(Reading time: 1600 words, 8 minutes)
A couple years ago I took a trip to Havasu Canyon, Arizona—home of Havasu Creek, a beatific tributary that empties into the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. The creek, due to its travertine bed and crystalline water, appears emerald green. Because it flows through one of the hottest places on earth, it's invitingly warm. However, amidst the fiery landscape it cuts through, it's a cool bath. Combine all these facts, and you have a real desert oasis that attracts tourists from around the globe.
It was late June when I, along with my wife, visited Havasu Creek. We spent three days exploring the paradisiacal canyon, which mostly consisted of jumping off waterfalls into iridescent waters. On the last day of our visit, we ventured to a pellucid swimming hole just outside the Havasu reservation. It was there that I met four young men from Colorado. While my wife and I had wandered down the creek, they had hiked up it from the Colorado River.
We were alone—the Coloradans, my wife, and I. The summer heat was like a blanket on the desert, quieting the whole scene. The water shone in turquoise, and the red rocks were aglow and burning. The young men, toeing around the cliffs and rolling in the water, were disheveled and carefree, their beards dripping with clean H2O. They were all in their late 20s to mid 30s I'd guess—about my age. But upon watching them they could only properly be characterized as boys.
I struck up a conversation with one of them. He explained how they had launched on the Colorado two weeks earlier. They were kayaking their way to the bottom of the Grand, but also had a raft for all their gear. In the span of about 45 minutes, the boys and I had a short but meaningful conversation on life and adventure. They taught my wife and I how to do backflips off the cliffs into the water. We shared dried figs and granola in the shade of a sandstone overhang. Then they left, scattering down the creek, a clan of lithe but scrappy animals. I watched them as they disappeared. They seemed so at home. But they could've been at home anywhere, because they were at home in their skin.
This happened during an important transition in my life. I had recently awoken from a 15-year stupor, during which I was under the ether of religion, the American Dream, and consumerism. Maybe it was a late coming of age, or maybe I had tapped a cultural shift, but I felt as though I had become aware of the shackles that bind so many to their graves, and I was determined to break them. I would do so by living an honest life. And that's what those four Coloradans represented to me: honesty. They showed me that real men remain boys, and I've tried to live my life by that idea ever since.
So after two years of reflection, here are my thoughts on how to retain the essence of boyhood, because being a man is not about outgrowing youth, it's about developing the strength and courage to hang onto it.
As we get older we tend to confuse entertainment with play. As kids we romped through neighborhoods and playgrounds, and that was good enough. As adults we pay for technologies and services that pamper and amuse us.
But much of American entertainment is impotent, and most of the toys and electronics we get, in the name of fun, induce boredom. Their novelty eventually wears off, so we seek newer forms of stimulation to fill the boredom gap, further drifting from those activities that defined our youth.
Of course, we could offer all kinds of excuses here: I've got a job now. I have mouths to feed. I got bills to pay. With all these responsibilities, who has time to play? At the end of a tough day, people just want to unwind in front of the latest television sitcom, go shopping, or click a game of Candy Crush like a cat pawing at a toy mouse.
But real men play. Some of them are intentional about it. They acknowledge its benefits, so they schedule it into their day. Others just can't help themselves. They're in tune with their natures to such a degree that they can't imagine not playing.
Play produces feelings superior to those that result from our toys and entertainment; it has a renewing capacity. That’s why it keeps us young. But I’m not gonna make a list of playful activities here, because there are at least a million of them. Instead, think of it like this: What activities make you both feel like a kid and renew you? Whatever answer you get—that's play. That's what real men do more of.
You don't have to travel the world to be an explorer. But if you want to keep your inner child alive, you must retain a sense of adventure and act on it frequently.
I live in a twin town of roughly 200,000 people, and after living here for 25 years there are still streets I haven't been down. Sometimes I'll get an itch and ride my bike through town, deliberately taking turns I never have, just to see what I see.
But this is not about taking different roads home from work (though do that, too). This is about leaving your door with the intent to discover something, to have a new experience. When the world becomes mundane, real men find ways to enliven it.
What lies undiscovered in your city, in your city's cultures, in your nearby mountains, lakes, forests, or deserts? What books remain unopened? Forget the far reaches of earth, what depths have you not scoured in local alleys, clubs, museums? Have you sufficiently searched the faces and hearts of the strangers on your city sidewalks?
It is not a new world that enables exploration, but a curious heart. Real men stay curious of the world around them, and their curiosity moves them to action.
I had my fair share of scraps and brawls as a kid, even on into my twenties. But only now, in my 30s, am I realizing that the real fight in life is the fight to discover and live one's passions.
Boys don't question what they want to do, they think about how they're going to do it. Why then, as we grow older, do we weigh our dreams against what's "practical?" What is life without gall for becoming who we want to become?
Real men fight to achieve their goals of doing and being more. They bite down on a sense of purpose, and they don’t let go of it. But this is not a fight you win. It’s the fight that, when entered, continually begs, “How long will you stay?”
Real men stay ‘til their dying day.
Boys create things—sand castles, Lego towers, finger-paint smiley faces. Real men make these things too (because they connect with children), but they also wrestle greater creative demons, demons that the shells of men shy from.
Too often we betray the creative spirit as we age. The pursuit of success, pleasure, or mere survival deters us. And when the creative spirit dies, so too does the vessel that houses it. It’s why the world is full of moping shells of men, flaccid and dour and sad.
But real men are vital. They produce fruit for the world and for themselves. They understand that creativity is not a talent, but a way of interacting with the world. And they create by intention, not by some divine or accidental gift.
It's easy to wonder at a salmon and periwinkle sunset or a moonless night sky, but there’s another aspect of wonder that adults too often betray: self-doubt.
The world would have us believe that self-doubt is a sign of insecurity and insecurity a sign of weakness. But real men, like young boys, are curious of the world and themselves, and they can’t help doubting the way things are, even doubting their own suppositions and beliefs. They see certainty as the end of thinking, for thinking is the offspring of doubt. And it’s by doubt that they navigate life, which makes for a wonder-ful experience.
Real men fail, because real men are willing to fail. They seek not safety, but a sense of being alive, so they take risks—risks that open them up to failure.
This sense of being alive marks boyhood. But what came natural then, men must work for, and they’re willing to, even though they might forever fall short.
Real men understand that success is the result of a willingness to repeatedly and publicly fail, though the success they seek has little to do with worldly affairs, and everything to do with aligning the outer and inner life. For the real man, the only real risk in life is to not dare when tempted to.
Perhaps a longer list could be made, and a dozen other qualities listed—like love, and trust, and work—but even the most unexceptional men strive for these things. Instead, I think the preceding six qualities capture those boyhood traits that men betray, but shouldn’t. And, as a final note, the men who do exhibit these qualities aren’t lucky; they’re brave. They retain them because they cultivate them.
What do you think? What makes you feel alive? What keeps you young?