The Winston Churchill School of Adulthood Is Now in Session
. . . [I]t’s especially hard to become an adult in the modern world, and . . . despite this difficulty, the world still needs grown-ups.
And yet, . . . even when we know how necessary adults are to a flourishing, full-functioning society, it can still be hard to want to grow up ourselves. In popular culture, youth is associated with freedom, fun, and creativity, while grown-ups are seen as dull, constrained, and perpetually stressed out. Adults are perceived as lacking in imagination and zest for life, and seem to be ground down by their responsibilities. So who would want to join their ranks?
One of the most unfortunate tendencies of an adolescent culture is the impulse to fit everything into black and white narratives. Narratives themselves aren’t the issue; in fact, psychologists say that being able to view your life as a story is a key component to mental health and happiness. And as we’ll come to see, being able to imagine yourself as an actor in that story – a kind of hero’s journey – is one of the most important ways of achieving an awesome adulthood. No, it’s not narratives per se that are problematic, but ones that are overly simplistic and one-dimensional.
When you’re young, you feel a burning desire to fit yourself neatly into a clear-cut conception of “who I am.” This tendency may be even stronger in our modern world, where we can carefully curate an image of ourselves on social media of how we want others to view us. We’re a hippie, or a hippie Christian. We’re an adventurous world traveler, or a bookish homebody. We’re a conservative, or someone who hates conservatives. Yet an identity that can be built with carefully chosen pictures, and selected from a platter of dropdown menus, is quite limiting. A clearly delineated identity can feel very secure, but it keeps us moving along a single track of thought and experience.
Part of maturity is being able to comfortably sit with two seemingly contradictory ideas and energies. “I can be this and that.” “I can doubt that, but believe this.” “I can prioritize this, without giving up my love for that.” Being able to comfortably operate in different dimensions has a two-fold benefit. First, it provides a satisfying steadiness that allows you to make real progress with your life. When you’re young, you often go all-in on one phase, and then swing over whole hog into another when something in your life changes. If someone challenges how you’re living at the peak of one of these phases, you feel incredibly angry. Or, if you come to feel one of your long-held beliefs isn’t true, you tend to freak out, and feel angry and betrayed, launching a period where you don’t believe anything anymore, and define yourself only in opposition to your old creed.
As you mature, you become able to examine new ideas without feeling anxious or threatened by them; you gain the ability to calmly sift through your changing opinions and examine things more objectively. You have a core foundation of principles, but feel the freedom to play with other lines of thought. In doing so, sometimes you come to feel that there are expectations and “shoulds” of adulthood that just seem silly, and you reject them. And sometimes, you realize that something you like or believe isn’t completely rational, but you decide you don’t care and keep it in your life anyway, simply because you enjoy it so much.
A comfort with contradictions may seem like a cop-out – feigned indifference in the guise of nuanced enlightenment. And it can be if it only amounts to a “meh” attitude of “it’s all the same to me” – in which there is no collision of various energies in one’s life, because there are no energies, period. Certainly many an adult lives this kind of gray existence where not much thought is given to the meaning and purpose of life, outside of fulfilling one’s basic necessities each day.
Yet to actually hold a whole spectrum of energies is something far different. In such a case the effect is something like a particle collider – in which the contact between your different beliefs/ideas/interests creates access to new knowledge and planes of existence that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Think about it – what are the best, most exciting, most engrossing movies/books/TV shows you’ve consumed? Those with simplistic plots? Or those with rich narratives filled with complex characters, conflict, and some mystery?
When we’re kids, children’s books and films capture our attention. But as adults, we’re ready to grapple with more. As it goes in media, so it goes in our lives. The false narrative in which “being young is awesome/being an adult sucks” works well when you’re actually young, but as you mature in age, it reaps increasingly diminished returns. To grow up well, you need a new mindset, one with an expanded palette of possibilities.
The greatest aspect of adulthood is one’s ability to imagine whatever kind of life you’d like for yourself, and to have the power, freedom, and independence to turn that vision into a reality. You can make whatever you will of it, without interference from parents, teachers, or other authority figures.
In this act of creation, you want to be able to draw not only from the toolbox of childlike inclinations, but those of adulthood as well. The task of growing up well is learning to keep the best energies of youth, while combining them with the different privileges and pleasures of maturity. To settle down, without completely settling in.
This may all seem hard to grasp in the abstract; it’s much easier to understand when seen lived out in the life of an individual. And nobody embodied the possibility of combining a youthful love of adventure, imagination, and excitement with the adult qualities of soberness, duty, and responsibility more than Winston Churchill. Thus, over the course of the next several weeks, we will be conducting a case study on growing up well, using the British Bulldog as our guide.
