I keep a gun in my car.
It's in the pocket of my passenger-side door. If I kept it in the driver's side door, people might see it every time I hop in and out of the vehicle, and I don't necessarily want that. If it's on the passenger side, I can still lean over and have easy access to it.
When someone gets into my car on that side, the gun serves as a litmus test of sorts. That person's reaction--their face, what they say about it--tells me how they're wired, what kind of person they are.
You might have some questions for me. Like, "What the...?" or "Who the...?" or "Why the...?"
Let me try to answer them before you call the cops.
As for the "what"--the gun is actually a Nerf dart gun. More specifically, it's a Nerf N-Strike Elite Stryfe Blaster with motorized semi-automatic capability.
As for the "who"--my friend Will gave it to me as a gift. I also have two twenty-dart clips in the pocket behind my passenger seat--also gifts. What does it say that grown adults are buying Nerf toys for their grown adult friend? Maybe the answer to the next question will help.
Why do I keep a Nerf dart gun in my car? It comes in handy more than you think. Nothing spices up a dull day like grabbing a Nerf gun from my car, rolling into the office, and firing foam darts, or relieves the stress and seriousness of work like having to run and hide from a hail of darts in the parking lot. You should see the smiles on the faces of our friends' kids when we roll into their houses, Nerf guns in hand, and scream, "NERF BATTLE!" Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked.
The real reason I have a Nerf gun in my car? Because it's fun. Because it's goofy. And I truly think life is better when we let ourselves be silly.
It's true that I use my Nerf gun as a litmus test for people who get into my car. I typically get three reactions. The first is nothing--some people are either completely oblivious, don't care at all, or are afraid to judge me out loud. The second is something like, "YES!" and then usually leads to some darts being fired off in the tight quarters of my car. The third is the equivalent of an eye roll--sometimes it's an actual eye roll, or it's something like, "Um...you have a Nerf gun in your car--how old are you again?"
I understand that last reaction. Right now, one of the chief criticisms of young adult males in our culture is that too many men refuse to grow up. Most of us know at least one guy who is a complete man-child, and not in a good way. This is the kind of guy who has his loved ones crossing their fingers that he'll finally grow up one of these days. This is the kind of guy who, for whatever reason, can't seem to let go of the past, and instead of facing reality and his responsibilities, the pendulum swings to the Peter-Pan extreme. He's a boy when he should be a man.
This is the kind of man we don't want our brothers, our husbands, our friends, our sons, ourselves, to be.
What happens, though, when the pendulum swings all the way to the other side? In the name of "adulthood," some people begin to prioritize these adjectives above all else: Mature. Responsible. Serious. Safe. Focused. Productive. Efficient. Each of those words, in certain contexts, can be excellent traits. When they become so high in priority that an adult forgets how to be silly, when an adult has created a life or a personality that has little to no room for silliness, when an adult has forgotten the joy and the value of silliness.
In 1991, the world was gifted with a movie called Hook. It's one of my favorite movies of all time, and not just because it involves a re-telling of one my favorite stories (Peter Pan) and the great John Williams composed the soundtrack.
It stars Robin Williams as an adult Peter Pan. In the story, Peter, during one of his many visits back to the window of Wendy in London, falls in love with Wendy’s granddaughter. The second he kisses her, he forgets everything about Neverland and stays--the boy who wouldn't grow up will finally grow up.
The movie picks up years later, and Peter has taken a new name (Peter Banning) and become a successful, cutthroat lawyer. He’s addicted to work, ignores his family, lost his sense of humor, and has forgotten everything good about being Peter Pan. When Peter visits an older Wendy in London, Peter's old nemesis Captain Hook kidnaps Peter's kids and takes them to Neverland. Early on, Peter faces Captain Hook down on a pirate ship. All Captain Hook wants, all Captain Hook lives for is a final, epic fight with his arch-nemesis, Peter Pan, but Peter isn't his old self--he can't fly, he can't fight, he can't crow.
The entire movie centers around Peter’s struggle to discover himself again, to find youth again--not a younger body, but a younger heart.
My favorite part of the movie Hook is the end. Peter does find his young self again. He even fits back into those green tights somehow. He learns to fly and fight and crow; he rediscovers his sense of humor and his silliness. He fights Captain Hook and saves his children. And at the end of it all, he has the chance to stay in Neverland, to chase adventure every single day, to say goodbye to growing old and to responsibility.
Do you know what Peter does?
He decides to take his kids and go back home to the real world. He doesn't stay in perpetual childishness, frozen in immaturity. He leaves Neverland again to go to the real world, but this time, he's different--he's an adult with a family and responsibilities who also understands the value of fun, of lightheartedness, of silliness.
I have a job that plays out that balancing act every day--I teach middle school students. One of the greatest gifts that teaching in a middle school has given me is the perspective to see the balance between immaturity and healthy silliness.
Middle school kids have silliness in spades. Sometimes they're trying to do it--they still want to wrestle each other, throw things at each other, make weird noises, sing renditions of songs at ungodly frequencies. Other times, they're silly not because of effort but because they're in middle school and their bodies and hormones have waged war on them--their legs haven't caught up with their arms, their voices crack and cackle, they overreact to insignificant minutia.
Sometimes, their immaturity is on full display--they do something disruptive in the middle of class. They interrupt me or a fellow student. They say something hurtful. That's when we talk about knowing when and how to be silly or to be serious.
Other times, they crack me up. What's especially beautiful to me are the kids who've found a way to reject the insecurity that's supposed to come with that age and are their full, unreserved, goofy selves. It's amazing.
Every day, middle school reminds me of the need to grow in responsibility and the equal need for the joy of being silly.
In fact, teaching middle school has given me some simple principles to determine whether being silly is good or has gone too far.
If being "young at heart" is hurting someone around me or hurting myself, that's immaturity. If my "young at heart" mentality is stopping me from doing my job well, damaging my relationships, keeping me from loving people better, I need to man up. If I'm ducking out of my responsibilities to be "young at heart," it's time to grow up.
None of that means that we should say goodbye to silliness like it was a chapter to which we can never return. We need laughter--it should be a constant companion.
The world and its worries and responsibilities are heavy. Adults sometimes find ways to make heavier things even heavier than they already are. Kids know how to do make life lighter without even trying. We adults can weigh ourselves down to the point that we forget how to flip the switch from serious to silly. What's worse is when we convince ourselves we shouldn't flip that switch.
People can too easily look down on or roll their eyes at silliness, or dismiss it as immaturity--I think that's the wrong way to look at it.
We need some lightness in life. We need levity. We need to laugh.
Is there anything better than pure laughter? Is there anything more cathartic? Not too much in life beats laughter. Laughter isn't a trivial thing. Laughter isn't a luxury. It's a necessity of life.
Laughter is the way to make a heavy world light. I'm not embarrassed to make laughter and lightness a pillar of the way I live.
I've realized just how many of my favorite memories are the times when my friends and I laugh uncontrollably--the pranks we've pulled on each other, the costumes we've donned with the hopes that someone would at least crack a smile, the moments when we were able to drop the weight of adult life and exchange it for some unashamed, unbridled, child-like lightness.
I cherish those moments with my friends when we've been able to capture the best parts of being a kid.
Sometimes, someone sees my Nerf gun, or sees me chase after an ice cream truck like a maniac, or endures my unashamed, pure falsetto rendition of a Kelly Clarkson song and says, "What are you--five years old?"
I have to be honest. "Are you five years old?" is one of the greatest compliments I could receive.
"Yes," I reply. "And thank you."