Scott Sonnon writes a letter to his son on how to go it alone as a man.
Honestly, every day feels like it could be my last. I look at my wife and my children, and I feel as if it could all end at any moment. In reality, this may indeed be very true. But psychologically, I know this feeling of imminent finality originates from having my parents violent divorce when I was only 4 years old. Having had no father in my life, I feel that as a father now myself, I could quite suddenly just… disappear. If I did, will I have said everything that I wanted to say, everything that I could, to my children?
I had published a letter to my daughter last month, that I shared with her as a conversation started. It had brought her and I together in a way I hadn’t imagined. We’re a very strong team. But my son is still quite young, unable to avoid the “SQUIRREL!” distractions in life, so I wrote to him a letter that we will read and discuss in a lucid moment, but it is more of a roadmap for the future, left to him in case these were indeed my final words to him as his Dad,
My “Rules of Engagement for Becoming a Man”
You’re only turning 9 years old, but you asked me to write you a letter, like I had written your sister. Here it is.
Some people say 8 is too young to worry about manhood, but I believe if you don’t know where you’re headed, you’ll have trouble getting there. You won’t be able to spend all your years as a boy, and then suddenly know how to be a man. On your 18th birthday, you may be told be in your identification that you’re an adult, but it won’t magically be in your identity that you’re a man. You’re already trying to put on a man’s shoes in certain circumstances, so if you know which direction to walk, perhaps you’ll have an easier time figuring out how to walk in them… and be okay when you trip.
I did not. I’m not afraid to be honest with you. My father was gone when I was only 4, which means it’s been years since I’ve been your Dad that I’ve had an example of exactly what to do as a father. I don’t have a specific plan to tell you what you’ll need to become a man. I have had to figure it out by myself, and through the father figures in my life as my coaches.
So, I can begin by telling you what I’ve learned a man is not. It’s not an age. No matter how others make it seem, there isn’t a magical age: not 18, 21, not even 45. As you grow older, you don’t automatically become more of a man. When you grow taller in your shoes, deeper in your voice, or hairy on your face, you won’t be any closer to becoming a man. I wish, Son, it was that simple.
A boy thinks and behaves as if he’s the center of the universe. This isn’t about age, but about behavior, action and thought. Even at my age, we can behave and think like boys; including like your Dad does when I make mistakes and behave childishly. I am still practicing the difference between being a boy and being a man. I can still choose to act like a boy, even though I’m 5 times older than you. Behaving like a boy means putting your own interests first (your hunger, thirst, sleepiness, pleasure, happiness, cravings, sadness, anger and so on) and getting those desires met before considering the needs of others.
A boy takes (because he’s learning) but a man gives (because he’s learning more). To become a man, you have to place others’ interests before your own. It’s not easy, because you have to think about how your behavior impacts others, and then imagine what the world looks like from their perspective, and how what you do, think and say makes them feel. Just because you feel you’re right, doesn’t mean you should do it, say it or even think it. That’s a hard one. To do this, you can’t be at the center of your own little world.
You can’t even only think about what a man would do, you have to act upon it. When big challenges come, you don’t even have time to think. You only have time to act; often when you don’t know what you should do. How you act then, tells you if you’re a boy or a man. I think about these challenges a lot, even as a “grown-up.” When they come, I think, will I have the courage to be a man, or will I allow fear to overcome me, and act only as a boy, concerned only about my own needs. Even your Dad won’t know until it happens, what he’ll do. You can only practice becoming a man in the small, daily, simple, normal things, so that when the big, scary, difficult things come, you have had enough practice to act as a man. This is what people mean when they talk about your “character.”
Throughout your life, you’re going to have these opportunities, and just like your Dad, you won’t be great at them all right away. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll fail to live up to your own expectations. You’ll be too afraid to remember your courage, and you’ll act like a boy, rather than remember to practice becoming a man. That happens to us for the rest of our lives, Son. I am still practicing even – and maybe especially – as I write these words to you. You have to find a balance between being firm with yourself, and pulling yourself off the ground, turning toward your fears, and the mistakes you’ve made, owning them and pushing through even when it hurts; with being forgiving and gentle with yourself when you repeatedly get knocked down, get overwhelmed, make huge blunders, and shrink away from them because you’ve hurt yourself from pushing too hard for too long. I haven’t mastered it myself, but I keep practicing.
I didn’t have my Dad around when I was your age, so I looked to my coaches to act as my father figures. And they did. I grew from their lessons. You will find teachers everywhere when you need them, and even when you don’t, because you need to practice and learn from a teacher before the big challenges come, and after they knock you down, and when you get back up again and again.
Be ready for disappointment. Don’t think it is you. Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn. When you feel disappointed, remember this letter, and read it again, please. Because when you’re disappointed, and hard on yourself, that’s when you’re growing, and being given the chance to become more of a man. At the same time, you’re going to have plenty of happy times, and lots of laughs, victories and achievements. Don’t get too attached to these once they’re over. Celebrate them, and let’em go. A boy collects them, but a man moves on.
