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The Peter Pan Generation by Darina Rebro

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The Peter Pan Generation

Wendy's room with Peter Pan's shadow on the wall.

“All children, except one, grow up.” This is the opening of Peter Pan, the book written by J.M. Barrie about a boy who never ages. His resentment over the joys and pains of growing up evokes many of the problems of our own time, as ever more people choose to avoid adulthood at all costs—even at the cost of the things that make them human.

One of the things that make us human is responsibility. For Sir Winston Churchill, responsibility was the very “price for greatness.” Long before the famous prime minister’s time, however, the same discovery was made by the patriarchs of antiquity and, ever since then, has sailed through the centuries from generation to generation, until it anchored in the West. 

This ideal of responsibility may be deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian values, but is nonetheless based on the simple assumption that with maturity should come a certain readiness to accept the sufferings and burdens of life with dignity. This, if you like, is part of the backbone of Western Civilization. 

However, as we have drifted away from the values of the past, and have been weakened by moral relativism, the notion of responsibility has become vague, and our societies have become rich soil for a generation of ‘Peter Pans.’ 

J.M. Barrie starts his book by describing the Darling family: dull, busy, and humdrum, and focused on their economic challenges. In contrast, he describes the life of Peter Pan, an adventurous, independent, and irresponsible boy, who lives in Neverland and leads the Lost Boys in frisky activities. In the climax of the story, the Darling children—Wendy, John, and Michael—find themselves between those two worlds: carefree eternal youth and adulthood filled with responsibilities. Eventually they choose the latter.

Peter Pan’s character is not all amiable and naive. Despite the efforts by Walt Disney and others to romanticize him and his desire to stay a child forever, the book paints a grimmer picture. The boy is followed by a dark shadow, which symbolizes his malicious side, and even the impending doom of death. He is no longer really human but a phantom that has exhausted its inner fire. Peter longs to be part of a family, but he has lost his memory of his ancestors, nationality, and roots. He cannot build and pursue any dreams and goals—especially considering that any noble goal requires maturity. 

Peter is strongly attracted to Wendy as the embodiment of the feminine. He wants to protect, nourish, and court her. The dark shadow and the fairy, however, sabotage his attempts to grow close to Wendy, and makes him unable to bond with her. Thus, Wendy returns home, grows up, and marries a mature man who joins her in the desire for a meaningful life.

By pursuing eternal youth and avoiding his natural obligations, Peter Pan loses his identity, his past, and his future. When, in the middle of their duel, Captain Hook asks Peter who and what he is, the boy responds: “I’m youth, I’m joy. I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg.” It makes no sense and gives us no information about Peter’s actual identity. It reveals only his own inadequate view of himself, his lack of self-awareness. Who or what is he? Even Peter doesn’t know.

This lack of self-awareness and vocation makes Peter hostile towards “grown-ups.” He doesn’t merely hate adulthood; he craves the death of adults: 

But of course he cared very much; and he was so full of wrath against grown-ups, who, as usual, were spoiling everything, that as soon as he got inside his tree he breathed intentionally quick short breaths at the rate of about five to a second. He did this because there is a saying in the Neverland that, every time you breathe, a grown-up dies; and Peter was killing them off vindictively as fast as possible.

Hatred towards responsible people; a loss of identity; and ongoing struggle to find a noble goal? All seem rather close to home. The easily offended generation in the West today has many traits in common with Peter. They embrace the freedom of Western society, its benefits and rights; but the realm of obligations seems lost. 

Love has no gender! Black lives matter! My body—my choice! All these slogans sound good and inspirational, but when the veil drops, they turn out to be quite ugly. The embryo is excluded, confused people are physically mutilated in the search for identity; looting and destruction spreads. Anyone who points out the deficiencies of these slogans and the movements they represent is labelled ‘sexist,’ ‘homophobe,’ ‘racist,’ and other words that are designed to invalidate their opinion. 

The unfortunate fact about these movements is that their followers truly believe in a responsibility-free utopia, and are trying to build it. And in their narrative, the enemies—Peter Pan’s ‘grown-ups’—are sound-minded persons who honour history, reason, country, family, and truth. 

What we witness in these neo-revolutionary movements is chronic immaturity. A lot of blaming, frustrated teenage stomping of feet, whining and crying for more attention from the State. 

Dignified adult behaviour looks very different. The mature response to a problem is to solve it rationally, charitably and calmly. 

In his lecture on Peter Pan, professor Jordan Peterson described the phenomenon of adults not wanting to mature. He noted that people are necessarily sacrificial, whether they want to be or not. It’s just a matter of picking your sacrifice. In order for Peter Pan to mature, he would have had to sacrifice his leadership over the Lost Boys and embrace reality, thus realising his potential. But he chose to sacrifice adulthood—and reality itself—for an irresponsible and meaningless existence.

The modern ‘Peter Pans’ also make terrible sacrifices. They sacrifice awareness of history and true learning; they sacrifice common sense and the skill of having a dispassionate discussion. They choose their own subjective narratives in the face of every opportunity to learn something, even when it comes to historical facts. Moreover, the more these “Peter Pans’” are fuelled by media hysteria, the harder they fight for their abstract ideas.

The proper response to the current rise of ‘Peter Pans’ is a brave, charitable restatement of truth. In Barrie’s book, Peter doesn’t have to be intimidated or forced to bring Wendy and her siblings back home. The children are able to vocalize their love for home, their family, and a desire to become a part of society. They are mature in a way that Peter, even if he doesn’t understand it, cannot ignore. Eventually not only do the Darlings return, but the Lost Boys also choose to be adopted by the family. They all grow up and accept the humdrum of real life: 

All the boys were grown up and done for by this time; so it is scarcely worthwhile saying anything more about them. You may see the twins and Nibs and Curly any day going to an office, each carrying a little bag and an umbrella. Michael is an engine-driver. Slightly married a lady of title, and so he became a lord. You see that judge in a wig coming out at the iron door? That used to be Tootles. The bearded man who doesn’t know any story to tell his children was once John.”

From a group of rebellious children, wasting their lives chasing mermaids and fleeing from a crocodile, the Lost Boys became adults. They didn’t have to hyperventilate anymore to kill ‘grown-ups’; they didn’t have to fear time, forget who they were, or ever long for motherly love. By accepting their mortality, the responsibilities of society, and the need for occupation and a family, they were able to overcome the destructive teaching of their ex-leader and become happy. Taking responsibility for their own lives and choices shaped their identities. Peter Pan, on the other hand, chose to never mature. He returned to Neverland and remained forever alone.  

Responsibility for one’s behaviour, country, society is the key to a healthy democracy. Personal accountability is a manifestation of inner maturity. It is more possible than ever before to live one’s whole life without developing that mature attitude; to build one’s own serene Neverland and live the life of a child who never grows up but blames society for one’s misfortunes. However, there is a huge reward for those who choose to be accountable for their lives: the reward of being fully human. 

Darina Rebro is a journalist from Ukraine. She holds a Bachelor of Laws degree and a Master of Arts in Advocacy Journalism.