When I was a teenager, I was beaten down and stomped out by a group of kids who targeted me, hoping to steal my brand new sneakers. After I returned home bruised and humiliated, my parents fuming at the attack, my older brother Brandon tried to console me. “It’s OK,” he said. “You’re a man now.”
In that moment, full of shame over my inability to defend myself against a pack of young men much larger than me, I began to feel proud. “Am I a man now?” I thought. It was the title I’d worked all my years to attain. To be a man meant to be powerful and confident, but also to command respect. Men never got beaten up, and certainly never cried. Yet here I was, tears still at the corners of my swollen black eyes, being told that this one moment, and my passage through it, had made me a man.
There’s an almost imperceptible moment in every boy’s journey to manhood in which he’s supposed to become calloused and hardened. Injuries, physical or otherwise, are no longer met with consolation, hugs and soothing words. The world’s slights are instead met with averted gazes, and remarks like “man up” to avoid tears and any hint of vulnerability at all costs, not allowing the man-in-training any space to fully process real emotions. Instead, boys are taught by men to suppress these natural reactions, forcing them into isolation like a ticking time bomb.
For a long time after getting jumped, I replayed the incident again and again in my mind. I would imagine that I fought each of them one by one like Bruce Lee, a perfect display of my manhood. But that’s fantasy.
Years later my brother Brandon pulled me aside. “You know the real reason why I told you, ‘you’re a man now’?” he asked. “Bad things will happen. A man takes a beating and keeps moving. He doesn’t allow himself to be consumed by anger or revenge. He uses his experiences, good and bad, to strengthen his resolve and deepen his understanding.”
“Why didn’t you tell me all that then?” I asked. He responded, “Because you were 16. In other words, you’re a man now.”