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I have a theory backed by almost no research.
As we grow older, there is a lot of societal pressure to mature, to become less child-like in our activities.
This leads us to maturing in healthy ways, like developing self-awareness and independence. And in less healthy ones, like losing touch with the feelings of wonder and joy that come easier to children.
My theory is that, as adults, we never stop seeking the things that sparked joy in us when we were kids. But we feel obliged to find containers for them that are somehow more socially acceptable, that seem more sophisticated and therefore more appropriate for how seriously we take ourselves once we grow older.
Let’s take a few examples.
Run, don’t walk
As children, we have little interest in walking at a steady pace. We take every opportunity to accelerate ourselves. We randomly break out into runs. We beg our parents for skateboards and bicycles and scooters. We skip. We even put our heads out of car windows to feel the speed, viscerally.
We are transported to another plane of existence when the wind is blowing in our ears, reddening our cheeks, our hair flowing back, when we feel like we are our heartbeat. It feels so… alive.
But when we grow up, it somehow becomes not ok to do that without a pretext or an excuse. Yes, some of us ride bikes, but that’s because it’s such a great workout or it’s the best way to commute. We go on runs now because that’s where I get my thinking done. Could it be that underneath these mature sounding excuses, we are just trying to recapture how we felt rolling down a hill on a brand new bike? Or sprinting to some imaginary boundary with no restraint?
And when this desire is not hidden behind some mature excuse, it tends to belong to a discrete category of “fun activities” that requires elaborate planning or logistics. Grown-ups buy motorbikes, race cars, go skiing, rent jet skis, quads and go-karts, or jump out of airplanes to capture this fundamental need.
To take one example, think about how much is involved in the activity of skiing. Not the literal skiing, but everything before and after it: the buying of thermal wear and special pants and special boots and boards, the multi-hour drives, the freezing cold, the maddeningly expensive lift tickets, the body stiffness and aches, the overly tight shoes, just so we can spend cumulative hours freezing on a ski lift in exchange for a handful of 10 minute stints of pure freedom and liberation?
Moving our body to a rhythm
Goddamn, kids love to bust a move. Or at least I did. Give me any opportunity: supermarket music, the radio from a passing car, or even just melodies that I’d hum myself — I’d break out into dance in the middle of the street. Looking at my niece and nephew, and the forests of kids that my circle of friends have sprouted seemingly overnight, it seems like I wasn’t the only one.
And if you were into that as a kid… I don’t think that ever really goes away. We just find ways to do it that society is OK with, for whatever reason.
Breaking out into dance in most parts of our lives — like work or the bank or the movies — is not OK. Really, there are only a couple of scenarios where it’s “acceptable” to move our bodies to a rhythm. Like when we’re by ourselves in our room, because no one can tell us we’re breaking society’s rules for decency, or whatever.
Or when we’re at a location that society has clearly designated as appropriate for moving your body to a combination of sounds, like a salsa club or the Roxbury.
It’s a funny concept, no? In this little area you may move your body in a non-functional, non-utilitarian way. Your movements may be inefficient so long as they are expressive. But outside this area: nó.
Making TikTok videos is another excuse we use to dance as grown ups, especially now that the pandemic has closed most places where we’d otherwise dance.
And most importantly: drinking makes dancing like children acceptable. What better excuse to suppress our inhibitions and dance? To let go, like we did when we were kids? To look silly?
Generally acting like kids
Dancing isn’t the only childlike activity that drinking facilitates. I believe we drink to be able to act like kids without repercussions (or perhaps with delayed repercussions). As children, we tend to say what we think to others, we make friends in the sandbox easily and we express anger freely.
Sound familiar? Alcohol facilitates all of these behaviors. When drunk, we need but to smile and say something cliche about the music to make a (temporary) best friend. It makes it acceptable to walk up to a complete stranger and start talking. It lets us be angry — get really riled up about something — in a way that gets you kicked off the Zoom if you tried it at the Monday All Hands call at work. Promise I am not speaking from experience.
But most importantly, of course, it lets us dance.
The social contract we sign when we arrive here on earth commits us to behaving like “grown-ups” when the earth has gone around the sun some arbitrary number of times, often 18 or 21. We commit to renouncing life as children, and with that, lose many of the joys that naturally come with it.
Pulling back the veil on this is important. Maybe the point is that we don’t need to make things so complicated if we are willing to risk looking a little silly. Maybe there are ways to recapture the joys of childhood without needing to go to substantial lengths — like literally up mountains — and thereby have more of them… and more often.
Realizing that, I’ve been trying to identify parts of my life I take too seriously and swap them out for something more intentionally childish. I realized going to the gym is not very fun for me, so I switched to doing karate. I picked up skateboarding as a much more joyful (and not just more efficient) way to get around. I stopped only doing the male voices on pop songs and now sing high-pitched Britney Spears lyrics at the top of my lungs in front of others (#FreeBritney).
And when I’m feeling particularly unencumbered by social expectations, I do a little dance when I’m waiting for a bus or a sandwich. Sprinkle Parmigiano on this life, ya know?
I’ll leave you with this passage, by Stuart Dybek, because it feels right:
“I had this sudden awareness’, she continues, ‘of how the moments of our lives go out of existence before we’re conscious of having lived them. It’s only a relatively few moments that we get to keep and carry with us for the rest of our lives. Those moments are our lives. Or maybe it’s more like those moments are the dots and what we call our lives are the lines we draw between them, connecting them into imaginary pictures of ourselves.’“ (from Paper Lantern)
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