The Making and Unmaking of a Man-Child

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Article by: Ron Barasa

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Photo by Keenan Beasley on Unsplash

Assume you’re a man. A broke, hustling man. Hustling because you’re unemployed and your mother told you that you had to do something with your life, not just steal your father’s cigarettes and sit around. You’re a Jack of all Trades, but nothing ever seems to stick. You’ve been fired twice, once because of being intoxicated at work, and the second time because the company thought it deserved better than what you had to offer. Terrible, right? 

And as if that’s not enough, your current ‘job’, which is being an attendant at your mother’s M-pesa & Gas cylinders shop, is in jeopardy. Why? Because business since Ruto’s Government took over has been at its worst. It could also be because you take a few hundreds every night for your personal use- A ‘real man’ shouldn’t walk around with empty pockets. But that had nothing to do with it, right? After all, if your mother’s shop can’t handle spending a few hundreds, what business does it have been a business?

The origins of a man-child 

The term Puer Aeternus is Latin for ‘eternal boy’. It was mostly used in reference to a child-god in Greek and Roman mythology. The puer is the god of divine youth and resurrection, but in psychology – Jungian psychology – the puer Aeternus is a primordial element of the human psyche, better known to us as the Peter-Pan Syndrome.

If you know anything about Peter Pan, you know that the boy was stuck in a loop of endless childhood, flying around in his company of lost boys as they interacted with mermaids, fairies and all the mythical creatures you can think of. Peter Pan is more or less a cultural emblem that symbolises escapism and youthful innocence.

For a man-child, this kind of masculinity crisis is fuelled by the extension of boyhood into adulthood. Most modern men no longer feel the need or urgency to grow into the responsibilities that await them. The general decrease in inconveniences in our daily lives has created a Utopian lifestyle that has trapped most men in their comfort zones.

In the past, especially since gender roles were more defined, the scarcity of crucial resources meant that those that went out to hunt had to be the best versions of themselves in terms of skills, endurance and overall toughness. Furthermore, the protection and security of most communities were highly dependent on the men that lived in the same communities. Therefore, having your men perceived as weak meant that you were an easy target to village raiders and cattle rustlers, thus endangering whole families and tribes. Today, modern conveniences have watered down the need to have the traditional version of a man, and as nature would have it, if you have no use for it, you’ll lose it.

Symptoms of a man-child

For the man-child, being grounded in reality is punishment on its own, as it lacks the newness and excitement that hedonistic adventures offer. He prefers being lost in thought, fantasising about the greatness that his future harbours, but committing to nothing that needs consistent effort and commitment. He’ll try working, but something about the work will not sit right with him. His infantile tendencies will more often than not put an end to whatever noble endeavours he has, pushing him back to the temporary comfort his old patterns offered. He takes delight in avoiding the pain his reality poses, but in turn, makes himself a slave to his whims and wants.

To him, being an adult is akin to being in prison. He loathes routine and order and expects other people to adopt responsibilities that were otherwise his. He basks in fantasies of how special he is, and longs for independence and freedom, but does nothing to earn the things he yearns for. He is like a king without a kingdom, a painter with no paintings. He is blinded by the paradise that was his childhood, where no responsibilities were his and no commitments were expected of him. He, therefore, tries to chase the ghost of his childhood comfort by indulging in temporary pleasures.

Such a man is too deluded to build anything of substance, as he lacks the grounding that’s needed to start and finish anything that matters. He is dissatisfied with his current existence but is also convinced that the best day to change is tomorrow. To him, the rules and entrapments that come with being an adult are too high a price to pay, so he condemns himself to an eternity of blissful ignorance and stores his problems away in a box.

Facing the inevitable

The transition from being a boy to a man is assumed by many to be pretty straightforward and self-evident. And it is for many cultures. You get to a certain age, and usually, there’s a set of rituals and practices that’ll help mould and initiate the boy into manhood. Different cultures initiate their men differently, but the thread that seems to tie most cultures together is the insistence on tolerating both psychological and physical pain.

Take, for instance, the men from Pentecost Island – one of the 83 Islands that make up the South Pacific Nation of Vanuatu. They practise an initiation ritual known as Land Diving, and it is as nauseating as it sounds, if not worse. Basically, crude wooden towers that go up to 100 feet high are built, and the men have to jump off these towers with only two vines tied to their ankles. The objective? To land as close to the ground as you can without bashing your head open. A dive is considered perfect when your shoulders slightly rub the ground. And since it is conducted during the harvesting season, they believe a good dive directly translates to a bountiful harvest. In their community, land diving is the ultimate expression of masculinity as it exemplifies the boldness and courage that only a warrior can possess. However, men that back out of the ritual are shamed and branded as cowards.

My reference to ancient rituals and rites of passage shouldn’t be mistaken for my advocating for archaic practices. Of course, past generations had practices that were limiting and rooted in superstition, but they also knew things we didn’t. They knew boys would remain to be boys unless there was a fundamental shift in how they perceived the world and their role in it. A boy is a child, a child that knows nothing but the warmth of his mother’s hearth. To become a man is to understand the need to protect and provide. And you can’t protect if you’ve never faced adversity and won, neither can you provide if the fear of going out into the wilderness in search of food paralyses you to the core.

The man-child’s only salvation is to heed life’s call to adventure. He must awake from his stupor and see his life for what it is. He must embrace the burden that comes with responsibility and work so as to articulate his character and individuality. This is his rite of passage. This is his baptism by fire.