I have always struggled with what it means to be a man. The typical manly virtues I learned growing up never applied to me: I wasn’t tall, rugged, handsome. I didn’t have broad shoulders and large hands. I didn’t excel at sports or enjoy hunting and killing. In so many ways, I fell short of the masculine ideal of the culture in which I came of age.
Nobody said that to me, but being wired the way I am, no one needed to. I learned quickly that my way forward in the world wouldn’t be the traditional path of manhood. I would need to forge a path uniquely suited to me.
And so I did. I read. I drew. I wrote. I let my imagination gain strength. I trained my mind to look for connections and insights. I sought out deeper meaning in symbols and traditions. I studied people. I listened to conversations. I observed the world around me in order to learn how I might one day fit inside it, despite how much I clearly didn’t fit.
Then, one day, I became an adult. I got married. My wife and I bought a house, made a home. We had a child, and then had to bury her. Then we had another child. And another. Soon, I was neck-deep in being an adult. Yet still I struggled to feel like a man. I chalked it up to the fact that I simply wasn’t one – not in the traditional sense. I was some kind of hybrid.
I won’t say the struggle with defining my manhood was something that consumed me, but I will say that it always lingered in the back of my brain. It is the way of men to make comparisons against fellow men, and I always found myself lacking in some area. Looks, height, strength, money, success; regardless of the benchmark, I never quite measured up.
And though I made my peace through semantics, I still felt a shame inside my heart. It felt as if no matter what I did, I would never really be the man I wanted to be. So God sent me to Kenya through my church, 12Stone, to work with a tribe of warrior men whose definition of manhood is so severe, no one I knew could possibly meet it.
Least of all me.
The Maasai warrior is a man among men. Tall, slender, and wise, he is able to make his way across the vast African savannah with only his wits and skill to guide him. He is inducted into manhood at the age of 15 with a very public and very painful ceremony of circumcision. He is not allowed to cry. He is not allowed to flinch in pain. The Maasai warrior is strength personified, and to fall short in any way is to be something other than a true man. It is a culture that respects, demands and relies on this type of manhood for survival.
Needless to say, I worried how I would fit in.
That feeling multiplied when I met the mission team I would travel with. While I’d met half of them, the other half were a mystery. Once we were assembled, I felt even more out of place: most were successful businessmen, thriving entrepreneurs, keen minds or spiritual titans. I didn’t have to feel like the odd man out – I simply was.
Again, no one said anything to this effect. No one felt as I did, and the more we traveled together, the more God began working on this stronghold in my life. I began to realize that maybe the shame I felt didn’t really exist. That shame melted once I set foot upon African soil.
The first day we were on the mission field, I met a Maasai man. He walked up to me, extended his hand in greeting, and looked me dead in the eye. I took his hand and just prayed my deficiencies wouldn’t be obvious. They weren’t. I met another Maasai man. He didn’t seem to notice that I was somehow weak either. In fact, the more I moved among the people of the Maasai, the more my self-imposed prison began to fall.
God continued that work with the men on my mission team. As God opened up doors for me to use my gifts and talents among them, I began to find my confidence. There was a spiritual resonance God gave me with the men of my team, and they were quick to share encouragement. Suddenly, I found what I’d always lacked – a certain sense that I am made the way I am for a reason, and that reason is as valid and worthwhile as the next man’s.
It was as if God instantly removed a barrier I’d been trying to crawl over my entire life.
I wish I could explain how that moment felt. To put into words the sensation of feeling like your life – your entire existence – is validated, is like nothing I’ve ever known. God sent me to Africa to discover what makes a man, and the answer was so simple yet so profound.
God makes a man. All I have to do is be myself.
I’m so grateful to have learned that lesson.