Wednesday, 26 August 2009
"When does manhood happen?"
When does manhood happen? This is the question asked in a podcast I listened to recently. The question can be phrased differently, and more personally. When did I become a man? When did I become an adult?
I remember asking some of my friends a while back something along these lines: “So when am I supposed to feel like I’m a grownup now?”
Although I still in a sense feel like I’ve always felt, I do—also—feel like a grownup. And it didn’t happen overnight, in a single event, or as a clear phase as the original question suggested. Instead, I felt myself moving closer to adulthood (and manhood) through a series of phases and events. In this post I’ll bare some of the most notable markers along that journey.
I got my red belt in Taekwon-Do when I was 18 or 19. Red is just before black. When I started Taekwon-Do at the age of 16, the goal of black belt just seemed too far away. I would watch those black belts in my class and envy them, but couldn’t imagine myself to get to that level, which looked to me almost superhuman. So I lowered my goal a little and aimed for red belt. The day I put my red belt on I felt like a cowboy: Tall and not to be messed with. It’s been many years since then and I’m working towards my fourth black belt now, but none of my previous black belts gave me such a sense of achievement as that red belt did.
Making the strange decision of moving to a small coastal town and fending for myself in a relatively new and foreign environment was a keystone phase. I lived in Mtunzini for only one year, but it proved pivotal to my sense of survival. I taught Taekwon-Do to teenagers and young men, and fitness classes to women desiring to lose weight. I took long walks on the beach, stayed up or slept in, did nothing or anything. I walked around naked in my hut (apartment). Why? Because I could. This was my house… my territory and I could do what I pleased, thank you very much. This year of taking off from my regular life and relocating to a secluded beach-town served a great purpose to confirm to me my independence.
When I finished and passed my master’s degree dissertation with cum laude I had a great sense of accomplishment. This was my third degree, but the only one I really felt proud of. It took me four years to finish and required the culmination of a multitude of experiences and emotions: I had to be humble. I had to be assertive. At times I was depressed. At times I was euphoric. Sometimes hopeless. Sometimes focused and determined. I cried in despair. I jumped up and down and sang halleluiah songs when the miracles happened. I contributed a new paradigm to a field of science, and received acknowledgement for it. Now it is just a dissertation gathering dust on a library shelf, but back then it was a tour de force – at least in my little universe.
The times I was challenged to fights and I calmly put myself forward – not backing down, nor aggravating the situation. So far every instigator has taken the less violent option of doing some posturing and then walking away. The martial arts training have given me the guts to stand my ground. Some may claim it to be an illusion of power on my part. Be that as it may, my opponents must have gotten the inkling that although first impressions had them thinking me an easy pushover, this would not be as trouble-free as they imagined, hence their reluctance to follow through on their initial challenge. Although I do see myself as somewhat of a pacifist (I am in disagreement with most wars), I do believe that there are times when a man has to be willing to fight.
When I told my X (while we were still together) that I see my future with her, and want to be the best father-figure for her boy possible, I both acknowledged and welcomed the responsibilities of being a husband and father. Even though, in the end, things did not work out between us, this moment would become a significant point in my journey to manhood.
When I made her squeal with delight just by the way I licked her palm, it did wonders for my ego.
Starting teaching as a fulltime lecturer at a university was the beginning of another noteworthy phase. I’ve worked freelance. I’ve taught at other institutions before. I also taught part-time at university before. However, becoming a “real” full-time lecturer was the arrival at a goal I made very long ago. Even though I still don’t think of myself as living the typical “adult life” – the full time job, the wife, the kids, the house, the car, the debt and loans – that is not my idea of having “arrived”. And although I have a fulltime job, I still see it as only one of a basket full of “projects” I’m currently busy with. Even so, this is one significant “project” I’ve been working towards and is an important stepping stone towards future goals.
When did I become a man? For some (young) men it is their first sexual experience. For others it’s their first car or first house. For others still it’s when they got married, or became fathers, or . . . I don’t think it really is a single point, and I don’t think it is a single achievement. In a sense, boys-will-(always)-be-boys. There are still moments when I feel vulnerable; uncertain about things, about myself, about the world.
But being a man is more than just a checklist. It is growing into knowing who you are; an acknowledgement of both your accomplishments and your failures, of both your strengths and your weaknesses. Mostly, I think, it is about living with your choices; about taking responsibility for where you are in life. Of saying: this is the hand I’ve been dealt, and this is how I’ve played it – for better or worse.