I Am a Man
Kevin B. Burk, author of The Relationship Handbook: How to
Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life.
As part of my current ďIdentity ExplorationĒ (I donít consider it to be a crisis, so Iím playing with other ways to describe this process) Iíve been questioning what it means to be a man.
Now, those of you who have read The Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life (and
may I extend a personal thanks to each of you who have), know that this is
a question that I explore in some detail in Chapter 10: ďMen are From Mars And VenusÖAnd Women Are, Too.Ē The
thing is, in that chapter, I explore what it means to be a man in the eyes
of society, looking at how the biological definitions of masculinity no longer
serve us, and why this leaves so many men adrift.
Iím compelled to explore these issues in a deeper, more
comprehensive fashion now, because right now, these questions are looming
large in my own life.
In fact, Iím grappling with two different sets of questions.
The question of what it means to be a man (at least to me) is, secondary
to the question of what it means to be an adult.
A part of this exploration process for me has included
some changes in my physical appearance. Iím letting my hair grow longer, and Iíve recently grown a Van Dyke (a moustache and goatee, in case youíre unfamiliar with the correct term for this type of facial hair). Now, Iím not really a fan of facial hair, even though I generally look good in it. After about a week, it starts to drive me up the wall and I rarely keep it much beyond that point. Of course, Iím also not a fan of having to shave, so thereís
a certain appeal to having facial hair. This particular style of facial hair
seems to combine the worst of both worlds: it bugs me and in order
to keep it looking good, I have to shave more often than I would if I didnít
have it in the first place.
Itís been quite a while since Iíve had any facial hair, even though Iíve wanted to grow a beard on several occasionsóusually when Iíve been called to do some intense introspection and inner work (itís part of my periodic hibernation process). My belief was that men with beards are unconsciously communicating that they have something to hide, and thatís
not a message that I want to put out there as I market myself and my speaking
Almost everyone that Iíve encountered of late has complimented me on my new look. I expressed my ambivalence to two friends of mine, and they shared their perceptions with me. According to them, the Van Dyke does not convey that I have anything to hide; on the contrary, it lends me an air of gentle authority and maturity, softening my energy somewhat. Iíve been encouraged to keep it for a while, and Iím
considering doing that.
The thing is that the Van Dyke does make me look
more mature, and Iím realizing just how at odds that is with how I feel. The grey hair is very pronounced in my beard (itís less evident in my hair, and Iíve been going grey, very slowly, since collegeómy mom started going grey at 16) which, I suppose, lends me a very distinguished air. To look at me, youíd take me to be a mature, responsible adult. And, intellectually, I would agree with you. But on some, indefinable level, I simply donít
feel like an adult.
Now, one reason for this may be that Iíve recently adopted a tribe of my younger, orphaned selves, and Iím very much
in contact with my ďinner childĒ (not to mention my ďinner teenagerĒ). I suspect that as I fully integrate these parts of myself into my identity that Iíll
experience a sense of completion in my life, heal many of the wounds of childhood,
and feel ready to claim my identity as an adult.
However, a part of me knows that this isnít enough. What I lackedóand what the vast majority of men in our culture lackóis
a rite of passage into adulthood.
The only rite of passage that I personally experienced occurred when I was 13 years old and had my Bar Mitzvah. As far as Jewish culture is concerned, on that day, I became a man. Personally, I feel that it takes more than a glass of Manichevitz, an Izod shirt and a Cross pen and pencil set to make one a man.
There are certainly other rites of passage for men in todayís society. Marriage and fatherhood are two that come to mind. They donít serve me, personally, of course, since even if I were in a committed relationship, itís not currently possible for me to get married in California, and Iím
not willing to even entertain the idea of being a single parent.
So, the upshot is that Iím a 38-year-old male who, on many levels, still isnít ready to claim adulthood. I donít consider myself a boy by any means, but Iím also uncomfortable with considering myself a man. And I canít get away with calling myself a ďyoung manĒ anymore
except in the most flattering and diffuse of lighting.
As I write this, Iím preparing to attend a Native American sweat lodge ceremony. Iíve participated in sweat lodges many times before; however, this lodge will be very different: itís a menís
Iíve been on an active spiritual path for fourteen years or so, and Iíve realized that in all that time, the overwhelming majority of the energy has been female. Itís rare that Iíve been in a group that had an equal balance of men and women, and Iíve
never been in a primarily or exclusively male spiritual environment.
While Iím actively looking forward to this event, Iím also observing myself experiencing a great deal of fear, resistance and apprehension about it. Iíve come to realize that Iím rather threatened by male energyóor
at least some aspects of male energy.
This, of course, comes from old childhood wounds. I never
experienced ďmale bondingĒ in high-school, I loved theatre, had a mature
and rather sophisticated sense of humor, and when a ball was thrown at me,
my natural reaction was (and still is) to duck. I was overweight, self-conscious,
sensitive, hated sports, and actively dreaded gym class. The hazing, teasing,
and other male-bonding activities that young men engage in as they explore
their identities terrified me.
Itís easy to chalk this up to being gay: always knowing on some level that I was different from the other boys, and that being different made me a natural target is an all too familiar theme. While being gay certainly contributed to this experience, I donít
believe that it was the cause of it. I was not alone in my experience of
being an outcast, of being excluded from the rituals of manhood, and I know
that many of my fellow exiles who shared my experience were heterosexual.
Itís ironic, too, that I approach this sweat lodge with apprehensionóI will only know one other person there, and the old fears that I may be the only gay man there and that I may be threatened or ostracized for whom I am have come out of the closet and clamor for my attention. The irony is that Native American traditions actively embraced gay men; gay men were the spiritual leaders of the tribe. The term ďshamanĒ means
not-man, not-woman, and shamans had the unique gift of being able to bridge
the gap between the male mysteries and the female mysteries.
What Iím realizing, however, is that Iíve avoided or not had the chance to experience the male mysteries. It didnít
surprise me that I was somewhat out of balance in terms of the masculine
and feminine energy in my life; what surprised me was that I was lacking
the masculine energy, not the feminine.
This too, is ironic, because Iím very much aware of my male ego; in fact, itís is currently throwing a fit at the thought that I may be coming across in this article as anything less than manly, masculine, and above all, butch. Of course, Iím
also very much aware that this voice, these beliefs, these judgments arise because I
have not learned what it truly means to be a man, at least to me. What Iíve experienced and what scares me is the shadow aspect of masculinity. Iíve
yet to experience the light.
Iíve spent many years getting in touch with the Divine Feminine, and this has been a worthy and necessary pursuit, especially since the Divine Feminine is so actively repressed in our culture. But now, it seems that I need to be willing to explore and encounter the Divine Masculine--a process that in the mythological heroís
journey, at least, is fraught with danger, and frequently requires a death
of some sort. It is truly a journey to encounter the unknown and the unknowable,
and it is not one to be taken lightly.
Iím not entirely sure of who I am now, and I have no way
of knowing who I will be when I complete this next leg of my journey. I am
by turns excited, apprehensive, and flat-out scared. But I am also prepared,
willing, and committed to facing my fears and experiencing the unknown.
The one thing that I do know, however, is that today I am a man.
Kevin B. Burk is the author of
Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every
Relationship in Your Life.
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