The recycled Calvin and Hobbes cartoon this morning is every bit as good as it was when it was first published but my reception of it varies from what it was.
Calvin: When a kid grows up, he has to be something. He can't just stay the way he is.
Calvin: But a tiger grows up and stays a tiger. Why is that?
Hobbes: No room for improvement.
(Calvin stares at the reader; Hobbes smiles at the sky.)
Calvin: Of all the luck, my parents had to be humans.
Hobbes: Don't take it too hard. Humans provide some very important protein.
When first I read this I was caught up in the punch line. I don't recall thinking much about the child growing into a man; I was lost in the contemplation of being protein.
At that time I too was something. I was an employee with some particular title (which I have written down somewhere) being paid by some specific company to do some assigned tasks some few of which might have been useful for a short while. But now I am not. I stopped being an employee and a bit later I started taking Social Security payments. I "am" retired -- in the sense that I have retired; retirement is something I have done and not something I am.
I am more like Calvin's tiger now than I was 40 years ago when I had grown up and was expected to be something. Now I have grown up to stay just the way I am. Or, no, not to stay unchanged but to stay me even as I continue to find new ways of being myself.
I remember Frederick Buechner's sermon "The Tiger" (in the book "The Magnificent Defeat") in which he asks, "if this is what it really is to be human, then what am I?" Calvin's kid is growing toward some defined existence. Buechner's tiger is discovering "what a human being really looks like".
I think in the ideal we ought to spend our childhoods discerning what it means to be human and then be human for the rest of our lives. But Calvin is right; the people around us persistently ask us "What are you going to be?"
In actual reality being a firefighter or a farmer or an accountant or the president of the United States is not the real answer to the question. The real question is what a human being really looks like and how I can be one.
This morning when I read Calvin and Hobbes I noticed the fact that no longer is anybody insisting that I be something. That was a distraction when I was 7 and 17 but no longer now that I am 70.