Since 1857, The Atlantic has been challenging established answers with tough questions. In this video, actor Michael K. Williams—best known as Omar Little from The Wire—wrestles with a question of his own: Is he being typecast?
What are you asking yourself about the world and its conventional wisdom? We want to hear your questions—and your thoughts on where to start finding the answers: email@example.com. Each week, we’ll update this thread with a new question and your responses.
When I was 11, my mother died. My father had become blind a few years before, from a rare form of glaucoma. He had no choice but to allow me to do things that are normally done by an adult, such as budgeting and paying bills, cooking and cleaning, and other various things. He had to talk to me in an honest way, and make me understand things and rely on my judgement in lots of matters. Other adults did too. I was never a child again after my mother died and my dad knew it.
Another reader’s mother also died at a pretty young age:
I became an adult when my mother died and my dad started dating four months later. I was 20 years old. Once he had a new woman in his life (whom he is still married to now) and essentially a new family, I was out. We had really started to be at odds the year before, when I had started to do things my way instead of his way. He had pretty much taken for granted that I could make it in this world without his advice or anything.
For this next reader, it was boarding school:
I’m not sure the end of childhood is the sort of thing that one can pinpoint; seems to me there were rather a number of distinct rites of passage. The first was when I went to boarding school, around age 10. When my parents dropped me off that first day, I knew I was on my own. Calling home to say they should come get you was not an option; my parents made this pretty clear, but it was not necessary. I knew.
Another reader had to go abroad to step out of childhood:
When I was an exchange student, my father came down to visit. There I was, living independently in a foreign country at 17. I could speak the language fluently and had to navigate us for him.
I was 18 and turned down an Ivy League school and, using my own money, moved to Italy to live with my 25-year-old girlfriend. I think my parents would say I became an adult when, at 26, I handed them a copy of my will and let them know I had been chosen to deploy in a war zone as a civilian alongside a joint counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency military unit. Strangely enough, they weren’t happy with either bit of news.
Rachael was 18 and had just started college:
I received an offer for health insurance in the mail. It went to my home address, and my mom was absolutely thrilled at the notion that I would be off her employer-supplied (but expensive) health insurance. I began paying for my own health insurance at that time, but I also let her know that I wouldn’t allow her to claim me as a dependent on her income taxes anymore. I paid my own expenses (insurance, college, etc). I laugh now when I think of “kids” still being on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26.
This next reader is almost 26:
I became an adult in the past year or so, when my dad learned how much was in my savings account and I mentioned my credit score in the context of considering new car costs. I think my parents assumed up to that point that I was just scraping by and blowing my money irresponsibly, and they were impressed with the degree to which I was caring for myself.
I think calling my dad and asking for advice has helped him to see me differently as well. There’s something about discussing investments and trying to decide on insurance plans that I would assume makes it hard to keep seeing your kid as a kid.
Another reader also nods to financial independence: “I became an adult when I began to pick up the check for my parents by surreptitiously passing plastic to the maître d’ early in the meal.” This next reader entered adulthood in a brutal fashion:
I was 20 and began working at the same factory as my father did. He was in maintenance as an industrial electrician. There had been a summer program for employees’ children and I worked out well enough that I was hired at the end of the summer. He was proud that I carried my weight.
However, three years into it and just after my 23rd birthday, my hand got caught in a take-up roll for a large paper machine and I was flung around like a rag doll. With both femurs and my left ulna, left radius, and left humerus broken, I spent months recovering.
But I kept a good attitude, believing falsely that I would be back to my normal self. My dad told me that he could never have had such a good attitude having gone through what I did.
This next reader also defined his adulthood alongside his dad’s admiration:
I became an adult when I joined the ROTC program my freshman year of college to appease my dad. He got a glimmer of pride in his eyes, saw it as me taking initiative, and was proud that I seemed interested in serving my country. I wasn’t really; I only did it to get him off my back so I could do drugs and other hedonistic things in college. But it was good to have his approval for once and no stress.
The first moment of adulthood was rather mundane for this reader: “Probably the day Mom asked if she could come to my apartment 45 minutes away to use my washing machine because hers was broken.” For another reader, the moment was different for each of his parents:
For my dad, I’d say the writing was on the wall around the time I was 16 and it became apparent that I was physically stronger than he was. He maintained the power of the purse for a few years after, but, considering that it was at about the same time when he’d occasionally offer me a beer, I’m inclined to accept that I was an adult in his eyes.
