Peter Pan and the Fading of Youth
Peter Pan is one of my favorite books. Why would a children’s book be a favorite of mine? It’s simple really: Peter Pan isn’t a children’s book, much as Gulliver’s Travels isn’t for children. Unfortunately, when most people hear the title of J. M. Barrie’s book, they think of the Disney animated rendition, or the movie Hook.
I fell into this camp until a little over seven years ago, content to keep my knowledge of Peter Pan purely theoretical. Then I started talking to, flirting with, and dating this young woman whom I later persuaded to marry me. Abigail was planning to do her master’s thesis on Peter Pan (though I think choosing to write a thesis on something indicates both that you love it and don’t want to love it anymore). Of course, I did the one thing any intelligent suitor would have done; I located a copy of Peter Pan and started reading.
I was caught off guard. From the beginning, I was enchanted.
Barrie’s descriptions and his characterization are fascinating. The opening chapter, with its introduction of the Darlings and Nana, held my attention, and they were small players in the grand scheme of the story. Each new character was equally intriguing.
What’s more, Peter Pan is compelling and deeply nostalgic. I don’t think children, who have such a limited perspective of life, can appreciate the complex themes that the story addresses. Two of the themes—gender roles and duty/responsibility—cannot be experientially understood by kids.
To the initiated, though, these themes are deep waters, easy to fall into but difficult to fully comprehend.
Just consider the two main characters: Peter Pan is the boy who is constantly escaping adulthood while Wendy, as a young girl, is brought to Neverland to fulfill an adult role, that of mother to the lost boys.
While Wendy is symbolic of everywoman (I think most readers would agree with that), Captain Hook is everyman: I think the jadedness and disillusionment that Hook embodies is something that grown, independent-yet-relied-on men can identify with. Our youthful optimism and energy seem doomed in the drudgery of ordinary daily life. It’s hard not to feel cheated of or by the hopes and dreams that our childhood selves cherished. This is why Hook hates Peter Pan, who somehow escapes responsibility, and why Hook fears the crocodile who represents time.
Rather sadly, Peter Pan doesn’t really pose any answers; it just highlights the inevitable: We all grow up.
There is no escaping it, only accepting the inescapable. I challenge any adult to read Peter Pan and not be overcome by melancholy as they face this topic.
This entire topic strikes incredibly close to home for me. I’ve been in the work force more or less full-time for about eight years now. I work for myself doing a specialized manual labor job, which is largely boring and repetitive. I also have four children, ages four and under. Little about my life is exciting or glorious. Gross, yes. Frequently. Glorious, no. With each new child, there has always come a low point, whether an evening or a series of days, where I have wondered, “What am I doing with my life?” and been forced to ponder much that Peter Pan captures.
While Barrie doesn’t provide answers to these life questions though, I’ve found reasons for hope, in the midst of this daily struggle, within the Biblical narrative.
God recognizes the human struggle with work and meaning. Just three chapters into the Bible, God confronts Adam about his sin and says:
Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return (Genesis 3:17b-19)
God is not unaware of our human wrestling. He was the first to highlight the consequences of sin. Recognizing that God is the best source for a solution or at least perspective, the writer of Ecclesiastes—a book obsessed with “meaning”—exhorts his readers to “remember your Creator in the days of your youth…” (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
As I have reflected in my ever-fading youth, three Biblical principles stand out to me:
#1 – Remember the big picture.
The Bible places our human existence within a larger narrative of creation, perfection, sin, separation, death, atonement, reconciliation, sanctification, and celebration—a narrative that spans thousands of years and into eternity.
Viewed from such a perspective, our human life of perhaps eighty years takes on a completely different significance. Our happiness and our suffering are fleeting, less than an appetizer at an infinite banquet.
#2 – We are stewards
In the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus depicts a master who entrusts his servants with different sums of money, expecting that they invest it. The servant who fails to invest and hides his talent is stripped of the master’s money and thrown into darkness and suffering.
The metric a Christian should use for evaluating his life is not happiness or personal contentment, but whether he is investing his God-given gifts (time, body, finances, background, talents, etc.) in a way that increases the Master’s domain.
#3 – Be faithful in the small stuff
In 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, Paul encourages the church to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
I can get so caught up dreaming big about the future that I fail to be faithful in the small, ordinary and mundane. I can be so focused on what might happen next week, next month, or next year that I fail to serve my wife, my children, or my neighbor today. Going back to the Parable of the Talents, the master says to his loyal servants, “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things” (Matthew 25:21, 23).
Faithfulness starts small and then grows.
As I’ve grown into my role as a parent, I’ve been fascinated by the Genesis story of Joseph. Given the highpoints and excitement of Joseph’s life, I tend to forget how much work and drudgery played a central role in Joseph’s life. Joseph was alternately a shepherd, slave, steward, prisoner, warden’s assistant, and second-in-command to Pharaoh. Throughout his various employments, I suspect Joseph wrestled with the same jadedness and disillusionment that J. M. Barrie would later capture in a play and then novelize.
Yet God never lost control or perspective.
Each step in Joseph’s life, however undignified and humiliating, played a part in molding Joseph and preparing him for God’s greater plan. At the story’s climax, Joseph knew that God sent him into Egypt as a slave in order to save lives.
The metric a Christian should use for evaluating his life is not happiness or personal contentment, but whether he is investing his God-given gifts in a way that increases the Master’s domain.