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I once had a friend admit to me that they wished they were more like me. He and his fiancé had been woken abruptly the night before by a large man, obscured by the darkness beyond the peephole, knocking, pounding, forcefully on their apartment door. My friend told me that he felt inadequate as a man and as a potential husband as he backed away from the door and went to hide back in the bed, hoping the man would disappear back into the night. His voice quivered slightly as he recounted his tale and then claimed that he knew I would have handled it differently, I would have been brave enough to answer the door or at least call out to see what they wanted, see if they needed help. My friend saw me as an ideal of braveness to live up to, an ideal he had fallen woefully, ashamedly short of.
I told him he was right. I would have at least called out to the man to see if he needed help. I wouldn’t have gone scampering back to my bed with my tail tucked between my legs. Because I am brave. Because I am a man. Because it was the good thing to have done. The right thing. The human thing.
I lied, of course. To my friend, at least. I knew the words coming out of my mouth were bullshit. I knew I would have quietly snuck back to my bedroom and laid shivering in my bed until enough time had passed that sleep might once again claim me, though that wouldn’t be likely to happen as my imagination would turn every shadow and bump in the night into a looter, a pillager, a raper, a murderer come to dispense their brand of mischief and evil on me, on my family. As I lied, I realized that not only was I cowardly because I wouldn’t have answered the door but I was more cowardly than my friend because I didn’t have the courage to tell him the truth. He could at least admit his cowardice to me. He was braver than me.
My mind, not wanting to admit my cowardice, tried to rationalize my desire to remain quiet, to call out to the stranger, to keep the door firmly closed between us. I would be doing it in the best interest of my family, I couldn’t risk their safety even if it meant possibly helping someone else. Who doesn’t have a cell phone these days, if they truly needed help they could have called friends, family, the police in an instant. Who knocks on a strangers door in the middle of the night, only hooligans, only the worst members of our society. I would be doing the safe thing, the smart thing, by keeping my presence on the other side of those two inches of wood a secret.
I know that doesn’t make any sense. Those men and women who use the cloak of darkness to hide their nefarious actions don’t announce their intentions by knocking loudly, firmly, confidently (urgently), on doors. Who does that? Surely only someone in need of help. Surely someone who was hoping a kind soul would open that door and be able to help them make a phone call, or jump their dead battery, or spare a gallon of gas to get them to the nearest station, or… They knocked, bravely, hoping to be rewarded by another brave person answering their hour of need. They didn’t find one in my friend, and they wouldn’t have found one in me either.
My rationalizations about safety and risk don’t make me feel any better about it. I am a coward. I know it. I don’t embrace it. I don’t actively try to change it either.
Society glorifies bravery and demands that men rise to the examples set by the heroes of the past. Children are raised on stories of knights leading charges, soldiers defying odds and rallying those around them, and astronauts risking everything to explore the final frontier. Who wouldn’t want to live up to those ideals? But then life happens. Responsibilities. Bullying (for some). The shine of those heroes becomes tarnished by the truths of our present realities. We compromise. We deflect. We hide. Until, one day, we wake up and find ourselves lying to our friends about how brave we are.
I should call him, tell him that I lied, admit my fear matched his own and tell him it was okay to be afraid. We don’t have to live up to those ideals of what it means to be a man anymore. We don’t have to compare ourselves to what society deems it means to be a man. Yes, I should call him, but I won’t. I don’t want to admit the truth.
In my mind there is still a sliver of hope that I will grow up to be as brave as those knights, those soldiers, those explorers. I’m just waiting for the right occasion to come along and test me and then I will rise up and prove that I am brave, that I am a man, that I am everything I should be.
I’m fooling myself, of course.
Apparently I’m a fool as well as a coward.