Men do not often define themselves in connection to other people. To be a man is to be an island that can weather any storm.
Autonomy has always been among my most entrenched values. To me, it’s synonymous with freedom, which no self-respecting American of any gender could reject, but it’s more freedom from than freedom to. While I was never explicitly told to grow up to be a stubbornly autonomous person, most of the messaging I recall from pop culture and my social circles implied that a man was only a man to the extent that he existed in isolation from others.
By “isolation” I do not mean to conjure an imagine of a hermit living in a shack (or on an island): isolation is more emotional than physical in the modern world. Whether they live in bustling cities or sleepy towns, men and boys are not supposed to need fundamental-yet-abstract things like validation, companionship, nurturing, and even love. If I had suggested to my male friends in high school that we have such needs, I would have been ridiculed. A lonely boy was doomed to suffer in silence.
I have since moved on to different friends, who do not mock me for being human, and I certainly do not suffer in silence. I have had my fair share of relationships, where I often felt validated and loved. Yet, even in my best relationships, a strong desire for autonomy remained—until recently. I feared that I would deny myself the virtues of family life— lamenting marriage and children as checks on my freedom—until recently. I resigned myself to a life of bouncing from one relationship to another, extracting the good and (temporarily) tolerating the evil—selfishly pursuing my own interests—until recently.
What changed is that I found the right person.
When you find the right person, your mindset changes. Your identity changes. You take less pride in who you are in isolation and take more pride in who you are—and who you can be—in partnership. You’re not looking for space outside the relationship but for ways to grow it from within. You’re not looking for more time for yourself but for more time on this planet because you found someone that makes living on it a lot more bearable.
If you think you know who you are now, talk to me when you’ve found the one.
Each Tuesday at noon EST, I will be shining a light onto a unique aspect of my identity hidden below the surface. I ask other writers to join me on this quest. Too often we think of “identity” in terms of physical traits, such as gender or race, and neglect the person within. Both sides of the political spectrum cultivate and manipulate identity to gain votes, but a more authentic identity politics entails more than succumbing to labels thrust on us by academics, politicians, and the media in other to further factitious or provincial causes. This series is a call for us as concerned citizens to determine our own labels and, consequently, our own causes.
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