Summer reading and the challenges of being an adult.

It’s that time of year again. Every summer I participate in a book club hosted by a colleague of mine. He is kind enough to invite students and others who want to join him in reading and exploring classical and popular literature. I enjoy this very much as it gives me an opportunity to explore literature that I might not otherwise read. When my friend made his annual pitch for others to join him, this was my “tongue in cheek” response.

“I’ll be there again this year. I’ll come with my usual questions with obvious answers, moralizing analysis and the occasional political/sports/historical analogies and commentaries. Generally sharing my revelation that the book (yet to be announced) is really about me and my life experiences. Can’t wait.” I wrote this in jest as a self deprecating commentary on how I have judge myself to have a tendency to dominate conversations that interest me and generally find a way of making them a window into my own self reflection and exploration. But then the book was announced.

We are reading JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I’m only a few chapters in, but this lead character, the sixteen year old Holden Caulfield, seems to be struggling with being heard. Already, on several occasions, he has alluded to the fact that “Nobody listens to me.” I have much to learn about this character and his life. But I can already relate in so many ways. The passive voice with which Holden speaks about himself seems to indicate that he wants to put distance between himself and his actions, which to this point in my reading, aren’t all that exceptional. The guy was the manager for the fencing team, and because he left all the equipment on the subway, the team was forced to forfeit their match. I’ve been a manager. I was the manager for my Jr. High track team. I remember the awkwardness, the self consciousness, of being responsible to a bunch of athletes who knew exactly what they were doing and yet I had no clue!

I wish I could say that awkwardness has disappeared with adulthood. I’m not sure it has? In some respects I much more confident and comfortable now. But in other respects I continue to wonder “What am I suppose to be doing in this world?” I turn fifty next year. I used to think that by now I would have things figured out. In my memories, adults always knew what they were doing. Maybe they were just faking it? Seriously. Anyone else feel like you don’t know what you’re doing in this world?

I read somewhere that the key ingredients to job fulfillment and perhaps life fulfillment are “Purpose, Autonomy, and Mastery.” The idea is that if you awake every morning understanding exactly what your purpose is, and if you have the freedom to pursue it without someone constantly looking over you shoulder, and if you feel that you can become an expert in your field or the “go to person” on your job, then you will experience happiness. I think that this is true to an extent. But the older I get, I’m not so sure happiness is the goal or even if it is attainable in this world. I don’t know what “half of happiness” would amount to? But that is generally how I feel most days. Not an extreme high or an extreme low. Just about half of happy. I’m often passionate. Perhaps annoyingly so. But just nearly always halfway to happy.

Holden Caulfield is helpful here, as he responds to the chastisement of his teacher early in the book. “It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. I don’t give a damn, except that I get bored sometimes when people tell me to act my age. Sometimes I act a lot older than I am -I really do-but people never notice it. People never notice anything.”

If you haven’t noticed it. I’m doing it again. Taking a wonderful book and surmising it is all about me. But I do look forward to gleaning some lessons from Holden Caulfield’s experiences. If indeed any wisdom exist to harvest from this work. If not, perhaps I’ll enjoy the company of others doing the same reading, asking similar questions, and simply listening to me speculate about myself and the state of the world. And perhaps I’ll gain some insight along the way. Or some empathy at the very least. And if that is all I gain on this journey of life, it remains a truly wonderful gift.