TEN STEPS TO MANHOOD (a letter to my son, written in January, 2008—a month after his birth)*
Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called "If" in which he listed a bunch of things for his son to do, concluding that if he did them all, he'd be a man.
I love lists. I make lists of things to do, pros-and-cons lists for future decisions, and lists to define this, that, and occasionally the other.
But as I reflected on that poem—on all the authentically manly things described therein—I wondered if, perhaps, to make such a conditional list is to set the bar too high; to doom one's son to an inevitable sense of failure. Who could, after all, measure up to such a list? If a boy must do all these things to be a real man, does failing in one make him less real... less a man?
I don't think so. To be a man is also to fail, and although it is cliche to write this, it is what you do with these failures that matters.
So I made my own list, son, not as a standard you'll have to attain to measure up, but rather as a letter of love outlining my hopes, prayers, and dreams for you as I watch over you in the middle of this night, a month from the day of your birth. These are my desires, not my achievements, and more often than not are included not because I feel that I have attained them, but rather because I hope you'll be spared some of the heartache I bear over the ways in which I have not.
I love you, M.
Not in some Hollywood-bollocksy, string-quartet kind of way, but in the guts and gristle of the everyday. And if time or fate or God or those weasels in the White House should take from me the chance to help you grow to manhood, perhaps this brevified list will guide whomever has that privilege, and inspire you to the greatness into which you are already born.
So without further ado...
TEN STEPS TO MANHOOD
1. You are already amazing: You were born wonderful, with wonderfullness oozing from your pores. You are a fragment of who God is, envisioned in God's infinitely-faceted creative eye and manifested here, now, as an expression of a unique part of God's very Godness. You therefore have boundless intrinsic value, as a man and as a person. Although your life will be enriched by other people, by things, and by experiences, these are not necessary preconditions for you to matter and to be amazing.
2. Other people are just as amazing as you. This is a really tough one to actually live. Not only were you born selfish-by-nature, but you live in a world that tends to glorify selfishness—never acknowledging the paradoxical truth that only by being willing to sacrifice the immediate urges of your Self for the good of others can your true self be actualized.
You are born to privilege: a white male member of the richest, most powerful nation in the history of the world—the silver spoon in your mouth is practically a shovel. Not only that, but it's looking like you're set to inherit both your father's culturally-approved, symmetrical good looks [ha-ha] and your mother's physical strength, two things that the culture you've been born into values almost as much as money. Face it, boy... you're set.
This is why you must always remember that everyone else is just as amazing and valuable and wonderful as you. It would be silliness, then, to use your advantages of wealth, race, gender, strength, looks, and nationality to dominate other people.
Take women, for instance. Or rather, don't take them—cherish them and ask them nicely, and then accept it when they say "no." Yes, yes, I know... they are hot, sexy tamales. But in that aspect and in that regard you only get one of them (at least, at a time), and ideally only after you've committed to love them with the serving, self-sacrificial love that is the mark of true greatness.
Your giftedness means that your decisions will have a greater impact on the world. This is not an excuse for destructive behavior, it is an opportunity for constructive action. A chance to create, to build, and to love. You are a steward of this power, not a consumer of it. It is not a toy.
One of the most fundamental ways that you will wield your power is with your wallet. It will be very hard to know how to do this well. Frugality will wage war with generosity, and although (in the culture of consumptive consumerism into which you're born) it is wiser to err on the side of frugality... you need to leave room for ridiculous generosity. For others, mostly—but also, on occasion, for yourself!
Never forget, though, that we are living in a dangerously unbalanced, unjust, abusive economy. You are powerful, and therefore you are complicit in the power structures that maintain injustice and abuse. This is, to some extent, inescapable, so the issue for you becomes the degree to which you'll blindly march to this destructive drum—knowing, as you do, the Amazingness of Other People.
It is inevitable that by living, you will be a party to destruction, and death. Maintain an ongoing sorrow over this, therefore, and as much as possible try to limit your participation in the injustice of the global economy. When you buy new things, for example, you should try to consider how they were made, by whom they were made, and where they will end up. If they were made by toxic processes by people who live in what is essentially poverty and will ultimately end up in a landfill or the ocean... then choose accordingly.
3. Don't be a victim: You were born with an amazing gift: the capacity to choose, and by those choices to change the reality in which you live. At times your range of choices will seem to you to shrink down to nothing—but don't be fooled! They will always be greater than you think. The power of your proactive self is incredible. While you cannot do absolutely anything you set your mind to (Hollybollocks!), unless you set your mind to something, you won't accomplish anything.
Instead of complaining about things you are unwilling to make personal sacrifices to change... act! The world does not need another armchair messiah. Complaining is easy... proactivity is hard. Do hard things. In a globally-connected world, you have unprecedented opportunities to become aware of the world at large. Don't let this overwhelm you into inaction. Find something you can do, and do it.
4. Learn to be still: It is one thing to tell you to charge out and do things, it is quite another to show you how to do things with wisdom. A lot of awful things have been done by proactive people who, in one way or another, have gotten their heads screwed on wrong.