You’re going to experience weakness, failure, vulnerability, worry, surprise and even terror. I can’t protect you from these feelings, but I can help you get prepared for when you feel them. It’s wonderful to feel strong, invulnerable, confident, certain and brave. But sometimes, those feelings seem to disappear for awhile. They’ll come back, but only when you do one thing: get up anyway. Get up when you know you’ve failed a hundred times, when you know it’ll hurt and you feel completely exposed and unprotected, when you know that people will be upset for you when you own up to a mistake you’ve made, when you don’t know at all what to do. You get up, and do the right thing anyway… even if you fail again. That is the difference between behaving like a boy and like a man.
Sometimes I just want to curl up with your Mom and have her hold me, because even at my age, I get overwhelmed; I feel out-gunned and under-prepared, hurt and angry, alone and tired. It’s okay to do that, Son. It’s okay to take a breath, to feel comforted. And then, you’ll know that it’s not yet time, that you could stay within that warm embrace longer and feel safe, but you get up anyway to face it. That Son, is becoming more of a man.
The things you’re going to go through will be different than what I did, Thank God. What you’ll face will be unique to you. I won’t know all the answers, even if you feel like your Dad could face any challenge. I know I don’t know. But I know that I have to do something even when I don’t know what to do. So, I can’t tell you what’s going to happen. But I can tell you for absolute certain, that you will be given exactly what you need to become a man: you’ll either do a great job at it, or you’ll learn how to do it better the next time. I’ve learned a lot, which means I’ve made a lot of mistakes. And I still am. A man never stops learning and practicing.
You’ll have your own challenges, but you should always know that your Mom and I are behind you, until you’re man enough to go it alone. And then, we’ll still be with you, in one Way or Another. You get to choose how to live your life. You get to choose how you want to face a challenge, how many times you must repeat that challenge until you overcome it. Or if you choose to do nothing about it at all and hope to escape it. That’s your choice. I want the best for you, so I’m going to do my best to always provide you with support and love, but you can choose to not heed my advice. That is your choice, as you become a man.
Being a man sounds like a lot of work, like it’s very hard, and there aren’t many benefits. But let me tell you, Son, being a man is “good.” We get to feel tough and choose to be gentle. We get to feel strong, and choose to be compassionate. We get to feel freedom, but choose to be responsible. Remember what I wrote about “character.” It’s what you decide to do when the pressure is on. There’s no better feeling than that, really: to feel like everything is pushing and pulling you in so many directions, and yet you stand your ground and speak the truth, and act righteously.
When we behave like boys, we can lie, cheat, steal; even hurt others. When we act like men, we keep our word, even when it’s easy not to. We remain reliable, when someone needs us, yet spontaneous and unpredictable. You can be hard on yourself, fair with others, and compassionate with everyone. When you feel pressure from others to do what might seem “fun” but could be hurtful, deceitful or in any way “wrong”, even though it makes you “unpopular” you’ll find the courage to do the “right” thing anyway.
You may think you’ll be able to get away with it, because no one is looking, but there’s always someone watching: the boy inside you who’s becoming a man. He’s always watching. Help him grow; don’t hurt him and keep him small. You’ll hear that voice cautioning you, and sometimes, you’ll ignore it, and make a mistake. It’s okay, your Dad screws up, too. But becoming a man, means owning up to those mistakes, facing an even harder crowd of peer pressure afterward, and doing the right thing eventually. The more you run from it, the harder it will be when you do, but you can ALWAYS clean the slate and start over. Just remember, that the longer you wait to own up and come clean, the more other people will be hurt by your choices, and the harder it will be to face. But you CAN face it. A man should.
Be proud of who you are, and where you came from. Your name means something. It is a bank account, and you’ve inherited a huge savings. Put more into that account for your sons and daughters. Protect it, honor it, and then pass it to them. Put more into it throughout your life than you take out. Take care of it, because you don’t own your name. You carry it to the next generation.
Your family is the most important; this one with me, your Mom and your Sister, and then one you will create when you become a man. Protect them before yourself. Provide for them above your own desires. Put them first and foremost in your thoughts, actions and behaviors. LOVE THEM AS BIG AS YOU CAN! All of our lessons as a boy prepare us for that privilege as a man. Live as an example to your children. And pass on these lessons I’m sharing with you, with them.
Stay humble for your gifts are God given. Be grateful for your fruits are delicate blessings which come and go. Work hard but be smart about it. Don’t waste a second; invest it in your growth. You’re told to “be happy,” but remember that you won’t always feel happy and that’s okay. Being a man means doing hard things that won’t make you immediately happy, but they’ll make you eventually happy. Often instant pleasure is the worst thing you could feel, because of what it will cost you to stay a boy, and not become more of a man.
Breathe. Take it all in. Let it all go quiet sometimes. Sit. Smile. This is your domain where you get to help as many people as you can. That is an honor. The worries will come; and when an army of them swarm around you, sometimes you start with the biggest guy and knock him down first; other times, you start with the closest and easiest just to get rolling. A lot of times, you’ll feel like you can’t breathe, and you’re never resting. That, too, is what it means to be a man; so when you knock out a few of your responsibilities, remember: sit, breathe, let it go, relax and smile. You’re doing it.
