Retirement

Training wheels are a self-denying instrument. Their usage necessitates their disuse. Long-suffering, they stand at the side to guide and enrich and inspire confidence—hold aloft nascent skills until they come of age. Ungainly, they push us to leave the nest fast or risk further embarrassment. Careful preservers of our hopes—speed, maneuverability, improvement, independence. They parent, and yet ask nothing of us in their retirement; all the while there’s a subtle reminder that guidance and guarantees, though valuable, are disposable resources.

At the cusp of adulthood, in our culture of perennial consumption and disposal, the question is begged: what are our training wheels now? What structures must we shed to assume the mantle of independence and maturity? What sacrifice will breathe the hypothetical, well-adjusted, successful, future we imagine in our resumes and transcripts into being?

A generation constantly told that their lives are outside of the “real world” has been raised to believe that the experiences and aspirations and tests of our every aptitude amount to nothing more than peddling away, doing doughnuts in the driveway. We’re anxious to stop pretending, eager to pick up some speed.

Nothing speaks to this period of hopeful aspiration more honestly than our answers to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The child answers this question with spontaneous certainty – a fireman, a doctor, a T-rex. As the reality of this choice nears, we who have learned to exercise more caution drift toward more non-committal answers. Having just incurred a sizable student debt, some think twice about the novel, the theater, or the studio, deciding instead to ripen in consulting or to lend a voice to a think-tank for a few years. Just a few. Make money. Make connections. Make that dream even better when, at long last, we welcome our dream back into our lives like an old friend, once we've achieved some momentum and balance. Then off come the supports and into the world we go. Passionate. Confident. Free.

The narrative is tempting. But there is a doubt which lingers and bites—a pebble in our shoes—the farther down this road we march. The transition may be already complete. Passion flickers and wanes—a blanket of logistics drifts in and falls, slow and gentle upon the candle to snuff it out.

While we may voice disappointment in an aspiration deferred, there is another speaker, barely audible, who breathes a sigh of relief as the world collapses from the vast to the cozy, from a landscape to a living room. This voice is that of our Unself. In each mind this specter lies, whose logic, inescapable, soothes us into silence. Censoring our most necessary outbursts, reminding us gently that the future—unfriendly and bleak and dangerous—is just around the corner; we needn’t waste our vitality now. It is our Unself that bears passion like a cross and sighs contentedly when the load is lightened. The problem with the Unself is that he is always right. Our problem is that we let that fact get in the way.  

For this character, blinders, not training wheels, are the tools of the trade. Our other half, he knows us well enough to convince us that the life we imagine in our boldest moments requires the next degree, or the next apartment or the next relationship. Training wheels—ugly and honest—creak and embarrass, prod constantly for evolution. Only through blindness and distortion can we come to believe that our greatest destinations should be marched toward like a gallows—that the drives that make us feel complete are not worth the risk of non-completion.

When we finally assume the mantle of that Adult, a status we’ve been told so much about, we step into a real-world which, foolishly, cynically, can in a heartbeat reduce a life to a label—winners or losers—depending on where we fall. Dreading these brands, we forget that we never learned to ride until we retired the training wheels. We forget that the beauty of failure is the beauty of believing in something larger than mere sustenance. We forget that we’re better off dead than dying.

So what’s your plan after graduation?