December 2, 2013
“What do you suppose it means?” he asked. “‘DO WHAT YOU WISH.’ That must mean I can do anything I feel like. Don’t you think so?”
All at once Grograman’s face looked alarmingly grave, and his eyes glowed.
“No,” he said in his deep, rumbling voice. “It means that you must do what you really and truly want. And nothing is more difficult.”
“What I really and truly want? What do you mean by that?”
“It’s your own deepest secret and you yourself don’t know it.”
“How can I find out?”
“By going the way of your wishes, from one to another, from first to last. It will take you to what you really and truly want.”
“That doesn’t sound so hard,” said Bastian.
“It is the most dangerous of journeys.”
-Michael Ende, The Neverending Story
I’ve drawn this comparison before, but I was thinking about it again a few nights ago as I made myself a green bean casserole for dinner, for no better reason than that I wanted it and I could.
Life is like Cats. The Andrew Lloyd Weber musical.
One night when I was nine, my parents were going out to see the touring production of Cats that was in town, and we were getting left with a babysitter. I whined and begged to be allowed to go see the show—cats were one of my principal obsessions at the time.
“No honey, you don’t want to see this,” my parents told me. “It’s not really about cats. You’ll be bored.”
For many years, I tacitly accepted this—that the musical Cats was not really about cats. I never even questioned what Cats was really about. Something for adults, and therefore opaque and boring. Not cats.
Then in my senior year of high school, I took an acting class. And to give us an easy day one class period after a long week, we got to watch the PBS video recording of the musical Cats. “Oh great,” I thought, “I’ll finally see what Cats is really about.”
It was a somewhat mind-blowing moment when those actors, in cat suits and gorgeous cat makeup, started to creep onstage. Because let me tell you something, in case you’re not familiar with the show…
Cats, the musical, is really, literally, about cats.
It isn’t not about cats just because it’s also about life, death, faith, loyalty, and memory. Like Watership Down isn’t not about rabbits, just because it’s also about persecution, oppression, idealism, and hope.
Likewise, I was told a lot that “Adulthood is not about just doing whatever you want.” As if the freedom and autonomy to live and work in a way that was acceptable to me was some trivial, stupid thing that I was just going to have to get over.
I decided I would never be an adult, then. Because if that’s what it meant, that wasn’t something I was capable of.
And then I grew up.
As it turns out? Adulthood actually is about doing what you really want.
Adulthood really means making your own decisions about what kind of life you want to lead, what kind of person you want to be, what kind of mark you want to leave on the world. That doesn’t mean that it’s not work, that there are no consequences or costs to those decisions, or that you never have to do anything you don’t want to do, or face things you don’t want to face. It doesn’t mean that there are no obstacles or hardships.
But the decisions themselves, about what you’re doing on this earth and why—those belong to you.
So that’s how adulthood is like the musical Cats.
For some reason, people tell you that it’s not really about exactly what it is really about. It’s just that the truth is both harder and better than anyone wanted you to know.