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  • Aarik Danielsen

When I Was a Man-Child

When I was a man-child, I spoke like a man-child, I thought like a man-child, I reasoned like a man-child.

I picture myself: old enough to vote, to drink, to marry. But the brain was still forming, the heart still figuring out cardinal directions. I presumed upon the girls who captivated me from across campus, who lit a crowded coffee shop or library from within.

I thought they waited for someone with an ace up his sleeve. I assumed they wanted the John Cusack monologue, the pull-the-tablecloth-and-leave-the-flowers-standing romantic gesture.

Approaching these children of God—too grown-up for the label “girls,” too informal and inexperienced to be women—they shrugged off my stumbling, shameful pretenses while offering more dignity than I deserved.

As I near 40, I want to believe I’ve boxed up and set aside a man-child’s things.

As I near 40, I want to believe I’ve boxed up and set aside a man-child’s things.

After a decade and a half with the same woman, I read my memories with new eyes. I cringe, recalling what unfinished confessions of love and desire sound like. They dripped from leaky lips, belonging to someone with the confidence of a man living in a society that encourages men to co-opt women at first sight.

The more I show up for love now, the more fidelity, presence, and reinvention matter. Producing an ace or a face card means next to nothing. We tie our wrists together before sitting at the table, playing whatever hand we’re dealt with one mind, one motion.

When I was a man-child...

I looked upon their glossy, professional photos with pity. A white mom and a white dad—always evangelicals—flanking a squirming, smiling child of color. Each assumed a cheek and planted their kiss with eyes closed tight.

These blissed-out family portraits cried out to me. Somewhere behind the smiles, a scream that something went wrong along the way. Women who already felt like moms and men who wanted to be dads salvaged their chance, their hearts picking up where their bodies failed. From a safe distance, I sensed the settling. I imagined their breathless prayers of thanksgiving, each invocation of a sovereign God masking secret stabs of resignation.

As I near 40...

Spending five years within these pictures myself—some plotted and positioned, others offering candor—I barely notice the parents anymore. I stop looking for people I resemble, and only see the child.

The beauty behind their eyes, and the smile that instinctively follows touch, reach me like a melody. Seeing past the photograph, to the past and future which close in upon this image of the immediate, I perceive a longer, more complicated story than I once told myself.

Once I followed new parents with my eyes and counted on my fingers, calculating their loss. Now I pray God fortifies and softens the child who waves goodbye to first parents, to connective tissue, to a family name, even a culture, before ever knowing what it means to say hello. I see how a family sets some things right and puts others at risk.

No one is lucky; everyone is fortunate. Each person in the picture is a testimony, wordlessly rehearsing the truth that life never works out the way anyone planned.

No one is lucky; everyone is fortunate. Each person in the picture is a testimony, wordlessly rehearsing the truth that life never works out the way anyone planned. Yet we see each other through. We live like arrows, leading each other to a love that remains available, to a presence that binds up without closing the wound, to families that are established and eternal.

When I was a man-child ...

My life assumed the shape of a precarious liturgy. Sin, then pray for help before the stain sets. The responsibility of remaining separate, of keeping myself freshly scrubbed, rested with me alone. Shame and guilt sat on undeveloped shoulders and did what they were designed to do, alternating waves of self-defense and self-loathing, stunting growth—and the hope growth might ever come.

As I near 40 ...

I know the distance between man-child and man is not a straight line. I retrace my steps, descending a spiral staircase through shame, willful denial, and, eventually, come to the ground floor. The mood there feels a little like exhaustion, a little like relief.

Today’s man forgives his younger counterpart more than he assigns fault. He remembers days spent walking in reverse, and thanks God for the growth that comes as you crawl upon your belly. He knows some areas of life experience growth quicker, more reliably than others.

A day, a week, a month makes it hard to take stock of how far you’ve come, of all you’ve stowed in storage or set out on the curb. But reconciling with 19, remembering 29, and resting—even for a rare moment or two—in the middle of 39 makes the time and its refrains clearer.

God never leaves nor forsakes you. He replaces the old lenses and recovers near-sightedness. Mistakes become markers of mercy. He sees the end from the beginning yet he loves in real-time—whether you’re a man, a child, or someone finding his place between.

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