Last night, a small piece of me died. Or, at least shrunk. I’m not sure how to talk about dead skin – whether it falls off and dissipates, or the new skin simply outgrows something that no longer belongs.
I often fall into the anxious and self-deprecating habits of inwardly viewing myself as a twenty-five year old adult boy. Reality is scary when I start to notice changes. Beyond puberty and driver licenses, college degrees and alcohol, as the days pass my friends are getting married and having kids. People are in pursuit of even higher education and start up businesses. All the while, there is evidence that I’m still a juvenile who leaves the cereal box on the counter and runs out the house without shoes.
While this feeling is extremely lonely, I know that I am not alone. There are many males my age who feel as though life is passing them by while others experience success. We cannot move forward or catch up. There is a wall blocking us, the adult boys, and on the other side of this wall are marriage, success, learned understanding, and a perceived peace that comes with growing up. How the hell do we grow up?
Without a proper or known answer, there are varying numbers of symptoms that perpetuate this cycle. It’s a dichotomous crippling irony. Somehow we’ll end up having kids – in or outside a marriage, with or without fathers, and these kids will experience the same damned fears because we won’t know how to teach them the secrets to going through the wall. And they’ll be doomed, overcompensating in excessive life styles with large amounts of debt, lifted trucks, and a gun collection, or senseless tattoos, drug and alcohol abuse, and a laundry list of women that we’ve either kicked to the curb or invited to be our mothers.
There are varying degrees to which it plays out, but from the outside with a sense of awareness it looks like a perceived toughness that drowns itself in uncertainty. My best guess believes that most of it is simply trying to figure out how to do life, how to evade the truths behind pride, and how to fit in so that we don’t stand out as that child, back on the playground where alpha males were born and sand was kicked in your face.
As I sit on my couch and waste the day away, staring at my internal wall that keeps me out of manhood, at first I avoid the problem. Then I get angry and cry, and then I blame my dad. He didn’t teach me how to be a man! It must be his fault. He was the distant one, he left my mom, and he wasn’t transparent or engaging or supportive of my emotional heart. And then he died.
Death. The ultimate abandonment. I am a boy alone.
But, then I look inwardly – do I truly believe this? And then I reflectively view his childhood. When he was five or six years old, his dad died. His mom was an alcoholic and wasn’t present. It was his grandpa that raised him up, but when he was ten or eleven he came home from school one day to find his grandpa dead on the floor from a heart attack. My dad essentially raised himself. Somehow, by grace, he found the LORD and came to know Christ, and then got married and adopted me and my siblings.
If I look back now, I see that my dad did a lot of things well. He gave five kids a better chance at life. My parents ran a general contracting business for twenty years and my dad worked his ass off to care for our family. I never had a financial need in the world. He was a great provider and showed his love in giving. And then, in later years he knew how much I loved movies and tried to take me to the cinema to relate my film school education in conversation.
There are some things he didn’t do well, like teaching me how to balance a budget, tie a tie, or how to be healthy in relationships (especially for longevity). But, how would he have known to do them? No one was there to teach him those things!
Without going much further into it, I must acknowledge the terrible roots of evil that perpetuate the failings we see in our fathers. The kingdom of earth holds many luring things that make for painful childhoods and continued brokenness. Ask the adult boys why we are like this, and then sit with us as we stare at the wall.
However, I have to set the stage with all of this only to share with you that I woke up today particularly proud of myself, and feeling extremely grateful and blessed. The kingdom of God is alive and well. And, it is active!
Somewhere in childhood I caught a glimpse of a manhood that works on cars. While I’m not a grease monkey, I see past the wall when I look at what can only be seen (today) in the greasers of American Graffiti and the Outsiders. I hear this manhood in the ’59 Sound of the Gaslight Anthem or the courage to stay strong and the do-it-yourself mentality of Minor Threat. Punk does something good to my soul.
Last night, I faced this wall. At twenty-five years old I learned how to change the brake pads on my car. Originally given as a gift by my parents, this 4Runner is now my sole responsibility. I stood under it last night as it was ten feet off the ground on the lift in an auto shop. And I didn’t stand there alone.
I don’t need to make a stronger case to say that, for me, I wish my dad taught me more about working on cars. Standing up strong is learning by doing. Last night I stood under the lift with my friend and mentor, and I felt the kingdom of God working past the past. He and I were looking up at my car, and we looked through the walls of my childhood.
I met this man in early college. It was a distinct chapter in both of our lives when God brought us together in an empty parking lot in Costa Mesa. We talked for three hours as planes landed and took off just overhead at John Wayne airport. Last night we looked up at my brakes and he helped me see deeper and deeper into this wall and beyond my baggage.
He saw the potential hidden inside of the adult boy. I think the longer he looks, the more he just sees a man. I’m only confident saying that because he knows I’m self aware and we’re on the same page. He can see what I see. Something is growing inside me, shedding the deadness of stale expired childhood.
Relationships matter. Particularly, it’s the investments that walk side by side with a person as he figures out life. I’ve had the blessing in receiving a hand up, as opposed to simply getting handouts, having everything done for me. My dad couldn’t teach me everything, and neither can this guy. Yet, in bits and pieces, with lots of patience, compassion, and love, I am learning.
While learning how to do brakes is only one step, it is one more that I can say I’ve taken. I have experienced something my personal value deems as pivotal. Going forward, with new knowledge there is the potential to expand upon this and teach others. I’ve been an eager disciple of spiritual direction and formation, and a curious learner of grace, but before that I could only claim title as a legalistic and overbearing sinner. You must walk in baby steps before you can hike the Narrows. If progress is evidenced elsewhere, then I’ll be customizing and building that ideal eco-friendly VW bus in no time.
My encouragement to every adult boy out there is to find someone with wisdom. Start following him around, asking questions, and learning by doing. Seek wisdom; the ability to carry forward your knowledge. Whether you missed out on shaving, yard work, balanced budgets, boundaries with women, spiritual disciplines, or grace, find someone that knows these things and inquire of truth. I am only one guy, young and still learning, but I feel myself outgrowing anxiety, childish ways, and the symptoms of compensation. If you believe the Kingdom of God can transform the world, then be part of that change by doing the work to transform it.
If you are a man, a father, or an uncle, then do your part. The future of the world depends on it, or the walls of boyhood will trap us entirely. There isn’t an adult boy out there who is not stumbling around, trying to figure out what it means to be a man. Invest in those who need to know how to be alive.
God’s grace is generational, having transcended the broken relationship that meant I’d be adopted. It meant that my dad would find Christ and be willing to take on five kids, and then to take me to church and a school where I’d be introduced to my first spiritual mentor. God’s grace then carried through to take my dad home and leave me here to find community in grace and love, people that understood healthy relationships and growing into manhood. Today, I realize this as I go forward to live into the potential that people have seen as I outgrow childish ways. His grace is that I would identify the walls in another adult boy and be in relationship with people who need freedom. His Kingdom collides with brokenness, as loving relationships heal the past. The LORD our God is faithful, the LORD our God is love.
When a person takes many small steps over long periods of time he will eventually look back and see that he is not now who he once was. In time I’ve grown, through small steps that walk through walls, as the man outgrows the adult boy.
I owe my life and salvation to God, my learned growth and understanding to relationships. The willingness to go forward is owed first to myself in grace. But second, though more importantly, to the people in my life who have been willing to wait with me and walk with me each and every step of life.