Mom? Damn, who knows what she really thinks about anything, but I’m guessing she first fully acknowledged my adulthood not through any of the accomplishments or milestones, but when, in 2003, I bought her a car and she therefore had a tangible symbol that could be seen and acknowledged by others.
This next reader’s parents need grandkids before truly considering her an adult:
I’m a 31-year-old married attorney homeowner with no kids. I don’t think my parents look at me like an adult. I don’t think they will until I have kids. This is most obviously manifested in my parents’ constant amnesia of me being a lawyer. They will be having discussions about some legal consideration, I’ll weigh in, yet my opinion is given no weight whatsoever. Though maybe I’m just being whiny that they aren’t taking me seriously. Is that the same thing as not seeing me as an adult? They seem very proud of me, but that doesn’t seem akin to viewing me as an adult either.
Jason might never become an adult in his parents’ eyes:
In some ways, my sister and I will always be “kids.” My mom will randomly start doing things to my hair or bring over something like saucepans that we already have and don’t need. My dad critiques my yard and is always convinced something is wrong with my car (there isn’t, Dad, it’s fine!) I just laugh at this stuff, though; it doesn’t really bother me.
It bothers Doug, though; he finds the topic a “sore spot”:
I’m not convinced my parents believe I’m an adult. I’m 32, the youngest of three, the second most-educated (sister has multiple grad degrees), and the highest earner. I’m constantly getting asked if I’m saving enough or if I need help with anything. Meanwhile, I never ask for help, but both of my older sisters constantly need help. I’m the one who made sure my dad got power of attorney for my grandmother before she totally lost it, and who opened college accounts for my nieces and nephews.
Henry David Thoreau is something of a poster child for solitude. In his essay “Walking,” published just after his death in our June 1862 issue, Thoreau made the case “for absolute freedom and wildness … to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society”:
We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk.
Thoreau himself was “a genuine American weirdo,” as Jedediah Purdy recently put it, and solitude suited him: His relentless individualism irritated his friends, including Atlantic co-founder Ralph Waldo Emerson, who described Thoreau’s habit of contradicting every point in pursuit of his own ideals as “a little chilling to the social affections.” Emerson may have had Thoreau in mind when, in our December 1857 issue, he mused that “many fine geniuses” felt the need to separate themselves from the world, to keep it from intruding on their thoughts. Yet he questioned whether such withdrawal was good for a person, not to mention for society as a whole:
This banishment to the rocks and echoes no metaphysics can make right or tolerable. This result is so against nature, such a half-view, that it must be corrected by a common sense and experience. “A man is born by the side of his father, and there he remains.” A man must be clothed with society, or we shall feel a certain bareness and poverty, as of a displaced and unfurnished member. He is to be dressed in arts and institutions, as well as body-garments. Now and then a man exquisitely made can live alone, and must; but coop up most men, and you undo them. …
When a young barrister said to the late Mr. Mason, “I keep my chamber to read law,”—“Read law!” replied the veteran, “’tis in the courtroom you must read law.” Nor is the rule otherwise for literature. If you would learn to write, ’tis in the street you must learn it. Both for the vehicle and for the aims of fine arts, you must frequent the public square. … Society cannot do without cultivated men.
Emerson concluded that the key to effective, creative thought was to maintain a balance between solitary reflection and social interaction: “The conditions are met, if we keep our independence, yet do not lose our sympathy.”
Four decades later, in our November 1901 issue, Paul Elmore More identified a radical sympathy in the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which stemmed, he argued, from Hawthorne’s own “imperial loneliness of soul”:
His words have at last expressed what has long slumbered in human consciousness. … Not with impunity had the human race for ages dwelt on the eternal welfare of the soul; for from such meditation the sense of personal importance had become exacerbated to an extraordinary degree. … And when the alluring faith attendant on this form of introspection paled, as it did during the so-called transcendental movement into which Hawthorne was born, there resulted necessarily a feeling of anguish and bereavement more tragic than any previous moral stage through which the world had passed. The loneliness of the individual, which had been vaguely felt and lamented by poets and philosophers of the past, took on a poignancy altogether unexampled. It needed but an artist with the vision of Hawthorne to represent this feeling as the one tragic calamity of mortal life, as the great primeval curse of sin … the universal protest of the human heart.
