The idea of manhood and what it means to be a man is something that every guy has to figure out during his life. This is not an easy task, as society has built this image of the prototypical man as the muscular, dark, and handsome men we see on the cover of romance novels, that most people can never live up to. While I am not saying that Fabio is not a man by any means, I do think there is a lot more to manhood than being physically strong and able to protect and provide for your mate. There are so many other traits that are equally, if not more, important to being a man than physical ability. I didn’t come to this realization quickly or easily however, and I actually struggled with my own identity and manhood for a long time (because if there is an opposite to Fabio, it is me). It was not until a strange turn of events my third year in graduate school that I was able to gain some insight into the notion of manhood and apply it to my life.
It was about 11:45pm one balmy evening in August, and as usual I was going through my bedtime routine, when one of my closest friends, who we will call Carrie, sent me a text. This would not have been anything special, because we texted constantly pretty much every day, but Carrie knew my nightly activities and that I rarely touched my phone after 11:00pm, so this was a little weird. Since her text seemed strange to me, I pulled it up and read, “Are you up?” I replied, “Barely. What’s up, lady?” To which she quickly responded, “Can you call me? I need to talk to you.” Now I was starting to worry a bit, because this was really out of character for Carrie, so I wheeled into my bedroom for some privacy and gave her a call. After two rings, she picked up, and I said, “Hey there. You Ok?” A few seconds later, through tears I heard, “No. I’m not Ok.” I was now very concerned, so I slowly responded, “Alright. What can I do to help?” Her voice was cracking, but she softly asked, “Would it be alright if I come by for a while? I just don’t want to be alone right now.” Of course I was fine with this, as she was like a sister to me and wanted to help her however I could, so I told her that I would be lying down, but I would be awake for a while and to come on over.
I had my nurse get me in bed, flipped on ESPN, and waited for her to arrive, but I don’t think I saw a single highlight due to my worrying about Carrie. About 15 minutes went by and I heard a soft knock on my door as she entered my apartment. Now, it is 90 something degrees outside and the middle of the night, yet Carrie walks in wearing sweats, a zipped up hoodie, and sunglasses. It was official, something was seriously wrong. I told her to shut the door to my bedroom and to sit down on the bed next to me. It was not until she removed her glasses and hoodie and sat down that I understood her strange choice in clothes and started to put things together. When I finally saw her tear streaked face as she sat down, I was shocked to see the worst black eye I had ever seen. Her black and blue, swollen face looked more like someone who had gone 10 rounds with Rocky Balboa than my best friend. I said to her, “Everything will be alright,” and then we just sat next to each other for several minutes before she broke the silence and began telling me what had happened.
I am not going to go into great detail to protect my friend’s privacy and to keep this short, but here is the gist of what she had been through. She had been out of town that afternoon to go to a viewing, and as she was on her way home that evening, she had to stop for gas. While she was filling up, some random guy walked up to her at the pump and started shouting. Before she could even wrap her head around what was happening and why this crazy person was screaming at her, this man grabbed and pushed her, and then proceeded to poke her in the eye. Luckily, she was able to fend off any further attacks long enough for a bystander to intervene and pull the assailant off her. It turned out that this guy was actually mentally ill and off of his medications, and when the police took him away, they said that he had been in trouble before. While this explained his behavior, it didn’t make it any less traumatic for Carrie. Even though physically no permanent damage was done, mentally and emotionally she was really shook up.
I just listened as she slowly recounted the days events to me, and for one of the very few times in my life, I was at a loss for words (I am a professional speaker). I had no idea what to say, so I mustered up all of the physical strength I had, and then, without saying a word, I gradually moved my hand over to grasp hers. Her eyes were closed and she said nothing, but I felt her squeeze my hand and somehow knew that I was giving her what she needed. After probably 30 minutes of just sitting there with her, holding her hand, I gently said that she should lay down here and try to get some rest, and that I would be there with her until she woke up. I’m not even sure she opened her eyes, but without letting go of my hand, she slid down in the bed and pulled a blanket over herself. As I thought, she must have been exhausted, because it wasn’t even five minutes before I felt her grip on my hand loosen as she drifted off to sleep.
