Haven’t you outgrown that?

Me at age seven, being photographed by Mom's biological father.

Me at age seven, being photographed by Mom’s biological father.

I hang onto things. Being a packrat from a long line of packrats, this should come as no surprise. And it’s something I’ve done for as long as I can remember. Take the photo I’ve picked for today’s post. If you look closely, you’ll see that the striped shirt I’m wearing is actually several sizes too small. I kept wearing that shirt, not caring that it would no longer cover my belly, for several years. I vaguely recall the argument that arose one time when I wanted to wear in to school (I think it was early in first grade). I loved my blue-striped shirt, and since I could still pull it over my skinny shoulders, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t wear it!

Several times over that years I have found myself in a conversation with an acquaintance or friend about one of my collections. I collect (or have collected in the past) a lot of things:

typewriters, dice, books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, sonic screwdrivers, teddy bears, tiger plushies, lynx plushies, unusual writing implements, copper jello molds, My Little Ponies, et cetera. Some of the categories are hard to describe, and some of them are subsets of others. There’s also a collection one friend labeled “nostalgia symbols.” These are things that I find, or someone finds for me, which were things I either owned when I was younger, or wished I had owned in I was younger.

A number of times when drifting onto this topic, the friend or acquaintance has expressed consternation about some of the things I have hung onto. One particular acquaintance made the somewhat condescending declaration that he has never understood the desire some people have to cling to the past. He said he didn’t like looking back, didn’t see the point, since he had outgrown that stuff.

The human trait of retaining things we like or find useful is a deeply engrained one, and anthropologists and sociologists alike have written about it as a survival trait—hominids who hung onto a rock they had chipped into a useful shape, for instance, reaped the benefits of that initial work over and over again, without having to expend the energy of finding another suitable rock and shaping it to the task. The trait isn’t rational, though. It means that we find some kind of pleasure just from keeping object around, regardless of whether we need it right now.

But the more interesting mistake is the “I’ve outgrown that stuff” attitude. The premise underlying the idea of outgrowing things comes from early childhood development. Children too young to walk or talk are still capable of playing with things and interacting with people, but they are limited in how much they understand, because they are still developing. As children get older, and different parts of their bodies and brains develop, different activities interest them in part because those activities stimulate the areas that are currently under development. And so on.

Our ability to consciously remember things from very early childhood is almost zero. Part of the reason is that our infant brain lacked the context to file those memories in a way our more fully developed brain would be able to associate them with concepts and meaning. But another part is that memories of specific events from that stage don’t serve much purpose. It’s the cumulative effect of learning language and facial expressions and tones of voice and how that moves we we push this muscle that matters.

As we get older, we remember more and more individual incidents. But those memories are not like photographs stored in some indelible archive. They are fluid. For the rest of our lives our minds subconsciously edit, revise, annotate and correlate all of those old memories with the new. Forever finding new meaning from the cumulative effect of all of our memories.

So the notion of never looking back is a myth. And a deeply ironic sign of being stuck in an early stage of development oneself. Two-year-olds can’t remember what happened last year. Adults can and do and should.

The other problem with the “outgrowing things” myth is it can be a manifestation of another misunderstanding. A lot of people operate under the mistaken notion that adulthood is a finish line to be crossed. Once one has “come of age” or arrived, they are now complete, and there’s no need to learn new things. There is no more growing to do.

But life should continue to be an adventure of exploring and learning and growing. That kind of learning means being willing, as a child is willing, to discover that what we knew before is incomplete, to try things and fail, to make guesses and be wrong, until we learn the new thing. And because learning is an iterative process, it means not just replacing what we learned before with the new stuff, but integrating the new with the old.

In that sense, our old self isn’t like that shirt that I kept wanting to wear long after I outgrew it. The shirt couldn’t grow. Our old self and our past are still changeable. Our old self is part of our new self. It isn’t an old worn out garment in a drawer somewhere, it is with us, living and breathing and experiencing our current life right along with us. Because it is us.

That’s part of the secret that C.S. Lewis was trying to express when he said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Or what Madeleine L’Engle was explaining when she said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Or what Astrid Lindgren meant when she said, “I want to write for readers who can perform miracles. Only children perform miracles when they read.”

So, no, I haven’t outgrown silly things like toys and books and space ships hurtling between the stars. Nor have I outgrown dancing, listening to new music, oogling hot guys, waving and shouting like an idiot at parades, or playing let’s pretend or dress up.

And I have no intention of ever outgrowing them!

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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