Two roads diverged on a mountain side, and I resolved to travel both. Being a kid at heart is something I’ve always been proud of, and even as I’ve gotten older, I have found it no easier to put aside the wants and desires that creep up into my mind and choose instead to be practical and make the difficult decisions that come with maturity. The very word ‘maturity’ scares the ever-loving shit out of me. I don’t particularly fear growing old or even dying (although ask me that again someday and the answer might be different-mortality is a difficult thing to contemplate in your early thirties), although I am very happy to be young and hope to remain that way for as long as possible. What frightens me about the word ‘maturity’ has nothing to do with growing old, but rather with growing up. I recognize that aging is a biological fact, but letting go of that inner child feels like death itself.
There was a time when I put away childish things, although not for long, and when confronted with the knowledge of what I had done, I was so shocked and dismayed that I swung that pendulum of responsibility all the way back from 23 years old to 5. I relearned who I had been, but I did it at the expense of reality. It was a difficult process to train myself back from 5 to 23, all the while preserving that spirit of the boy that had wrested the pendulum so far askew in the first place. It was a time in my life that was at once incredibly rewarding and devastatingly trying, but I survived, and it made me the man I am today, a man who still has the heart of a boy. I wrote, at 23, that pretty much everyone grows up and some point, but the lucky ones grow back down before too much damage is done. I still believe that, although I think there must be a way to grow back down without doing damage yourself.
But here I am, ten years later, and I still feel young and free. I am responsible. I pay my bills. I do my work. I keep my appointments. I am a reliable friend and a good citizen. And yet, this question of maturity lurks in the periphery and taunts me. ‘When are you going to grow up?’ it asks me. ‘How long do you think you can be a student, travel the world learning languages and doing research, before you have to settle down like everyone else?’ And the greatest question of all, which also embodies a sickening fear: ‘What price will you have to pay to have lived out your dreams for so long when others have worked hard at jobs they hate, in lives that depress them? How will God and the Universe reckon with your cosmic largess, and will you be ready when that bill finally comes due?’ Scary, am I right? It’s waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop, and I’ve been waiting for a very long time. Fortunately, while I’ve been waiting, I’ve been living. I’ve been taking advantage of the incredible oppourtunities that I’ve been given, and I’ve tried to remain humble and thankful for all of these blessings. Nevertheless, there is that worry that one day I will have to hang it all up and be mature like everyone else.
Today I’m writing to express something I’ve learned about maturity. First of all, I know many people who are following their dreams and living wonderful lives that excite them. They may not be glamourous, but they are the lives of their choosing, and it is inspiring to hear their stories and recognize that such a thing is possible. What I have learned, both from those people as well as through experiences independent of them, is that what has been holding me back in my thought process is an outdated notion of what it means to be mature. By ‘outdated’, I must add, I do not mean that the term itself has necessarily undergone a change in the public consciousness. I mean that my understanding of that word and what it represents has been coloured by my own misconceptions, and I am beginning to learn that what I thought maturity was is really not at all what it has to be.
I sat on a couch at the Happy Hostel in Niš, Serbia, and drank coffee with my lovely hostess, Tatjana. She was asking me where I had been in Serbia so far, and I had just told her that I had spent some time in Vojvodina, in the north of Serbia, to which she replied that her roots are from that region. Knowing that there is a large Hungarian minority there, I was curious whether she had any Hungarians in her family. Before I could even frame this into a question, however, I realized that I had no notion of whether this would be an appropriate thing to ask. I had no idea how this woman felt about Hungarians, and recognizing that minority situations can create tension, I was annoyed with myself for even considering asking her this. In retrospect, I think she would have been just fine with the question. She is an extremely open person and interested in discussing Serbian history and culture, but at the time I had said no more than five words to her. I remember walking down the streets of Niš and chiding myself for wanting to know this about her family and wondering when I would learn that things like that just don’t matter sometimes.
Ultimately, I am very glad that this little dressing-down of myself took place because I believe I have learned something very valuable from it. No sooner had I started to feel gloomy about not being sensitive to cultural differences than I realized just what had actually happened back at the hostel: I had been curious about something, had even wanted to ask about it so that I could satisfy that curiosity, but ultimately I had decided that it was not a good idea to do it. And it was at that moment that I began to see what maturity is truly about. Maturity is not about training yourself not to want certain things, but rather in realizing that you don’t have to do everything you want whenever you want to do it. Even saying it like that sounds scary to me, although I understand now what that means in context. The statement alone can be interpreted as an extreme, the way an adult might harshly tell a child (or another adult) who is climbing a tree or playing in the dirt or acting silly to ‘GROW UP!’ or, my personal favourite, ‘Act your age, not your I.Q.!’ These are hurtful statements, and barring the situations in which the person in question is endangering their life or the lives of others, they have nothing to do with maturity as I am discussing it here. Another example might better illustrate what I’m getting at.
