Recently I was taking a walk when I had an encounter that made me wonder, What makes a man? And do I have what it takes to be one?
A weathered middle-aged man sat on the steps in front of his apartment smoking a cigarette. Smoke and ash swirled around and settled across its captive like a heavy blanket, muting him in a dull grey. His ashen beard clung to his ashen face. There must have been a time when vibrant color and life filled his very being. But now he was just a shadow of what once was.
On the nearby sidewalk, I pushed my son in a stroller. “Marlboro man” turned and saw us. A small flicker of light appeared in his eyes as an inner battle was ignited. Putting down the cigarette he waved his hand around his face, fanning the smoke and ash out in every direction. Looking for connection, he wanted to say something. But it wouldn’t come without the venom from his past.
He took a deep breath and yelled in my direction mockingly, “Looks like daddy is baby-sitting today!” He let out a loud chuckle. I smiled and waved as I kept walking.
A simple comment that would fly right through others went straight to my heart. The arrow hit its mark, burrowing itself deeper and deeper into an old wound. An old recording played in my head:
A man is big and tough. A man wears a suit and earns six figures. A man has a deep voice and a commanding presence, leading… no, ordering those around him. But you? You are none of those things. You have a simple job and a simple apartment. I bet your wife orders you around, telling you to watch the baby while she does important things. I bet you couldn’t even knock back this 6 pack… How pathetic.
The color began to seep from my face. My mind clouded over as it was hijacked by the impulse to fight, flight, or freeze. I could hear Marlboro man’s deep guffaw reverberating in my mind. My heart rate increased as I fantasized about all the witty comebacks I would say next time, the laughter I would direct at him, the threats I would yell at him, the inevitable scuffle, the neighbors calling for help, the police cars arriving, sirens blaring, news vans screeching to a stop nearby, fists flying, jaws breaking, windows shattering….
BEEEEEEEP! A car horn bellowed somewhere in the distance. It shook me from my dream. The driver, feeling justice was served, let off the horn. My rapid breathing and heart rate were all I heard. Thump thump…thump thump…thump thump…thump thump…
Jesus, give me wisdom about who I am. Help me separate truth from lies.
I paused and listened.
Ah yes, those were lies I heard before – about what it takes to be a man. It takes strength to be a dad who loves, comforts, and nurtures his son. It takes strength for a husband to love and cherish and honor his wife. It takes strength for a man to communicate with instead of talking to those around him. The Marlboro man on the steps, what some want me to believe is a real man, that is weakness.
The Life of a Marlboro Man
I imagined the reason why this man acted as he did…
The Marlboro man sat alone on the steps, staring into nothingness. He was ordered outside by his wife because of his toxic behavior (not to mention his breath). He stared down at his feet, oblivious to the world around him. In his soul there once was a blazing fire, fueled by his Father’s love. There was an abundance – enough to warm himself and those around him.
How long ago it existed as such I cannot say. Regardless, as life went on Love’s blazing fire seemed less real, less important, and less valuable. Love was rejected and slowly the man’s wounds of shame filled him with evil lies bent on his destruction…or more accurately, bent on his separation from Love.
Love’s blazing fire within him was now only a spark as I came walking by. The spark knew this encounter with me was a chance to ignite his inner soul. Afterall, who else was left to stand up for the man that could be, the man that deep down he wanted to be?
Love’s spark was caught in a battle against the darkness within.
The spark rose up and glowed red with passion. The man felt his mind cleared by Love’s truth. He thought to himself, “The world tricked me! Congratulations, I’ve become what I was told – a ‘real man’ like John Wayne, but look where it’s gotten me. I don’t know my wife anymore and who knows where my kids are?”
Darkness screamed, “Shut up, you wuss. A real man is an island. You answer to nobody.”
The man, fueled by the spark, responded, “So it’s better to sit out here alone than go back inside and have an honest conversation with my wife?”
“You’re not alone! The bottle is your friend.”
“Look what it’s doing to me. Is this what a friend would do? There’s still time. That guy walking by who is taking care of his baby – maybe those days are gone for me, but I can call my kids. I can tell my wife I’m sorry.”
Marlboro man began to sit up slowly, the spark gaining ground now. “I didn’t really mean what I said to that dad who passed by. That’s not what I wanted to say at all. I wanted to say, ‘I wish I could push my son in a stroller and tell him how much I love him.’ I wanted to say, ‘It makes me sad to think about how my dad wasn’t there for me.’ You know, maybe I’ll go inside right now and hold my wife and we can finally be together like we used to be. Tears will stream down our cheeks and we’ll kiss each other like never before.”
“Ha Ha Ha right,” Darkness spewed as the spark began to flicker in the wake of the gruesome laugh. The man tried to resist with what little spark was left, “I don’t have to listen to these lies.”
“Listen up chump. Do you want to be a real man or a real wimp?” darkness said and sealed the victory with its token line. Marlboro man made his decision. He snuffed out the spark.
The lies were the supreme ruler of this land once again. He took another puff, another sip, and leaned back on the steps. The light in his eyes dimmed as he was shrouded in smoke and ash once again. Maybe, for a brief moment, the pain from his wounds subsided within him. But it was not without cost. Love subsided too.
The Walk Home
I was lost in thought as I continued my walk. What I viewed as strength: Power over others, dominance, separation, violence, superiority, aggression – these led to disconnection and isolation, it became clear to me now. That’s not what I wanted at all.
I began to see, the Marlboro man’s battle was not his alone. It was mine too. And how much better now that I knew. The fog, like smoke and ash, began to lift off me. My color returned and the light in my eyes brightened. The battle was not over for me, but for the moment it was.
I leaned down to unbuckle my son from his stroller as we approached our apartment. I felt us both relax as I lifted him into my arms and I gave him a hug. I impressed the moment into my memory with the caption:
This is what strength feels like. This is a man.
Dedicated to my dad – one of my earliest examples of Love’s strength.