What’s the Matter with Childhood? The Alchemy of Growing Up.
Adulting. That’s what I’ve been hearing people talk about. Actually, they’re mostly talking about the difficulty of adulting, of growing up.
Adult has become a verb now, something you do, sometimes, maybe — because no one quite seems to know what the noun means anymore.
What is this state, what is this thing, this condition (like a cold or the flu) of adulthood? What are its symptoms? How do you know when you’ve come down with it? Can you recover?
Past generations seemed to assume that growing up was the thing to do, and that everyone knew what that meant. You have to grow up. That’s normal. Get away from childhood as soon as possible.
That norm doesn’t seem so compelling anymore, or maybe it’s just less discernible. We don’t know how to get there, so we talk about adulting, as a kind of fake-it-till-you-make-it philosophy, a practice run of sorts, perhaps a pantomime.
Or maybe it’s more like Fake it till no one is looking, and then stop doing that shit.
Part of the problem is that many of us associate adulthood with the misery and bitterness we’ve seen in those who did the right thing, by going to a job that made them sick and cynical, so they could have enough money to raise a family they couldn’t really spend time with, so they could put away savings, so they could finally enjoy life when they turn 60 or 70 years old.
Only, the enjoyment might not come. It’s a risky bet, at least as risky as any other option.
Spending 35, 40, 50 years, doing things you don’t really want to do, has consequences, one way or another. Doing something because of outside expectation, or because you think that eventually you’ll be able to do what you actually find meaningful, can create habits — grooves or ruts in the soul — that are difficult or impossible to steer out of later in life.
So, many of my generation have come to associate adulthood with the time you succumb to dissatisfaction, and stop doing the things you actually want to do with your life.
It’s not that we don’t want to do what we need to do to be successful, it’s that we don’t want to idealize any form of success that entails the continual avoidance of life in any meaningful sense of that term, or its indefinite postponement.
That’s why we don’t want to catch adulthood, at least not permanently or terminally — if that is what adulthood means. We don’t want to participate in the ironic possibility that we might put off living until we die.
But maybe there’s another way to understand growing up, one that doesn’t divide us from ourselves or from an everyday life that is saturated with soul, and spiritual significance.
After all, what is the matter with childhood?
And why are we trying to get a way from it?
Alchemy suggests that we shouldn’t, if we actually do want to grow up, at least in a way that keeps us attached to ourselves.
“Alchemy?” you ask. “What does an old dude in a stuffy, dingy, dirty laboratory, working away with strange instruments and dangerous substances, attempting to turn base metals into gold, have to do with growing up in the real world?”
The alchemists thought that everything develops out of a mysterious initial substance that they called Prima materia, or first matter, or prime material.
Prima materia is the primal stuff, the seed that each particular person or thing emerges from. The first matter is the origin of something, where its hidden essence and unrealized potential lies — it’s the child, you might say.
Gold, on the other hand, is what the fruition of Prima materia looks like to an alchemist. Gold signifies what each thing or person can be if they work their own Prima materia to completion.
In nature, gold doesn’t decay, corrode or rust, or get brittle and crack. Ever. It stays what it is despite how old it is, where it is, or what surrounds it.
That’s why alchemists found gold so symbolically significant. Gold embodies the qualities that the alchemists wanted to create in their own lives, in their own souls.
Gold is what adulthood looks like in alchemy.
But we can only create gold from Prima materia. We have to start with the first matter of something. The adult comes from the first matter, from the child, from what is already hidden in the beginning.
We cannot leave the child behind to find the adult, if we’re looking for an adulthood that exhibits the soul of gold.
If you can find the Prima materia, you can find the gold — because they’re not separate. They are different expressions of the same thing — one hidden, the other manifest.
The most difficult task in alchemy is actually discovering the substance of the child that was unconsciously present in our own beginnings, that is where the true adult hides unmanifested.
So how do we find our Prima materia? How do find the child?
This happens through what operations the alchemists called solve et coagula (dissolve and coagulate).
We become conscious of our own first matter by dissolving our identity with our surroundings — with the circumstances and relationships and roles we grew into — distilling our own essence away from what it became fused and confused with along the way.
Only then can we unite, coagulate consciously with our actual Self, and live the richness of who we really are, into the world — contributing our own substance to our surroundings, to our relationships and roles.
So, growing up in alchemy means that the adult grows into the child. We become adult through the process of discerning, becoming conscious of, and integrating into our lives what we originally came into the world as.
For the alchemists, gold isn’t made, it is revealed — by separating it from what it has become contaminated with, from what doesn’t actually belong to its own essence. The gold is already there, it has always been there, hidden.
We have to distinguish ourselves from all those elements of childhood — parents and siblings, friends and teachers, beliefs and expectations and perspectives — that may have covered over and contaminated our own Prima materia. When what doesn’t belong is removed, the first matter becomes gold, the child becomes an adult.
Childhood is a massa confusa, as the alchemists would say, a confused mass of elements that the first matter of who we are has to be separated from over time, and time and time again — so we can learn to embrace ourselves over time, and time and time again.
That is adulting — not the practice of putting ourselves aside for the sake of something or someone else, but the increasing capacity and maturity to recognize and set aside everything we’re not, so that we can give ourselves authentically to the world through work and love.
We don’t add something to ourselves in order to become adult. We remove our ignorance of ourselves. We remove all the false ways we came to see ourselves, the false identities we grew into. We grow out of what we aren’t, and never were.
We may never have a complete grasp of who we fully are, but we can continue to discard all the thoughts, ideas, images, activities, and relationships that dilute and diminish our lives… as we become conscious of them, and their contaminating effects.
It’s a task that may never end. We might always be in the process of becoming conscious, becoming gold.
But that’s the goal, that’s the alchemy of growing up.
Dylan Hoffman, PhD, is a student — of life, of imagination, of soul. His apprenticeship to Soul is the essence of his own work as a writer and teacher. Dylan has founded the Spiritual Alchemy Institute to provide clients with instruction and guidance in the dynamics and development of the soul as it is symbolized, imagined, and practiced in the tradition of alchemy. Alchemy is called The Art by its devotees. It provides methods of meditation, processes of transformation, and images of the inner states and conditions that we must undergo to achieve wholeness — to integrate all the elements of our lives into a rich and unified soul. For Dylan, alchemy is where soul, life, and art become one, and make spiritual gold, create wholeness.