Galloping in Harness, or Fuelling the Particle Collider of Adulthood
When it comes to achieving one of the most interesting, eventful, and outright original adulthoods in history, Winston Churchill surely has no rival. He was a writer, a politician, an orator, a family man, a painter, a lifelong adventurer, and much, much more. Of the supreme fullness of Churchill’s life, his biographer, William Manchester, writes:
When poet and literary critic John Squire met Churchill he summed up his impression of the man by saying this: “I have met many politicians; this is the first one who was alive.”
“If one accepts Freud’s dictum that mental health is the ability to love and work, Churchill possessed his full mental health. If anything, Churchill had attained what the American humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow called ‘self-actualization,’ the condition at the top of Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs,’ where is found creativity, morality, spontaneity, and the ability to parse problems, accept facts, and refute prejudices.”
Or as Churchill himself put it, “We are all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow worm.”
Winston didn’t achieve his glow from journeying into adulthood with the mindset of “the best of life is behind me – time to put aside every childish thing and get on with being a boring old grown-up.” Though Churchill did sometimes wax nostalgic about his youth – “Twenty to twenty-five! These are the years!” he declared when looking back over his life — he could also truthfully say that “I have been happier every year since I became a man.” So too, he counted the years 1940-41 as the very best of his life – years he experienced as a 60-something leader in a war-ravaged nation, an age when most men are retiring into a post-work glide, rather than delving into one of the most stressful events and positions imaginable.
Rather than believing that the end of his youth was the end of the greatest period of his life, Churchill always kept in front of him the knowledge of how short life really is, and how great the heights of human potential. To not just take advantage of his time, but to really, deeply enjoy it, instead of jettisoning his childish inclinations altogether, he marshaled them as fuel for the relishing of his adult responsibilities. He felt no pressure to keep his identity and his life’s narrative cropped into neat categories; Churchill was quite happy to live with a myriad of seeming contradictions:
He was full of boyish mischief, humor, and enthusiasm, and yet willingly took on what was arguably the 20th century’s greatest burden of leadership.
He continually sought for adventure, but was happiest at home with his wife and children, and found his greatest pleasure in life’s most simple: good food, good drink, and good company.
He outsourced his daily duties from dressing to feeding himself to servants, but reveled in the dirt, danger, and hardship of being in the trenches of war.
He was a staunch traditionalist, who lived and breathed the lessons of history, but could also be incredibly innovative and forward thinking.
He was agnostic in his religious beliefs, but maintained a moral code of absolutes and saw life as an outright battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.
He could be tough and hard-nosed, and yet cheerfully admitted to being an unabashed sentimentalist who cried regularly and freely.
He was detail-oriented and realistic, and yet imaginative, intuitive, and thoroughly Romantic.
He was learned and thoughtful, and yet defined his identity and success through action.
He worked like 10 men, and played like a little boy.
It is not as if all of these propensities always worked together smoothly in tandem. Quite not; the man had plenty of flaws. His was the true hero’s journey – with all the excitement, joy, mystery, and yes, messiness, that the greatest of such tales invariably involve. As Manchester remarks, his life was “a moral journey of many twists and turns, of chutes and ladders…For every diarist who notes his exuberance, fairness, geniality, or generosity, there is to be found another who alludes to his roughness, his sarcasm, his low moods, and his bellicosity—sometimes the same observer on the same day.” As one of Churchill’s colleagues observed, Winston truly had a “zigzag streak of lightning on the brain.”
Yet having at least a little bit of that lightning may be the very best way to avoid the dull grayness of adulthood. All grown-ups have flaws; none of us completely succeed in mastering the impulses of our youth. But that doesn’t mean we ought to squash such impulses entirely. Left unchanneled, these energies can indeed imperil our progress into maturity; but properly harnessed, they can be vital in moving it along.
That’s how Churchill saw it. He was very fond of Plato’s Allegory of the Chariot, where the human spirit is likened to a chariot pulled by a white and a dark horse. The white horse represents man’s noble, spirited aims, while the dark horse symbolizes his appetite for fame, wealth, food, and drink. The charioteer is tasked with keeping the two disparate steeds in harness, working together to pull the chariot into the heavens that it might glimpse eternal truths and sit among the gods. Though having two horses full of energy and thumos makes them harder to control, it also makes their potential so much greater. Churchill’s own horses often pulled in different directions, and sometimes got him off track, but the overall trajectory was always the same – onwards and upwards.