Fast-forward a century, and what More described as “the solitude that invests the modern world” had only gotten deeper invested—while “the sense of personal importance” gained new narcissistic vehicles in the form of social-media tools that let us “connect” online while keeping our real, messy selves as private as we choose. Which is not a bad thing: In some ways, the internet looks like the perfect way to achieve Emerson’s ideal balance between independent thought and social engagement.
A considerable part of Facebook’s appeal stems from its miraculous fusion of distance with intimacy, or the illusion of distance with the illusion of intimacy. Our online communities become engines of self-image, and self-image becomes the engine of community. The real danger with Facebook is not that it allows us to isolate ourselves, but that by mixing our appetite for isolation with our vanity, it threatens to alter the very nature of solitude.
The new isolation is not of the kind that Americans once idealized, the lonesomeness of the proudly nonconformist, independent-minded, solitary stoic, or that of the astronaut who blasts into new worlds. Facebook’s isolation is a grind. What’s truly staggering about Facebook usage is not its volume—750 million photographs uploaded over a single weekend—but the constancy of the performance it demands. More than half its users—and one of every 13 people on Earth is a Facebook user—log on every day. Among 18-to-34-year-olds, nearly half check Facebook minutes after waking up, and 28 percent do so before getting out of bed. The relentlessness is what is so new, so potentially transformative. Facebook never takes a break. We never take a break.
The same year, Brian Patrick Eha also noted the changing nature of solitude—particularly the kind of solitude achieved by wearing headphones in public. “We are each of us cocooned in noise,” he wrote, “and can escape from one another’s only when immersed in our own.” For both Marche and Eha, the problem with technology is not its tendency to isolate people so much as the way it works to prevent us—through a sense of connection or simply through distraction—from fully experiencing that isolation and all it entails.
And as the author Dorthe Nors explained in 2014 for our By Heart series of writer interviews, a full experience of isolation has serious benefits:
The artistic process unfolds in the lonely hours. That’s when the work happens. You have to control the creative energy that you’ve got. You have to discipline yourself to fulfill it. And that work only happens alone.
Solitude, I think, heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful. When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly being thrown back on you. And then the “too much humanity” feeling is even stronger: you can’t run away from yourself. You can’t run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you’re working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time.
For Nors, like for Hawthorne, solitude not only enables personal reflection, but also grants access to some deeper, more universal strain of human feeling. That’s the same lesson that Nathaniel Rich, writing in our latest issue, took from the story of Christopher Knight, who spent 27 years living utterly alone in the woods of Maine:
Since his arrest in April 2013, Knight has agreed to be interviewed by a single journalist. Michael Finkel published an article about him in GQ in 2014 and has now written a book, The Stranger in the Woods, that combines an account of Knight’s story with an absorbing exploration of solitude and man’s eroding relationship with the natural world. Though the “stranger” in the title is Knight, one closes the book with the sense that Knight, like all seers, is the only sane person in a world gone insane—that modern civilization has made us strangers to ourselves.
Yet a total withdrawal from civilization can’t be the answer—nor, at a political moment when empathy and understanding seem ever-more-urgently needed, can walling yourself off from other people’s ideas be wise. In February, Emma Green offered this critique of a new book by Rod Dreher, a conservative Christian thinker who calls for like-minded members of his faith to withdraw from public life into communities of their own:
Dreher wrote The Benedict Option for people like him—those who share his faith, convictions, and feelings of cultural alienation. But even those who might wish to join Dreher’s radical critique of American culture, people who also feel pushed out and marginalized by shallowness of modern life, may feel unable to do so. Many people, including some Christians, feel that knowing, befriending, playing with, and learning alongside people who are different from them adds to their faith, not that it threatens it. For all their power and appeal, Dreher’s monastery walls may be too high, and his mountain pass too narrow.
