I used to ponder periodically about what adulthood would be like when I was a young lad, or at least what it would be like to be a man. I remember having a fake bottle of aftershave that I would squeeze out onto my little palms. Then I'd apply the imaginary ointment to my face in a careful way modeled after my father’s pre-work routine.
It was years later that I saw an Even Stevens episode featuring a young Shia LaBeouf interviewing guys on the moment they “became a man,” and despite the Disney Channel dialogue of the interviews, I retained the impression that manhood could be tied to an event.
Now, even more time has passed. And, as I find myself paying rent, and even listening to NPR on occasion, I get the feeling that I may have reached adulthood. I’m not convinced either of those things qualifies me for adult status.
When Did It All Begin?
First of all, let’s narrow this to manhood. From a distance, it seems like this would be the same as adulthood, but manhood feels like something to be earned, just as I imagine one would feel about womanhood (which I do not feel I’ve earned). Perhaps it’s the idea of viewing that baseline of maturity through gender that makes it a little more personal. I’m not trying to say that manhood (or womanhood) will mean the same thing to everyone (or anyone), just that it will mean something.
It isn’t uncommon for cultures to associate manhood with puberty – the Jewish Bar Mitzvah comes to mind – and there is some truth to this line of though. Though personal maturity is impossible to measure, the start of a youngster’s physical development does help enable them for the future - muscles for manual labor, functioning reproductive organs, and a mind that continues to develop.
However, when I think back to my middle-school years, I don’t think of maturity. I didn’t carry much responsibility or tact. I was in my own little world of dodgeball and poop jokes. And though I felt more like an adult in high school, I still wasn’t concerned with much more than myself. Having a car and a job for the first time did cast a shadow of responsibility on my life, but it was the freedom to do what I wanted that I craved, not the ability to provide for myself or become a functioning member of society.
What Is a Man?
I didn’t realize it while it was developing; it snuck past me when I wasn’t paying attention. I sat in my dorm early in my college career and wondered what I would do that weekend. And, as I pondered my options (without having to answer to my parents), I had the feeling that adolescence had evaporated and those vapors were lost in the wind. For the first time, I was conscious that I was choosing what direction my life would take. I was investing in the quality of my character, and I knew it. All of the sudden, I was a man like I had wanted, even if I chose to act like a child instead.
Manly Part II
There’s a second part of maturity, and it’s a little more unpleasant. Why? Because, at least in my case, I realize where I’m lacking when I screw up. If part I is realizing you have control of your life, part II is realizing that you have the ability to support the growth of those around you. It’s kind of an offshoot of the Golden Rule: Help people, don’t hinder them. It’s just not all about you.
The other person part makes this maturation a little more painful. I mean, if you screw up your own life, it’s just your fault, so no big deal. But when you realize you're affecting other people, as long as you're not a sociopath, their suffering solidifies the need for change in your habits. I didn’t anticipate that caring about other people would be a manly thing.
It’s funny to think that my understanding of manhood was growing and maintaining body hair, or having the patience to listen to an entire Pink Floyd album. It turned out neither really had any bearing on my maturation. This makes me happy because I still don’t have the patience to appreciate Pink Floyd.