It is difficult enough to come to an understanding of what it means to be a man when we cannot even comprehend what it means to be a boy.
Inside the mind of a man is a boy. Sometimes, this boy is very much like his adult counterpart, save for perhaps differences on vegetables or the female gender. In other men, there is a tension between this boy and his adult self; the boy throwing spectacular, MacEnroe-esque tantrums at injustices perceived and real while the adult shakily maintains a façade of composed dullness. While this is a slapdash, arbitrary, and probably inaccurate division, there is a glimmer of accuracy emanating from the idea of the constructed “inner child” co-existing with an “adult” counterpart. The image of, say, Don Draper and Dennis the Menace lashed together at the knee in a three-legged limp through life is unfortunate and discouraging but sadly accurate.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a choice in this matter. One can slough off most of the psychological detritus of our pasts with concerted effort, perhaps some solid counseling, and a thorough education in the identities on offer in the marketplace of the soul (hint: the possibilities are legitimately infinite, so take your time). Growing up and carrying the memories of childhood into adult life, however, are not optional. At times, this sucks. So we compromise, offering a Saturday afternoon of nachos and Dragonball Z reruns to ourselves in exchange for a Sunday afternoon spent pursuing “networking opportunities with like-minded professionals” at a suite in a convention center where the air and the food on offer are equally stale. Such first-world horrors are a small price pay for security of food, shelter, and the freedom to eat something fried every once in a while.
The process of becoming a man is mandatory, and so too is coming to a personalized idea of masculinity. To be sure, some men reject received notions of masculinity entirely and proceed through life unencumbered by gender norms. Most, however, adhere in some way to notions of manliness adopted from male peers, family members, and society at large. In and of itself, this works. Many find that the constructs on offer fit in some way or, more likely, aren’t really thinking much about abstract notions of gendered behavior when watching football or hammering something. In short, it’s easy, so we do it. Even those who turn away from gender identification—indeed, they perhaps more than anyone else—understand what masculinity is, and the seeming comfort a prepackaged identification offers.
There are pressures, however, that creep into one’s frame now and again. The need to accumulate wealth as a demonstration of status; the pressure to perform between the sheets; the constant nagging doubt whether you’re on “that real man shit” because you’re short or don’t know how to fix things; the overwhelming burden to prove. It is a weight that does not discriminate, afflicting straight and gay, black and white, rich and poor alike. In this circumstance, proving one’s self beyond a reasonable doubt as a man to the world is clearly an instance when one is guilty until proven innocent. Society is both juror and prosecutor; the burden of demonstrating masculinity resides clearly on the defendant. Obviously, this is an impossible situation; so why not add to this a small voice consistently urging you to stuff several Mary Janes (or, in a darker moment, a wad of Skoal) into your mouth at a time while doing BMX tricks you haven’t done since you were rocking jorts in the late 90s? Might as well, right?
It is little wonder, then, that public self-immolations like those of Anthony Weiner and Jimmy Swaggart occur. Eventually, you just lose your mind trying to do too many things to yourself, never mind other people. Dong shots, relentless cheating, and four-day benders happen, sometimes all at once, and the destruction may be total.
Sadly, there is no solution to this problem in the offing, only mitigation. Then again, damage control is a central part of what being a responsible adult entails. Both traditional and updated notions of masculinity, in large part, revolve around the word “control.” Controlling one’s thoughts, environment, and actions are vital components of the masculine mystique. What is more manly than pushing others aside, stroking a chin covered with three days of stubble, and saying “I got this”? Things will go wrong, the inner 10/13/17-year-old will win an argument with your superego or whatever, and the day ends with cleaning up after our younger self. It is the circle of life confined to the self, and it is infuriating.
Wordsworth’s words, then, that “child is the father of the man,” are never more true than when circumstance forces one to test what being a man means. The need to accept and respect who we were as boys and who we in no small part remain as men is vital to being a decent, healthy man. This is the truth for manly men, girly men, and those who think such classifications are equally stupid and dangerous. The masculine ideal does not offer much room for self-reflection and meditation on a boyhood long gone. Then again, it may very well not be an ideal at all, but only a shiny patina on an edifice rotting to the core with rust. Without self-examination and a healthy idea of who we once were, there’s no way to discern the truth.