I'm reflecting on this reflection.
But you know what I’ve learned? Raising a boy, my son, scares the daylights out of me at times. I don’t know what he’s thinking most of the time. He has a great social maturity for his age and he is a studious and well thought of boy, but I don’t exactly know what makes him tick. Maybe it’s me. Maybe those schoolyard battles, those not so nice encounters with teachers and those feelings of awkwardness are what scare me about my son. I got through that maze called life due to some stroke of luck. How will my son get through it?
Men have to get through on strength, because there are few things as dangerous as a weak man. But few things are as frightening as thinking your son might be stronger than you. I think every father has to inevitably face that possibility, and every good father has to prepare for that as an eventuality. The eventuality that the sort of power he has used over his son, will most likely be the sort with which the son will establish independence from the father - and the likelihood that the son will be more powerful.
I have listened to tales of this sort from all angles. But most familiar is the one in which middle aged men think about what they might have to do if and when their son does something that might get them in trouble with the law. Basically kick his ass. Show who's boss. Prove the old man has still got skills. I could go on about a specific black man's dynamic especially vis a vis pledging fraternities and being beat into and out of gangs, but the basic lesson is still there. There is a dominance and subordination dynamic at work with fathers and sons that we hope will both strengthen the son and mature into a respect of equals. And in the world of men, it basically boils down to a question of honor - who deserves a beatdown?
The gateway question: Are we cool?
This is the kind of question that exists on the border of IN vs OUT. It is a question of the weak man to the stronger man. It is a question that a father should ask the son in preparing the son for manhood. It is the question a son is always asking his father whether or not he speaks it aloud. It is the bottomless pit for the man who has no father. The man asking needs to know, now. The man being asked needs to respond now. If the answer is 'yes' then everyone goes his own way. The matter is settled. If the answer is 'no', prices and terms need to be explained.
A son needs to know if he is cool with his father and his father needs to be consistent and fair. I say this as if it were obvious, but it is one of those things we lose track of in our popular de-masculinized, relativistic culture where anything you can get away with is cool because.. well what difference does it make when everybody can 'do their own thing', or as I believe the popular term is 'do me'.
I say that the most dangerous thing in the world is a weak man, and I refer to my old suburban dad chestnut of soccer. When boys play soccer and there is a foul, they immediately get in each other's face and fight. The fight is over, and the next day they play again, the fight forgotten. When girls play soccer and there is a foul, there are tears and evil looks. The next year revenge is still being exacted. 'This is for what you did to my friend last season', is what a girl says. Such are the consequences of a failure to teach courage. Courage allows you to live in the moment - it is the single quality that enables swift justice.
Another way to look at this dynamic, aside from that classic scene in 'Pulp Fiction', is Chris Rock's admonition about how far to trust a man - as far as his options enable him. In all cases, a real man (yike I find I must say that) will try to get away with as much as possible, but he also wants to know that he is cool, if not with you, than with somebody who can apply the beatdown. Maybe only God.
A boy in a society of men, a man in the world, seeks his fortune and seeks to do all that he can - he wants to be free and he will use whatever strength or cunning he can muster to insure his survival in the world that is indifferent to his ego. And so he will explore and test every limit. This is a good thing, for without that there is no learning, no expansion of humanity, we'd all stay in the nest. A clever boy knows it is better to ask forgiveness rather than permission and so goes off on his way filling his pockets with rubberbands, coins, sticks, marbles and whatever he can get his dirty hands on. A man doesn't bother to ask always and everywhere what is going on in another man's mind - except when the rules are fuzzy and the limits are unclear. He just needs to know whether a man is good or bad, if he's going to need a beatdown for breaking the rules or not. It's all that simple.
My 14 year old son gets up at 5 in the morning and is out the door hours before I awake. He's off to wrestling practice and then band practice before his first class. So we don't speak at length on the daily. Last weekend we talked for a while - driving in the car to go get the holiday ham. He told me that his wrestling coach is not as strict a disciplinarian as his football coach. Within the short span of a dozen sentences I was able to communicate an entire set of manly lessons of character, and could see that he had internalized a good many already. We were both passing judgment on his coach and the other wrestlers, some seniors that he depends upon to help run the practices by discussing the nature of the competition and habits.
In order to be a man, it's all about what you do. The dynamic of dominance and subordination is a well-understood dynamic in power and respect relationships between men, between men and the rules, and thus between all of us in society, bound as we are by power and rules. Where a man fits in is a matter of honor and the guidelines for honor doesn't require a great deal of talk, not for men who understand it. It is part of the way we see things all the time, whether or not we speak about it at length.