Why, then, should you be trying to change things, if it's possible that you'll be doing more damage than good? Because, as one of the most gifted, privileged people on the planet, you have a moral obligation to the less fortunate to do so.
Start by stopping. Calm yourself. Listen deeply and well before speaking. Seek first to understand, with empathy, the minds and hearts of others. Reserve judgment for as long as possible—perhaps forever. Consider extensively, pronounce rarely. Pray, walk around a lot in the woods (naked, if you have to), and breathe deeply.
This could easily become self-indulgence. Don't let it. Remember that you can use your power to protect the powerless. Love widely, love wisely, love well.
5. Care for yourself... LOVE yourself: Show that you love yourself by being kind to your body. It is not you (not entirely—sciencists be danged) but it is an inextricably vital aspect of who you are. How you treat it matters, and will affect you on every level. It is a temple, and a vessel of the God-fragment of your Self. For this reason it is holy, and ought to be cherished as something holy.
So be active. Exercise regularly. This will help your body function better and will enhance the other aspects of your Self, like your ability to think clearly and to be emotionally well. You cannot ever fully control what happens to your body. This is not a power struggle where the goal is dominance. This is a love relationship in which you need to exercise your will to influence the positive motion of your corporeal life in a holistic, integrated sense. This may sound like hippie mumbo-jumbo. It probably is... but that doesn't mean it's wrong.
6. Love the Truth: God is Truth. If you seek after God, the truth will find you. If you seek after the Truth, God will be there. And here's another thing—you don't even have to seek! The truth is already here, all around you. The very trees sing it! Truth isn't some new way of thinking hiding on the fringes, skittering around trying to elude your comprehension. No! The truth is a very old thing, so obvious that you'll mostly just miss it. The truth is not the individual trees (although it is in them, every one), it is the forest. And what is the right response to a forest...? That's right, gratitude.
So smile, and say "thanks." The good news is here. The Kingdom of God is at hand.
7. Be curious, be in awe, wonder: You are amazing. Other people are amazing. God is amazing. Everything is amazing. There is more amazingness in one flower in one crannied wall than you can ever comprehend, or analyze, or dissect down into sterile, appreciable components. You can seek truth day and night, but in the end one of the greatest truths you'll ever find is the ability to accept the incomprehensible wonder of it all.
Some of the smartest people the world has ever produced have failed to grasp this. This is because to do so requires an ongoing act of great humility, and there is something in humility that is antithetical to human nature.
But there are more things in heaven and earth, M, than could possibly be drempt of in any philosophy you may devise. I have seen a three-hour lightning show in the distant sky that it's a travesty to attempt to describe. I once had a squirrel chatter angrily while throwing sun-bleached bones at me from high in a cedar tree. Your grandfather took pictures (since lost) of a ten-foot-diameter Amazon rainshower that he could jump in and out of. All these things and more could be rationally explained or, failing that, discounted. Don't let this be your fate. It might be the simpler, safer way to go... but it is definitely not the wiser. The head, un-tempered by the heart, is dead.
The truth is not there just for you to accept, it is also there for you to enjoy within the parameters of exuberant incomprehension. Rejoice!
8. Forgive: Hone this ability through constant practice. Not forgiving is like swallowing rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die. Or worse, it's like rolling around in radioactive waste and then hanging around the Unforgiven, trying to hurt them by exposure. Yes, they'll suffer—but you'll suffer more. Until you learn to forgive, you will be unable to extend mercy and grace. Mercy and grace are not about pretending offense hasn't taken place, they're about recognizing that holding evil close to yourself is life-killing. Until you can forgive and extend mercy and grace to others, you will be unable to accept them from others. And believe me, my son, you will need them.
9. Cherish your mother: You have no idea what she went through to share with you this precious gift of life. Bits of her had to die for you to live. Be grateful.
10. Live NOW: Try not to waste too much time yearning for or dreading the future or the past. These are useless habits that degrade and diminish your life, today. Experiences of the past and plans for the future should inform the way you live the now, but they should not define you. C.S. Lewis says that the present is the only place that time touches on eternity. The way to live forever, M, is to live now. The way to touch the face of God is to be in the present.
Learn to be still, and you will learn to understand the messages being broadcast by the experiences of the past, in order to channel your inchoate longings for the future.
Do these things, and be the man I know you are.
I love you,
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*I hesitated long and hard before typing all this up and posting it. It is, after all, a letter to my son... not you. But my son is seven now, and he is a deeply generous young fellow. So I'm just going to assume he'd be okay with me sharing this with you. If you read it and find something useful in it, please feel free to share it forward.
Also, I'm paranoid about backing up written work, and a multi-page letter tacked to my bulletin board is a bit more vulnerable than I'd like for a piece as important to me as this to be.
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Additional Notes, written in the margin of the original letter:
Let emotions inform, not define you.
Choose hard reality over pleasant fantasy (garsh. I could write a novel on this one)