Outside of Niš, in the area of Niška Banja, in fact, where I saw snails having sex (see Birds and Bees), I was indeed met with two roads on a mountain, both of which I took. I followed the first as far as it would lead me, and having reached the end, I turned around and went to where the two had split and followed the other. The second road (or path, really) soon took me into the woods, and I traipsed for a long time through the overhanging plants and narrowly avoided collisions with snails both numerous and amorous. I was hot and tired when I emerged into the glare of the blazing sun, and as usual, I was without water. I had truly not expected a difficult hike. The trail had been full of very old people, and I had been positive that I could summit the thing without much strain. And yet those assumptions had done nothing to quench my thirst. Onward I went, stubbornly determined to reach the summit.
Eventually I came upon a group of people who looked as though they were an insertion team for a care bear special assault force. They were decked out in their slick-looking jump suits and were surrounded by enormous, colourful parachutes. I was soon to learn that they were up to nothing stranger than paragliding. Immensely popular in Europe, this involves strapping on a parachute and running down a mountain-side until you can jump out and parachute around. It sounds amazing, and I have to try it. I watched these people preparing to do this, and I stood with my camera ready to capture them on film. I waited, and I waited, and I waited, but nothing happened.
After a while, I started to talk with one of the instructors, who told me that they were waiting for the wind. It is very important that the wind be blowing away from the side of the mountain where you’re jumping, otherwise you’ll be blown back against it and could severely injure yourself. Everyone looked very impatient, and all eyes were on the weather-vane that refused to point in the desired direction. The combined will of five or six different people could do nothing to budge it, however, and finally they decided to pack it in. There would be no jump that day. I was disappointed, to say the least. How amazing would it have been to photograph these people running downhill and jumping out into the sky?! Nevertheless, I understood that it was dangerous and that they had to wait. I shoved on and began to head once more toward a path that would take me to the summit.
After a while of wandering about and experiencing a serious need for water, these potential parachutists came back to mind. It took a while for my synapses to fully process what my brain was trying to tell me, and I stubbornly chose path after path that might take me just a bit further up, while replaying in my mind the events that I had just witnessed. Side-by-side were the patient jumpers and my obstinate refusal to head back down the mountain. Back and forth they went, battling it out in my head until finally the thought coalesced and I saw what I needed to see. All that time I had been telling myself that I was too close to the top to quit, and that to go back down would just be to admit defeat. My boyish pursuit of adventure would be dealt a swift kick to the nuts, as would my pride, and I was not about to let that happen. It took me quite a while to realize that the one was not at odds with the other.
These people, who were clearly very keen on jumping off of a mountain that day, had decided against it. It wasn’t because they were quitters or because they had lost the spirit of adventure. It was because they realized that just because they wanted to do it, that didn’t mean that it was the right thing to do (or at least not the right time, in their case). It would have been very dangerous just to do what they wanted, and that didn’t mean that they were any less desirous of doing it. They were simply mature enough (or the instructor was) to wait for the right moment. And there I was, tired and weak and thirsty, but wanting to explore further. ‘I can make it,’ I thought. ‘It can’t be that much further.’ But just as Indiana Jones thought he could reach the grail, his father convinced him that it simply wasn’t worth the risk. Even Indiana had the strength to let the grail go, right when it was so close, because he saw the need to choose wisely (again).
I headed back down the mountain. I was disappointed not to get to the top, and I was even briefly disappointed in myself. I had given up, and even though I realized that I really hadn’t, that I had made a choice to continue along a different path, it was difficult to let go. What made me smile was when I realized that I hadn’t really let go of very much at all. My child-like (note the difference between ‘childish’ and ‘child-like’) spirit was still very much a part of me. I was on a frickin’ mountain in Serbia, for cryin’ out loud! No one could tell me that I had lost my thirst for adventure. But I had gained something that day as well. I had gained insight into what maturity truly means, that it’s not about giving up on your dreams, it’s about knowing how to pursue them and choosing to do so in the best way you can. It’s about being prepared and recognizing that if it doesn’t work one day, it’s better to regroup and try again than to force it.
Not every question that comes to mind has to be asked, but there’s nothing wrong with being curious, and it’s not immature to wonder those things. Summiting a mountain is bad-ass, but doing it at the expense of your health and well-being is simply lame-ass. And so I went on, and eventually saw the road split again, one path leading off in an exciting new direction that begged me to explore it, and another that led back toward the town. I knew which one I needed to take. Two roads diverged coming off of a mountain, and I-I took the one that would get me home faster, and that has made all the difference.