Stories, in every form, have remarkable ways of speaking to the world. They are timeless and intimate, transcending and heartfelt. To those who experience them, they provide connection, closure, and comfort. Each of us has a story that has touched him or her personally, the one from childhood or adolescence, which has remained permanently in one’s heart as a source of truth and understanding about this incredibly enigmatic world.
For me, that story is Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.
I had seen the Disney movie countless times throughout my childhood, but it wasn’t until the summer going into my freshman year of college that I actually, finally, thankfully read the book. It was perfect timing, to say the least. And though I was bathing-suit clad at the dining table of my family’s RV in the middle of a campground in Wisconsin, I never put the book down. Brimming with heroic sword fights, magic pixie dust, and innocent romance, the tale of the young English boy who never grew up captivated my imagination from the very first reading, and I connected with him and his story immediately. I began the book with questions and queries about myself and my life and the world, and through Barrie and his cast of delightfully wonderful characters, all of which continue to hold a significant place in my heart, I found answers.
At the core, I am a child. Slice away my outer adult appearance and inside you’ll find a girl still clutching to every inch of her childhood with white knuckles. At about age ten, during a time when everyone else was so looking forward to the freedom of adulthood, I firmly decided that growing up simply just wasn’t my thing. I liked my LEGO Star Wars videogames and Disney movies, my dinosaur figurines and Polly Pockets. I wasn’t a fool. I knew that growing up meant giving all that away. I wasn’t ready to trade wonder for reality, to exchange carelessness for responsibility. I’m still not. To me, adulthood was synonymous for anxiety. So, bearing that wonderful, immovable stubbornness of a determined child, I put my foot down on the matter and decided that I would simply defy expectations and be a kid for the rest of my life.
I never did accomplish my dream of living off pizza bagels and playing PS2 games for the remainder of my existence; however, that same kid-at-heart remained unyielding. Going into college, it kicked and screamed. Don’t get me wrong, I was beyond ecstatic to continue my education at the collegiate level; however, all I could think about that summer of 2013 was how I wouldn’t see my best friends of four years for four months , how I would be swimming in college-level papers and exams and presentations for twelve terms, how I would stress over getting a job or, more likely, not getting one at all. At eighteen years old, growing up was still terrifying, maybe even more so than ever.
Then I read Peter Pan, and I was stunned. For those who haven’t read it, the story of the boy who never grew up, rather than romanticizing the unalterable innocence and ignorance of an immortal child, warns deeply and wholeheartedly against it. No, you heard me right. While I love the Disney adaptation to death, Peter Pan’s sole message is not to “never grow up,” in the physical sense at least. Rather, it explains why it is critical that we must.
Without blatantly stating it, Peter Pan and its world of fantastic heroes managed to convey to me the true intent of growing up, to live a fulfilling life, to grow in relationships, to know intimacy, to gain understanding, to have purpose, none of which can be accomplished in the state of complete childlike ignorance. To gain experience, we must grow old, and while experience leads to loss of ignorance and innocence, we gain new gems in the process, such as love and knowledge and morality. However, the novel also explains, in its wonderful, wonderful way, that while we must inevitably grow up, we can retain our wondering, childlike perspective of the world forever, and thus, never grow up. All this I discovered and more through the whimsical tale of Never-Neverland and its fantastical, magical inhabitants.
The most beautiful aspect of stories, thus, whether written or oral or imaged, lies in their power to convey so much while telling so little. Though Barrie never specifically stated his meaning, I got it, through his characters, his world, his plot and, of course, his writing. In this way, stories have the power to convey timeless, universal meanings to those who experience them. And that is something truly magical.