So, tell us about your experience: How do you incorporate solitary reflection into a 21st-century lifestyle? Can you see communitarian benefits in spending more time on your own—or, on the other hand, point to what society loses when more people spend more time alone? Please send your answers (and your questions) to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Plenty of moms feel something less than unmitigated joy around their grown-up kids. Make sure yours feels that she’s getting as much out of her relationship with you as she gives.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Arthur C. Brooks will discuss the science of happiness live at 11 a.m. ET on May 20. Register for In Pursuit of Happiness here.
“You are … irritating and unbearable, and I consider it most difficult to live with you.” So wrote Johanna Schopenhauer in a 1807 letter to her 19-year-old son Arthur. “No one can tolerate being reproved by you, who also still show so many weaknesses yourself, least of all in your adverse manner, which in oracular tones, proclaims this is so and so, without ever supposing an objection. If you were less like you, you would only be ridiculous, but thus as you are, you are highly annoying.”
I surprised myself by enjoying this sad movie about old people working seasonal jobs.
Nomadland dares you to watch it. Even pressing the Play button on Hulu is a test of strength; do you have the stones to watch this plotless, dreary semi-documentary about elderly people forced to live in vans—and, yes, perform unspeakable bodily functions within them—and search for seasonal work? Or are you going to be a little baby and watch The Bourne Identity for the kabillionth time?
The much-reviled four-quadrant theory of moviemaking holds that a blockbuster appeals to all four sectors of the audience: young men, young women, somewhat older men, and somewhat older women. Nomadland is a movie that appeals to the four quadrants of the show-business apocalypse: menopausal women, people with life-threatening illnesses, people interested in poverty, and anyone with time on her hands who can’t find the remote.
Progressive communities have been home to some of the fiercest battles over COVID-19 policies, and some liberal policy makers have left scientific evidence behind.
Lurking among the jubilant Americans venturing back out to bars and planning their summer-wedding travel is a different group: liberals who aren’t quite ready to let go of pandemic restrictions. For this subset, diligence against COVID-19 remains an expression of political identity—even when that means overestimating the disease’s risks or setting limits far more strict than what public-health guidelines permit. In surveys, Democrats express more worry about the pandemic than Republicans do. People who describe themselves as “very liberal” are distinctly anxious. This spring, after the vaccine rollout had started, a third of very liberal people were “very concerned” about becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, compared with a quarter of both liberals and moderates, according to a study conducted by the University of North Carolina political scientist Marc Hetherington. And 43 percent of very liberal respondents believed that getting the coronavirus would have a “very bad” effect on their life, compared with a third of liberals and moderates.
The representative from Wyoming is taking a stand against an authoritarian streak in the Republican Party that she helped cultivate.
Liz Cheney, the representative of Wyoming, the daughter of a former vice president, and a lifelong conservative Republican, is facing a purge.
Cheney’s transgression? She has continued to insist, truthfully, that former President Donald Trump’s claims about the 2020 election are false, after having voted to impeach him in March for inciting a mob that stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the result.
Yesterday, Steve Scalise, the No. 2 Republican in the House, publicly advocated for removing Cheney from her leadership post as the third-ranking House Republican, and replacing her with Elise Stefanik, who has obsequiously amplified Trump’s lies about voter fraud. “This is about whether the Republican Party is going to perpetuate lies about the 2020 election and attempt to whitewash what happened on January 6,” Cheney’s spokesperson, Jeremy Adler, told TheNew York Times. “Liz will not do that. That is the issue.”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that elite parents, in possession of excellent jobs, want to get their kids into college.
“It is a truth universallyacknowledged,” Jane Austen begins Pride and Prejudice, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In early-19th-century society—an aristocratic world of inherited wealth—marriage occupied center stage. A good spouse was an all-purpose resource: essential for moving up in the world, as for Austen’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, or for sustaining a dynasty, as for the object of her affections, Mr. Darcy.
School and work were not a path to wealth and status—certainly not for women, nor even for men. Elites were indifferent to education and disdained work. The landed gentry in Pride and Prejudice look down on Elizabeth’s working uncle, no matter that he gets his income from “a very respectable line of trade.” The economic facts on the ground supported their antipathy. The highest-paying jobs tended to be in government. But even at the end of the century, an elite English civil servant made just 17.8 times the median wage, and his American counterpart just 7.8 times. Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year from inherited capital was more than 300 times the median wage.
