The Measure of a Man
first published July 2, 2016
I was the youngest of four brothers. My father had been a great athlete in his youth and he expected all of us to travel the same path. From the time we were old enough to walk, we were encouraged to run and swim and climb and throw and fight and do all the things that strong, powerful, masculine men do. There was no sympathy for or indulgence in weakness of any kind.
We were raised to carry on his legend by becoming the kind of men other men admired. As children, we were expected to be braver, smarter, and more well-liked than other boys. It was impressed upon us from the time we were very young we must never do anything to tarnish our family name or reputation. There must never be even a whiff of controversy or disagreeability about us. We were raised to be kind to those weaker than ourselves. We defended injustice when we saw it. We were helpful to those in need. We were generally peaceful but strong and able enough to win a fight should someone else throw the first punch. We were raised to be real men, good men, admirable men.
I never doubted that my father’s values were well-placed. His moral compass was infallible. I understood his reasoning in everything. I lived to make him proud of me. And he was proud of me. I was handsome, popular, smart, a champion athlete. I didn’t have to be coerced to adopt his values. I did not stay the course merely to please my father. It was obvious to me that this was the right and proper way to be. I felt fortunate to have his guidance knowing that others floundered with no beacon to light the way.
When I was about 13 or 14, an uncomfortable stirring began to nag at the back of my mind. Other boys my age were thinking about girls. In fact, that’s all they thought about. I kept waiting for that same fascination to arise in me. I expected to wake up one morning and find myself as lust-driven as my classmates. I worried that I did not share this irresistible biological urge. I told myself I was just a late bloomer. Or maybe my glands were afflicted in some way and not producing enough hormones. Perhaps I needed to eat more masculine foods. (I began a diet heavy in red meat, certain that would solve the problem.)
Meanwhile, I kept a low profile. It was not in my nature to lie, so instead I was reticent and shy. I didn’t want anyone to examine me too closely, to ask too many questions. My athletic skills were valuable to the various teams I played on, but I rarely socialized with the boys outside of practice.
When I was 17, I started dating a girl in my class. This was done for the sake of appearances; to stave off the inevitable questions. I did not want to have to explain why I didn’t have a girlfriend. The answer was too complex and I didn’t even understand it, myself. The girl was also shy and from a religious family. Our relationship was respectful and chaste, which was ideal as neither of us were interested in anything sexual, each for our own reasons.
When my friends started bragging about their conquests, I held my tongue. Even if I had been having sex, I still would not have shared my exploits. Such behavior was unseemly. They grudgingly admired me because I didn’t kiss and tell.
Eventually, I went off to university, far from home, away from the inquisitive eyes of anyone who had any preconceived notions about me, where I could start again with no preconceived notions about myself.
I had long harbored suspicions about myself, and they haunted me. Such thoughts were terrifying and when my mind alighted upon them, I quickly changed the mental subject. Eventually, however, the feelings, the desires, the need, were too big to deny. They screamed and barked and howled. They would not stop, would not be silenced. They could no longer be ignored.
Here was my dilemma: if I could not face the truth about myself, I was a coward, and that I could not abide. But if my suspicions were correct, my life was a ruin.
But the truth could no longer be denied, and so it was there that I discovered what I was.
This knowledge ripped my sense of self right out from under me. It went against everything I’d ever believed I was, everything I’d spent my life preparing to be. I’d become that thing that brings shame on the family; that thing that can never be accepted; that thing that made a mockery of my father’s fine lessons in manhood.
I could not be my true self and remain part of my own family. They would never accept me as now knew I was. And now that I knew, I could not pretend to them to be otherwise. By deceit, I already put myself apart from them, even if they didn’t know.
And so, I was cast adrift with no moral anchor. What did it matter if I was brave and strong and true? I was still a mockery of a man.
But then, who could I be? I needed a new identity, a new way of being, a new skin. I tried on quite a few, but nothing felt comfortable. No matter who I tried to be, it all felt like a costume, a pretense, a role that wasn’t at all natural. I had been taught to be a certain kind of man, and now all those lessons were pointless. What was left? Who was I? What was I? I spent several wasted years adrift, searching but not finding the answers. I did things that, had they known, would have disgraced my family. I was not always honest nor brave nor true. Even crying filled me with shame.
I couldn’t be myself anymore and I couldn’t be anyone else, either. I was nothing. Nobody. Nothing about me was true or real. There was no reason for me to exist.
And so, at 24, I hanged myself. I did not leave a note. I did not reveal my secret. The act of suicide, itself, I knew, would be shameful enough.
The pain was ultimately intolerable but from this side I can appreciate the understanding that has followed from it. This loss of identity, the complete denial of ego, and the accompanying torment provided the most valuable lessons I have ever been shown in any lifetime.
There needs to be a balance between feeling the importance of the self and realizing how unimportant we really are.