be ourselves, stripped bare from the expectations and responsibilities of our society.
Peter’s journey is not just one of a boy to a man, but also one of finding who we are when we are not society’s usual nine-to-five working citizen with a nuclear family, a post-secondary degree, and relationship issues. His journey is about finding out what we can be when we are not any of these things.
Peter Pan says more than what it initially appears to say. Society presents us with many images of middle-class working conditions, minimum wages, brick houses, and a family, and leaves out the possibility of individual growth. I realize that somehow or the other we all have to conform to society’s ideals of a grown adult in order to survive, but that does not mean that we must forsake who we want to be as an individual. That does not mean that we have to forsake our childhood self in order to make room for our adult self. And it does not mean that we are all just working-class students with nothing more to offer.
Peter left because there was no room for him to grow in his society, and we, too, must occasionally seek out a reprieve from our collective identity as working adults with familial and financial responsibilities in order to discover that we can be who we want to be, independent of society’s demands and conditions. So take a trip to a nearby park or mountain, hike, go camping, go to the playground, go bungee jumping, write a book, or make music—do what makes you happy, regardless of what society dictates. After all, Peter found his Neverland, and it’s time we find ours.
Ever since we began to understand the world, we became aware that there is already a plan for our future determined by our parents and by society. Growing up might be touted by them as a sacred process, but it’s tainted with their expectations of what a grown adult is and should be. We are taught that we need a degree and that we need a job so that we can nurture a family and die peacefully knowing that we lived the right life. But there is no semblance of who we are when we don’t want to do these things, when all we want is to revert back to being kids again. That’s what Peter’s tale is all about: how we can grow to be responsible and mature without ever having to forget or erase our childhood innocence and wonder.
-contributed by Rashida Abbas