Along time ago, I put on a cloak that I thought I was supposed to wear. I was a young man of seventeen, so perhaps that excuses or explains things. Since then, my definition of manliness has changed an awful lot. The combined gifts of fatherhood, loss, love, marriage, friendship, and a bit of maturity all conspired to make it all but impossible for me to wear just one guise. It (manliness...) is, if I were to quantify it now, richer, gentler, less sure, complex. As a teenager, however, I thought differently. In my view, being a man was a role with a narrow sets of attributes; tough, simple, linear. Looking back, I was following a cliche, not modeled by any real man but constructed by movies, rock stars, and athletes. I was not philosophical about my persona; I just simply became a jock. At the time, my other choices were band dork, D & D geek, or nerd. Jock seemed, frankly, the best - safest? - choice. I wore my mantle proudly, figuratively and literally. So you can visualize it, imagine a lanky kid with growing muscles, wearing cut-off sweats (80's short) and my local football team's practice jersey. If that doesn't paint it clearly, how about Larry Bird, just shorter? A real man's man, no? Oh, yeah, add a puffy mullet haircut, too. I practiced flexing in the mirror, for crying out loud.
And then unexpectedly and against my wishes, I found myself on a dock by a lake, nestled in the deep woods of New Hampshire, looking up at a night sky peppered with millions and millions of stars. I was sitting next to another young man (maybe 20) who I had already pigeon-holed into a fifth unnamed category, quantified by traits like eccentric, feminine, artistic, intellectual, light-hearted. In other words, about as opposite from what I was trying to be as could be imagined. Steve was, in short, not a man's man, and thus I didn't want to have anything to do with him. But circumstances out of my control put the prototypical meat head in close proximity with ... with ... this random, odd, undefinable guy. I was quite sure this night, leading a bunch of little kids on camping trip, was going to be hell.
As the night wore on, I unexpectedly found myself dropping my judgements and preconceptions he told outrageously funny jokes and recounted summers past full of pranks and misadventures. He casually about talked about girls he had crushes on, love affairs and broken hearts, good sex and bad sex. He talked about being an A student while causing all sorts of mayhem in high school and college. He wasn't shy about the fact that he couldn't fix a car engine, never played sports, or that he didn't really give a shit about being popular. Without mocking me, he made it really clear that what he thought was cool was what he decided was cool.
As the night progressed, I began to realize this guy I'd decided was a total freak was post-cool; at the time I thought he had changed before my eyes. In hindsight, he didn't change at all. In the span of a few hours, my trajectory had changed just a degree or two. It was me who changed, or opened up, or grew up. Or at least started to be a real man. That is, a man who thought. I didn't change overnight and had lots of growing to do, but my path that night changed irrevocably. Frankly, the journey continues, but I started it that early summer night.
And I remember most clearly the moment I laid the cloak aside. As he talked about his life, I began to share a bit about the inner me. The inner me that was unsure, a boy who felt unimportant, a child who was scared by a big, big world. I'm not sure of my exact words, but Steve grew quiet for a minute or so. Then he directed my attention to the stars. He said that we, as humans, are staggeringly small in the universe's scheme of things. We all are, ultimately, tiny and insignificant in comparison to any one of the billions of stars. As he paused to think, I could feel a deep sense of cold dread seep into my soul; was he indeed saying I was as unimportant as I felt? But then Steve changed the direction of his observation, with this simple idea; what if you are kind to just one or two other people? What if that kindness lifts them up, so that they feel hopeful or happy or stronger, and they in turn pass that optimism onto two more people. Pretty soon, a lot of people - a really large group of people - may be a bit happier, kinder, gentler. What kind of power does that give you? How small are you, really?
In that one moment, under the veil of the night sky, the world I knew became infinitely more rich and exciting. This simple statement of hopeful goodness gave me a new, powerful philosophy to call my own. Either consciously or unconsciously, Steve had applied his own axiom to a young, scared boy, and in that small window of shared time and conversation, changed my life. And I still go back to the dock, traveling back through time, and hear the water lapping against the pilings, and smell the woodsmoke, and feel the warm summer breeze. And I see the stars, the infinite expanse of the universe splayed across the horizon, and I feel so, so small. Yet, strangely, I feel free.