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The Riddle of the Sphinx

David Cowles

Jul 18, 2023

“What to do? Obviously, you buy a flame red Italian sports car…or not.”

What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?

The answer, of course, is a human being (baby, adult, senior), but the riddle conceals a much deeper truth. The course of human life, at least in our civilization, does indeed break into three relatively isolated blocks of time: childhood, adulthood, and seniority, but these distinctions are only incidentally related to locomotion

The labels themselves are imprecise and controversial. My 13-year-old considers herself an adult, and she is quick to remind me whenever I forget. On the other hand, I’ve met superannuated children as old as 30.

Lest you think I’m exercising literary license to amuse, think again. Like the prophet Ezra, I am merely reading out the law of the land: My 13-year-old’s medical records are sealed (I can’t see them because she is ‘already an adult’); my 29-year-old is covered under my health insurance policy (I can cover him because he is ‘still a child’). And don’t even think of referring to my 50 hour/week working dad (75 years old now) as a ‘seasoned citizen’…unless you undervalue the current arrangement of your facial features.

Most of us get to spend the first 15 to 30 years of our lives engaged in an activity best described as Exploration. This includes formal instruction, peer-to-peer information exchange, and that hair-raising teenage practice known as ‘lifestyle experimentation’. 

After the Age of Exploration, the focus shifts: now we ‘get to use’ everything we’re supposed to have learned. Remember school – where you complained incessantly about almost every subject: “When will I ever use this?” Well, the answer is, “Now!” 

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After the Age of Exploration comes the Age of Production. For most, the transition from Exploration to Production is gradual; we hardly know it’s happening while it’s happening, but we certainly know it’s happened once it has. 

When we’re in exploration mode, we’re impatient for the day we become productive; but once we’re ‘productive’, we find ourselves nostalgic for the days of pencils, books, and dirty looks. Overnight, the puddles we used to run through splashing have become sticky pits of steaming tar, compliments of the local DPW.

One day, we ‘wake up’ to find we have a ‘forever partner’, ‘forever children’, and a ‘forever career’. In place of a generous parental allowance supplemented by earnings from part-time and seasonal employment, we have student loans to repay, a mortgage to amortize, taxes to withhold, and a 401(k) to fund. Thanks, Sphinx!

Plus, those bundles of love you brought home from the hospital have become disobedient, disrespectful, and rebellious. Don’t they know what you gave up for them? And your ‘forever partner’ now seems more ‘forever’ and less ‘partner’. 

The career you trained for has you doing busy work in a cube; and from here, the road to advancement seems long and tortuous. Oh, and that salary that looked so awesome just a few years back? Well, it’s no longer nearly enough to meet your needs.

Unfortunately, you were poorly prepared for the exigencies of real life! You were raised on a diet of force-fed propaganda. First, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Then, “Do something with your life. Be someone. Make something of yourself.” 

Good Lord! Had you been captured at birth and raised by a cruel enemy, you could not have been more ill-treated. You were confined in a hermetically sealed box known as childhood; there you were bombarded by parents, teachers, and media with a single message: Be something you’re not!

So you find yourself in a bit of a pickle, don’t you? Your kids are grown (no grandkids yet) and your job’s a dead end. Worst of all, you sense that you are now, on average, 5/8ths of the way through your ‘productive period’…with nothing to show for it.

What to do? Obviously, you buy a flame red Italian sports car (or at least a Harley), you open that restaurant you’ve always dreamed of, and you dump your ‘forever partner’ in favor of a ‘trophy’ for your final lap. 

Or not! Either way, now you have a rasher of grown kids and a slew of grands; you have been successful…after all; in fact, some would say you’re ‘rich’. You belong to the most exclusive clubs, eat in the trendiest restaurants, and take your family on the most luxurious holidays. You’re on your local parish council, and last year you were elected to the Board of Selectmen (sic) in your town. But are you happy?

Of course not! How could you be? You’ve accomplished everything you ever dreamed of (rather, everything others dreamed of for you). You’ve spent your whole adult life trying to ‘be someone’ or ‘something’ – a loving spouse, a caring parent, a loyal employee, a generous employer, a pillar of your community - and you’ve come as close as anyone ever has to achieving these objectives. And yet…

The problem is that you can never actually be any of these ‘things’ and even if you could, it would not make you happy. ‘Being something’ is not the sort of hairpin you are. In fact, you’re the sort of thing that can never be anyone or anything. Correction: You will be something…at death; you will be ashes!

Your life has been an incessant effort to be what you can never be, and so you live in a state of perpetual longing…and loss. So now what? Well, if you’re very, very lucky, your play may have a 3rd act – call it the Age of Reflection. “What’s it all about, Alfie?” Now at last you’re in a position to ask that question…and maybe even answer it. Don’t let me down! 


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