Believe in the nobility in becoming a man. You are learning how to become a King. Even when we act like precocious, pampered, spoiled little Princes, we are all still learning. Sometimes we need to shake off the boyish behavior, stop accepting mediocrity and charge toward our dreams… My mother once told me that she wanted a better life for me than she had; and I do want that for you. But to have a better life, you’ll need to make different decisions than I made. I promise you that I will continue to practicing becoming more of a man, when you come to me as a man, and tell me that you’re choosing to not heed my advice and go a new direction. Together, as two men, we will support each other, as you head off in that uncharted path. (But try your best to consider the counsel of your elders before you make that choice, please. Sometimes, men do know what we’re talking about.)
Most of the time, just like your Dad, you’ll be making it all up as you go along. Be ready to improvise, adapt and overcome. Expect that you will not know how to do something, that no one else can or is willing to do it, and that you’ll have to just figure it out on your own while doing it. There are a lot of different ways to solve a problem. Even if you don’t figure out the fastest or most efficient way, keep going, because you will figure out a way eventually, even if no one else has done it that way before. Just don’t stop going. Fail and fail and fail and fail and one day, you’ll be doing something completely unrelated and the solution will come to you (so remember to step away from a task for a moment if you can, to take a chance for it to come to you.) You’re so much smarter than you can imagine, because that brain of yours comes from God. Those ideas are divine gifts. Treat them as sacred as a church and bring them to life as piously as a prayer.
You’ll feel tempted to try and figure everything out, and fix all problems you see. Remember that it’s a mystery to be appreciated, so stay curious. Watch how others create solutions. Listen to how they came to their conclusions. Look to understand rather than only to “fix.” Ask as many questions as appropriate when time permits, because you can always at least learn a different perspective on the same problem.
What you say and what you feel aren’t always perceived the same way by others, so you’re going to need to practice being better at communicating all of your life. That’s one of the reasons that you never finish becoming a man. Sometimes you have to say something in order to realize how you really feel, sometimes you have to correct what you’ve said because it came out the wrong way, and most times, you’re going to need to remember that it’s that way for everyone else too; so be patient, ask questions to confirm what they meant in words you understand. Ask them to do the same when they don’t understand you.
Here’s the hard one. No matter how much it will feel like you’re exposing yourself, share how you really feel with those you love. This is the most important type of sharing as a man. You can share things, and tasks, and tools, and thoughts, but sharing feelings is a very hard one because we are told to just “man up” and get over it. Listen, Son, when it comes to those you love, “manning up” IS sharing how you really feel. So, remember that you also need to really listen and hear when loved ones share with you. It’s how you will really connect with them and understand the WHY in their life; and how they can understand the WHY in your life; why we do, behave and think in the peculiar ways we do…
No matter how firm and disciplined you must become in your challenges, remember to love yourself, accept who you are, and always remain true to that man you’re becoming. Others will try to control you, and dictate what you should do in life. Remember to love and honor yourself. Try to be compassionate with them, and acknowledge that sometimes the most compassionate thing you can say to people trying to control your life is, “No.” I will stand behind those, “No,” responses with you, even if you feel totally alone, even if my body isn’t right next to you when you do it.
Truly mean it when saying you’re sorry; because you’ll be saying it a LOT. Expect to do a lot for others without recognition; in fact, although it’s hard for us to realize when we think like boys, but that’s the best kind of thing to do. So, pick your friends carefully, as many people will try to exploit your generosity. Don’t prejudice them but consider their values; will they help you become a better man, and will you help them become better men and women? Do they make others feel bad, and do they honor that you’re becoming a man of character, and hope for them to practice the same? Commit to your word, and you’ll find that your friends are able to do the same more often. It takes time, sometimes years, but how you behave, think and act is like a rock dropped into a lake: the ripples move outward affecting everyone around you.
Honor this body you’ve been given like you would protect and help your own son grow. Be honest with your growth so you can keep healthy. And when your strength wanes, and your health diminishes, remember to respect your Spirit which cannot die ever, and will always be strong no matter how big, scary and difficult the challenge.
Like I said, Son, sometimes you’re going to win; and other times you’re going to learn. It won’t seem fair when we think like a boy, but as you become a man, you’ll see that you create fairness: you equal things out for others, when what they’ve experienced has been unfair to them, you will be the one to extend an anonymous helping hand. It’ll keep you humble, and keep you busy.
So, remember to laugh… and cry. These are two of your best tools as a man. Laugh at yourself, and cry for others hardships. Being more human means you’re becoming more of a man.
Things in life may come and go, but your character is yours for life. Appreciate things while they’re here, and help others when they’re not. Because that “character” of yours is the only real thing that makes you a man.
You have everything you need to “make up” this life for yourself. You can do it. Whatever you need will be there for you when you need it, once you commit to improvising and taking action even when you don’t know what to do…. especially so.
Whatever happens, no matter today or 70 years from now when I’m gone, know that I am always proud of you, and the man you are becoming.
I love you so much, Son.
Photo credit: author’s own