There was recently a gathering at my church where about a dozen families gathered to meet and share a meal. It was done in typical cafeteria-style where all the food was set on a long table and when it was time to eat, everyone lined up grab a plate and fill it up with a pile of tasty food. This typically wouldn't be anything unusual, but something happened this time that caught my eye and made me really proud of the men in my church.
I've made it a habit of mine to eat last, or as close to last as I can manage. When I was younger, I did this because I wanted to avoid the shame of being the guy with a huge plate of food while other folks had to deal with the scraps and leftovers. As I matured, however, my reason for this habit transitioned from avoiding shame to ensuring the wellbeing of the people around me. Sure, I'd love to have a bite of the strawberry cheesecake, but if all that's left is a few leaves of lettuce and the crumbs of the croutons, I'll be ok.
For this particular meal, I saw that the line was shrinking so I got up and walked to the end of the line to wait my turn. When I got there, I noticed that almost every other man present was also at the end of the line.
It made me so proud to know that I was among men that shared my values and would choose to put others before themselves. That's a group of men that I want to be associated with. Men who, without any external influence or coordination, choose to put themselves at the end of the chow line to make sure that their families are taken care of.
When did you become a man?
This question haunts me. I know that I am one, but I can't really tell you how or when it happened. I don't remember when I first started asking the question, but it keeps coming back and I keep failing to answer it.
One approach that I've taken in my attempts to provide an answer is to define what it means to be a man and then look back to determine when I met those criteria. This is a very logical and systematic technique that ultimately falls short. The attainment of manhood isn't something that can be measured with a checklist and the scientific method. There's value in this approach, but it's incomplete.
Another approach is to simply declare that I am a man because I say that I am. I sway back and forth on this technique. I like the idea of self-determination and independence, but it parallels the idea of creating an award and giving it to yourself. Sure, you end up with a trophy, but can you back it up? That this method doesn't depend on other people is appealing to me because I don't want my identity to be contingent what other people think of me. I don't want to give someone else that power and influence over me.
The more I think about it, the more I think that the answer is somewhere in between. Manhood is too spiritual to be defined by science. Manhood can't be determined independently, but it also isn't subject to the whims of popular opinion either.
The most defensible definition of manhood that I've come been able to develop is this: Manhood is achieved when men you respect accept you as a brother.
So now we've got a working definition of manhood. It's not a simple checklist, but it is an attainable goal towards which you can strive. It also includes the acknowledgement of other men, but not just anyone off the street that might try to manipulate you. These are men that you look up to and whose opinion you respect.
Earn It Every Day
Implicit in this definition, is the idea that if you lose the acceptance of your brothers, you lose your status of manhood. I think this is important as it compels a man to continue earning his place among his brothers instead of simply checking the box and checking out.
When a man becomes a Navy SEAL, it's said that he's earned his trident. Simply earning the trident is a tremendous accomplishment, but by all the reading that I've done on the topic, it's just the start. SEALs hold themselves to a code that expects each man to earn his trident every day.
Every day, a SEAL has to prove himself worthy of wearing the trident. It doesn't matter what he accomplished yesterday. Today's a new day and he's got to do it all over again. He's got to earn it every day.
I think that manhood is much the same. You can earn acceptance as a brother by men you respect, but doing it once isn't enough. You've got to wake up tomorrow and do it all over again. You've got to do the hard work required to earn manhood. Every. Day.
So how do you do it? How do you know if you've earned acceptance of the men you respect?
I don't know.
There are going to be as many different ways, techniques, considerations, requirements and ideas as there are men. You've got to figure that one out for yourself.
What I do know is this: you've got to be around and spend time with those men. Other men can't accept you as a brother if you never spend time together. You've got to find a way get face to face and shoulder to shoulder with these men so that they can evaluate you and make a determination if you're someone that they want to accept. Similarly, you should be evaluating them to see if they truly are worthy of your respect.
Why It's Important
If finding acceptance for yourself isn't motivation enough for you to get after it, consider this: how will your son know when he's become a man? Which groups of men will he look up to and seek acceptance from?
I hope this thought scares the hell out of you. It sure does me. This is the thought that motivates me to want to become a part of a community of men that share my values and that I respect. Men that I can look to and encourage my sons to trust. I want to set the example for my sons so that they can pursue healthy relationships, friendships, and manhood.
If I can become a part of a community that shares my values and initiates its members, then I can extend the offer of manhood to my sons in a way that makes it clear that they've earned their place and that they need to keep earning it through their constant action.