As a 12 year old I had already formed an idea of what being a ‘man’ was all about. These assumptions were based on a very ‘outward’ appearance of a man. A real man had to;

  1. Be good at sports
  2. Be desirable to women (having a girlfriend or having girls like you was the evidence)
  3. Be tough

I struggled mightily that neither of the first two were panning out for me at all at a young age. I wasted far too much grief and thought over it. Perhaps to over-compensate I got into a lot of fights through elementary school. Bigger than me? ...More than one of you? ...It didn’t matter, I didn’t back down from a fight (and I had a bit of a temper problem). If I wasn’t good at sports or with the ladies, at least I could be tough... like a man should be.

I can’t remember how it happened exactly. Two kids blabbing about who knows what, but somehow our conversation found it’s way to very typical territory for a chat between boys; “My Dad could beat up your Dad.” I thought this guy was crazy. My Dad was a big, strong guy; bigger (and I was certain stronger) than this other guy’s Dad. I thought is was such an absurd notion that he thought his Dad could beat up mine that I brought it up with my Dad that evening when Dad was home from work.

“Can you believe this guy said his Dad could beat you up?”

“Yeah, he probably could,” my Dad responded casually.

WHAT?!?! He must not have understood... “What do you mean Dad? You’re way bigger than his Dad, there’s no way he could beat you in a fight.” I resolved to defend my Dad against his obvious underestimation of his own strength.

“I have no interest in fighting his Dad, or anyone else’s Dad. I don’t fight. So, sure, he could beat me up, because I wouldn’t fight.”

I remember this conversation distinctly and vividly. I doubt my Dad has the same recollection of it. But for me it was a definitive moment. A conversation that I returned to again and again over the next couple of years trying to sort out what it meant.

How had I learned that a violent brand of toughness was a landmark of manhood when my own Dad did not share nor model that perspective?

All three of my assumptions were the result of the culture I grew up in, the view of men in entertainment and media, the ‘elementary school sub-culture’ and I’m sure a mix of other environmental factors. No one really expects kids to be critical of their culture or of their own thoughts. (We don't usually expect enough of youth)However, for most of us, much of conforming we have done by the age of 12 will never be undone.

“If you don’t muster the courage to think critically about your situation, you’ll end up living a life of conformity and complacency.” – Cornel West

This simple but profound quote by Cornel West tells us that our default mode is conformity and complacency; it is what we will do unless we are actively and with determination pursuing another path. We conform and lack the conviction and drive to actively question our own assumptions. It is a courageous act to begin to question ourselves; to question things that we have always just believed to be true. It is only truly courageous though when we question ourselves with the willingness to be changed by what we discover in our quest for truth.

We believe so many things to be true without really even questioning them; things about gender, culture, race, religion etc. Unless we are willing to have the courage to really test our assumptions, we don’t really own the things we believe; they own us. We become a slave to doctrines and dogmas that go untested and unquestioned. We remain trapped in prisons of gender bias, racism and other forms of bigotry as well as the chains of narrow definition when we don’t allow ourselves to become more than what people say we are. A man can be compassionate, a woman can be an amazing leader, and a Muslim can love peace... YOU can have infinite positive impact in this world!

 (This isn’t even going into our assumptions about our culture itself. One could argue that we live neither in a democracy nor in a truly capitalist society, even though we ‘think’ that we do and many think they are the two main pillars of our culture.  But I digress.)

For some bizarre reason I’m thinking about I’m Sexy and I Know It by LMFAO; a song that is actually poking fun at a guy who walks around like he is God’s gift to the world. The song is direct affront to the beliefs of the ‘sexy guy’ in the song. The subtext of the song shouts, “WAKE UP BRO!” You’ve got your head in the sand thinking that wearing your animal print Speedo so you can “tan your cheeks” makes you ‘the man’ when you look like an arrogant fool. I think most people miss the sarcasm of that song (which perhaps makes it ineffective) however, I think it is a small, silly example of how we look when we don’t upgrade our thinking. When you grow up and still think that you are a ‘man’ because of sports, girls and strength, you haven’t matured. Sometimes our bodies grow up, but our hearts and minds don’t make the same journey. Take a look at the magazine rack in the grocery store; celebrity gossip, having the perfect body and having lots of great sex. This is marketed to the average adult... perhaps we all have a lot of growing up to do. Our bodies mature naturally, our mind needs our active cooperation to do the same.

I had a tremendous advantage, a Dad who directly countered my view of masculinity and gave me a chance to be critical and think more deeply on how I understood things. My Mom and my Dad have both shown me (and continue to) the ability to question the norm and choose something different. I was 15 years old when I decided that fighting was a ridiculous way to solve problems and have never instigated another fight since. I still, however, get an ego boost from being big, tough and strong if I’m honest, even if violence is no longer a part of that. There are remnants of a 12 year olds idea of being a man that I’m still somewhat enslaved too. If my son comes home from school though, shocked that a classmate thinks his Dad can beat me up... I know what I’ll tell him.

This is a simple story about a very small part of my view of gender being transformed. Many more moments of change relating to all kinds of different beliefs and assumptions were still to come and have yet to come I am sure. I have no intention to stop asking hard questions, even of myself. That type of commitment ensures that we never stop growing.

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