I was too concerned about Carrie to sleep myself, so I just laid there beside her and turned on some terrible, Steven Segal movie with no sound (which probably improved the movie now that I think about it). After about 45 minutes I was finally starting to fall asleep, when I heard a sort of whimpering coming from Carrie. I could see her face twitching and hands slightly moving, and it was obvious from the expression on her face that she was having a nightmare. I was not sure what to do in this situation, so I decided to do what my mom used to do for me when I had bad dreams as a child. I tenderly stroked her hand and softly said things like “Everything is going to be Ok,” “You are safe now,” and “I am right here.” Much to my surprise, this actually worked, as she fairly quickly stopped twitching, her face relaxed, and she returned to resting peacefully without waking up. I won’t lie, I was pretty proud of myself, but I was getting tired since it was now after 3:00am, so I closed my eyes and tried to get some sleep.
Once again, just as I was entering dreamland though, I heard barely audible noises coming from Carrie. She looked like she had before, so I repeated my previous approach of holding her hand in mine and softly comforting her. I was again successful in calming her down, and to try to help her sleep more soundly, I continued soothing her for a few minutes even after she was resting comfortably. I then went back to getting some shut-eye, but as you could probably guess, after about 15 minutes Carrie returned to her nightmare, so I repeated my regimen to comfort her. This process kept repeating itself, and after the fifth time or so, I realized that if Carrie was going to get any kind of restful sleep, which she definitely needed at the time, I was going to have to stay awake through the night to soothe her and make her feel safe. Since she needed sleep more than I did, I spent the whole night holding her hand and whispering to her until she woke up the next morning.
I woke her up fairly early because she had said she had an appointment the next day with an eye doctor to make sure there was no lasting damage from her attack. When she had woken up enough, she asked me if I had stayed up with her all night. I explained to her that I had and why, and with tears in her eyes she whispered, “Thank you,” kissed me on the forehead, and gave me a long hug that communicated so much more than words ever could. After she had freshened up a bit and was heading off to her appointment, I told her that everything was going to be fine and that I would check on her in a couple hours, but she could call me anytime if she needed me. There was one more thing I wanted to say though, but I didn’t. This was a question that had popped into my head as I laid there awake all night, and the more I thought about it, the more it puzzled me. This confusing thought was, of all of the people in her life, why had she chosen her 60 pound, disabled, wheelchair bound friend to make her feel safe? As far as being able to protect anyone goes, I am less than useless. I mean, at most I could get an attacker to kill me first to buy her time to run. Yet she had come to me anyway, and I had no idea why.
Since I tend to obsess over things I don’t understand, this idea ate at me over the next several days. Once Carrie had recovered some from this traumatic event and had gotten back to her old self for the most part, I decided to ask her about that night and why she had come to me instead of someone else. So as we were sitting at my kitchen table one afternoon, I told her how confused I was that she came to me that night, and her explanation changed the way I saw myself and the idea of manhood forever. Carrie said, “I wanted to be with someone who I knew, without a doubt, would literally do whatever they had to to make me feel safe and secure and loved. Someone who would stay awake all night just to hold my hand and make me feel secure so I could rest. And obviously, I chose well.” It was not the ability to physically protect her that was important. It was the willingness and mentality that I would do everything in my power to make her feel better that mattered.
Her words made me think about what it means to be a man in an entirely new way. Being a man is less about physical strength, endurance, and the countless other cave man type qualities that usually come to mind, and more about mindset. If you don’t have the selflessness and empathy to put the well-being and happiness of others before your own, it does not matter how strong or tough you are, because you will only be worried about yourself. It is no good to have the dashing hero ride in on his white horse, if at the first sign of trouble he rides away leaving you to fend for yourself. It is much more important to be able to trust that the person you are with will give their all to take care of you, even if they have less physical ability. That is what Carrie needed that night, and I am happy to say that I was able to live up to her expectations and be the man she thought I was.
While I may ride in on my wheelchair instead of a stallion, I am happy that for one night, I was able to come in and save the day. My “white knight night,” as I call it, not only helped my best friend get through a very difficult time, but it also helped me to better understand what being a man is all about. Just because you are not as gruff and tough as the “Marlboro Man” or as suave and debonair as “the most interesting man in the world,” does not mean that you are not every bit as manly as anyone else. The concept of manhood is so much more than that, and it has a lot more to do with your mental and emotional abilities as your physical ones. I hope that all young males, whether they are physically gifted or not, take the time and invest the energy to really think about the notion of manhood and how it applies to who they are and their identity. This will not only ensure that the next generation of men will grow up to be the best fathers, husbands, and brothers they can be, but it will also help them to accept and be proud of who they are. And if my life is any indication, this acceptance of themselves and their manhood will bring a great amount of happiness and success to their lives.