From his private Cape Canaveral, the billionaire is manifesting his own interplanetary reality—whatever the cost.
The little Havanese likes to sit in a window of the one-story house, looking out onto the quiet street in Boca Chica, Texas. From its perch, it can watch neighbors passing by, glossy black grackles pecking in the grass, and palm trees swaying in the breeze. The dog’s presence is usually a sign that its owner, Elon Musk, is in town. That, and the Tesla parked in the driveway.
There are other, more conspicuous signs that Musk has gotten comfortable in this remote part of South Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border. The hulking manufacturing tents just down the road. The steel strewn on the ground. The mechanical hum of machinery as workers in hard hats assemble spaceship after spaceship.
Musk has built a shipyard here. This is the staging area for SpaceX’s founding dream, the reason Musk got into the rocket business: to put human beings on Mars, not to drop a flag and go home, but to stay and survive. That Mars might be a terrible place to live is irrelevant. Musk believes that humankind should exist on more than one planet, and that we should start soon.
An XKCD comic—and its many remixes—perfectly captures the absurdity of academic research.
A real scientific advance, like a successful date, needs both preparation and serendipity. As a tired, single medical student, I used to feel lucky when I managed two good dates in a row. But career scientists must continually create this kind of magic. Universities judge their research faculty not so much by the quality of their discoveries as by the number of papers they’ve placed in scholarly journals, and how prestigious those journals happen to be. Scientists joke (and complain) that this relentless pressure to pad their résumés often leads to flawed or unoriginal publications. So when Randall Munroe, the creator of the long-running webcomic XKCD, laid out this problem in a perfect cartoon last week, it captured the attention of scientists—and inspired many to create versions specific to their own disciplines. Together, these became a global, interdisciplinary conversation about the nature of modern research practices.
Feelings about the vaccine are intertwined with feelings about the pandemic.
Updated at 10:07 a.m. ET on May 4, 2021.
Several days ago, the mega-popular podcast host Joe Rogan advised his young listeners to skip the COVID-19 vaccine. “I think you should get vaccinated if you’re vulnerable,” Rogan said. “But if you’re 21 years old, and you say to me, ‘Should I get vaccinated?’ I’ll go, ‘No.’”
Rogan’s comments drew widespread condemnation. But his view is surprisingly common. One in four Americans says they don’t plan to take the COVID-19 vaccine, and about half of Republicans under 50 say they won’t get a vaccine. This partisan vaccine gap is already playing out in the real world. The average number of daily shots has declined 20 percent in the past two weeks, largely because states with larger Trump vote shares are falling off the pace.
Women, more than men, tend to feel stultified by long-term exclusivity—despite having been taught that they were designed for it.
Andrew Gotzis, a Manhattan psychiatrist with an extensive psychotherapy practice, has been treating a straight couple, whom we’ll call Jane and John, for several years. They have sex about three times a week, which might strike many as enviable, considering that John and Jane—who are in their 40s—have been together for nearly two decades. Based on numbers alone, one might wonder why they need couples counseling at all.
But only one of them is happy with the state of play. And it isn’t Jane.
“The problem is not that they are functionally unable to have sex, or to have orgasms. Or frequency. It’s that the sex they’re having isn’t what she wants,” Gotzis told me in a recent phone conversation. And like other straight women he sees, “she’s confused and demoralized by it. She thinks there’s something wrong with her.” John, meanwhile, feels criticized and inadequate. Mostly he can’t understand why, if his wife is having sex with him and having orgasms, she wants more. Or different.
Most of the teachers and parents I talk with just want school to be school.
Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at email@example.com.
Dear Abby and Brian,
I write as a concerned parent of a fifth grader at a private school that appears to prioritize “social justice” over academic excellence. The school has brought in a consultant and now the kids are reading all this new woke literature, and at the expense of the classics we all grew up on, like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Most of the teachers and parents I talk with just want school to be school—not some kind of Maoist social reeducation. Who is this all for?
I’m a left-wing New York City Democrat. I believe strongly in equal rights for all people. And I think we’ve still got a ways to go when it comes to equality. But I don’t want school to make my son feel bad just because he’s white. It’s not like he owned slaves. His great-great-great-grandparents were starving in Ireland during the time of slavery.