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Manhood

April 25, 2013

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You wish to be a man, my boy?

Not a jerk, dweeb, pansy, simp, twit, fool, clown, or conformist — simply, a good man?

Manhood cannot be conferred on you. Virility is not measured by romance or battle, fame or wealth. Those come later, if ever. Nor need you be tall, handsome, smart, or particularly well-favored in any social way. Other people may like you or despise you. That doesn’t matter to a man, does not reach where you live.

No, boy, to be a man, first and foremost, you must have a word and be able to give it.

Promise-keeping begins in the language and actions of our family. Classically, in the West, the first word we speak names our mother — lisping “mama” — and the first word we ever write names ourselves — block-lettering “Johnny.”

Here I am, only a few years old, and I live in the sunny eye of now. Mama will coo and shine on me, using pet names whose only meaning is love. And I am a good boy but sometimes mama clouds up and scolds — “Bad boy!” — which at first startles and offends me. I begin crying. After all, what suddenly has changed? Always in action is just myself, the warm focus of all household love.

One day mama walks in, sees me and says, “Don’t pet the goldfish.” I understand her to mean, “Stop doing it right now.” Nothing new. I have been curbed many times before. But then something different happens. Mama goes on to ask me never to pet the goldfish ever again. She sweetly explains the good reasons why I should not, but this future-binding makes no sense since I always encounter myself now and only now. So, next day she catches me, wet up to my elbow again.

For the first time, I experience the terror of her being really and truly angry. It has never before occurred to me that the elastic boundaries of her sympathy might pop. “Johnny Jones, promise me you will never ever do it again!” In short, I am being put in charge of myself. What compels me to try is the threatened withdrawal of her love. I am terrified. Only her love guarantees my existence.

So I, Johnny Jones, resort to the language of my family. Mistaking talk for an easy expedient, I commit instead an irreversible act. Tearfully, I promise out loud not to do it again and get sternly questioned but swear, yes, I give my solemn little boy’s word, and so I am hugged and kissed and forgiven. But I know now mama can always become terribly angry if I forget and do you-know-what again with the fish. My blurted words, at a stroke, have altered everything between us. Words spoken, I dimly perceive, can be as deeds done.

A certain kind of boy will have told mama a cold lie and meant to. These bad boys are not so common. Let’s suppose, in this majority case, my first-given promise has a child’s hopeful pretense to good faith. But what has this use of language led me to? If I mean to keep my oath, what must I be prepared to try to do?

Taking personal responsibility demands wrenching myself loose from now and projecting myself above my own head, to look down and judge what I do every second of every day, and, simultaneously, I must also send myself ahead to some far-off day when I agree to meet myself again in a calm place of honor called Never Did.

Impossible! And yet I love my mama. On a child’s swelling heart, eyes shiny, I swear my promise must be true forever…

We know the rest. Johnny will keep or break his word after a great or minimal private struggle.

A boy either builds up or else fails to assemble a good character. And, briefly put, character is the ability to say no. If I do stay true, I am acquiring a full human power of self-discipline that can be lent later to other, more public oaths — pledges of allegiance, wedding vows, business contracts. I no longer merely behave like a child but become capable of taking action.

That is to say, I am a man of my word. And of what worth, really, are truthful, honest men? Do we not laugh at them today? Are boys not taught manhood is antique, truth a flimsy construct ad-libbed on shifting sands, and virility admirable only as a female trait?

And yet, look ahead, boy. Without average men of a character strong enough to honor a few simple oaths, history warns us. What English-speakers call “civilization” breaks down into murderous hell.

So, my boy, the fundamental event of Western consciousness is a promise kept.

I give you my word.

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