What I Learned About “Manhood”

I had originally thought to entitle this blog posting “What I Learned About Women,” but I don’t know that you can “learn” a whole gender, any more than you can learn all members of a racial or religious group.

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Truth be known, what I want to write about has very little to do with women anyway.

Last week a relative of mine needed to change two shower curtains in her big, multi-story house, and if she’d needed that help prior to my going to California, I probably would have crouched down really low and hoped she wouldn’t see me.  If she did and asked me to help, I would likely have hemmed and hawed, or worse thrown a fit and complained throughout the entire activity.  The tougher the going got the more I would hope she’d see how much I was struggling and tell me to get going, and in most cases where I’d been in that situation, that’d lead to her either sending me away in anger or disgust, thus letting my immature ass off the hook.  Why?

Because for most of my life, I think I’ve been a little boy.

I feel that’s started to shift in recent years though.  When I first got to California, my first friend was this girl I had the biggest crush on, and who was kind of into me as well, I later learned.  So although I didn’t add much to her life at that time, I was a diversion she gladly tolerated.  You see, she’d recently moved back to California after ending a long-term and serious relationship, and I think that to some extent, I gave her hope that there was something better out there for her.  Unfortunately it wasn’t me though, because I was too much, I later learned, like the relationship she got out of, as I’ve found many young men in relationships all-too-often are.

As my friend used to describe it to me, what she was looking for was something along the lines of what her parents had.  According to my friend, the reason why her mother chose her father was because her mother “never had to know the process whenever they wanted to do something.”  That is to say, when my friend and her ex wanted to go somewhere for instance, he’d tell her about how hard it was going to be, and even ask her to make some calls to do some research into logistically what all they needed to do it.  Instead of being some fun, spontaneous little thing, it would become a hassle for my friend, and all of the fun of doing that activity was drained out of it.  Put another way, she wanted the guy who, when asked, would just change the damn shower curtain, not make a big deal about how hard it was going to be for him to do it.

Last week I talked about the actress Krista Allen, who has a podcast I really like called “I’m Fine,” where she reads and discusses self-help books.  The thing Allen’s podcast and her history have taught me about her is that to me she’s a lot like this same relative of mine in that she keeps trying to “save” men, only to be disappointed when they gladly accept the help but never step up the plate to save themselves or anybody else, least of all her.  I feel that this has been my relative’s relationship pattern too, and I believe that it’s part of both my friction with her in the past and the failure of my own relationships.  It seems to me that women are naturally more empathetic than men, so when put into a situation where somebody they care about needs help, many women’s natural inclination is to jump in and do it.  Because it comes so naturally to these women, I feel they naturally expect that these men will do the same for them.  When these men get comfortable with getting helped however, they don’t give reciprocal care, and I feel that it completely grinds these self-sacrificing women down, both emotionally and physically.  As my old life coach Nina Rubin advised me, if I see my relative or any other woman doing dishes for example, I will succeed more in winning her over if I just jump in and start helping – not asking if she needs the help and definitely not letting her just do the work.  Sure enough, I found that when I tried to help my relative with the shower curtains instead of complaining, she appreciated it, we got along better, and she even did something for me in return, without my even asking.  When I expect my relative to do for me or excessively ask her for help, it creates conflict, and likewise Allen has stated that she believes her past relationships have failed because she ultimately just became the helper or the enabler, never the one who was helped.  When I pull my weight however, it keeps my relative happy, and makes her life function that much better too.

What I’ve come to believe is that being a man is doint one’s part in creating a harmonious unit, be it a family, a relationship, a team, a business or anything else.  At the end of the day, I believe that because everybody benefits from the success of every unit they’re part of, it’s implied that everybody should strive to make that unit successful.  The thing is, I feel like most women sort of know this intuitively, so when they’re a part of something, they jump in and make it go without even thinking about it.  Though many men do this as well, I find that many boys do not, and when a woman finds herself in a relationship of any kind where she is, in essence, mothering an unappreciative and dependent boy, it wears on her, eating away at her peace of mind.  To me, you can’t call yourself a “man” if you’re not doing your part to help everybody else in your unit, especially its often overworked women.  To my amazement, success often isn’t even a factor in evaluating a man’s worth to most women – a man’s attempt, without being asked and without complaint – seems to reflect maturity I think, and we men can often be appreciated just for that.

Speaking of appreciation, I also feel like many women feel unappreciated for doing so much, though how a successful man expresses that appreciation differs based on the relationship.  In a familial relationship, I feel that expressing thanks to one’s mother, sister, aunt, etc. goes a long way, particularly if it’s done in the form of taking an action, not just or even primarily words.  I feel this is so not because they are women mind you, but because as women, their contributions have historically been overlooked, while men’s achievements have historically and routinely been celebrated.

In a Romantic relationship by contrast, I believe that showing physical or Romantic affection as a form of appreciation is welcomed, assuming the level of attraction in the relationship is mutual.  California made me into a pseudo-feminist, and as a result, I am big on the idea of consent.  I think that when men get physical with women who don’t want it, or at that moment are not feeling the same level of attraction, these men are ignoring a lack of consent.  I have found that we as men have to be careful.  When the Romantic relationship is working however, I feel that physical affection along with verbal compliments and Romantic gestures are what make the unit – in this case, the couple – work.  To me, part of being a man is being able to engage in this kind of mutually beneficial relationship where both sides express an appreciation that’s desired and in my opinion necessary to maintain the unit.

Long story short, to me “manhood” is all about doing what’s necessary for your unit when required to and expressing appreciation, however is appropriate, to the members of that unit.  To me it’s not about muscles, beating people up, defending honor, watching football, being handy around the house, unemotional, or any of that crap.  Just as film critic Roger Ebert‘s definition of a hero is “ordinary people who are faced with a need and rise to the occasion, a man is an adult who anticipates, and always rises to the occasion before he’s asked.

(…and with a penis, or course.  face-with-stuck-out-tongue-and-winking-eye