“From the day we arrive on this planet,and blinking step into the sun,
there’s more to see than can ever be seen, more to do, than can ever be done.
There’s far too much to take in here, more to find than can ever be found,
But the sun rolling high, through the sapphire sky, keeps great and small on the endless round.
It’s the circle of life, and it moves us all,
Through despair and hope, through faith and more,
Till we find our place on a path unwinding,
In the circle, the circle of life.”
I have been on this earth for 18 years. Or about 6,680 days. It’s funny how when you put your life into days, you can really see the value of each day. It’s been a long time, full of extraordinary experiences, and so much richer than anything I would have experienced as cosmic dust floating in some ambiguity in the cosmos. Perhaps I am still cosmic dust, I don’t really know. But looking back, it has passed by pretty quickly. And although the rest of my life holds countless adventures, countless episodes of ecstasy, and terror, I know that it too, will pass quickly. I am aware of this. Thus, I try to live my life in a way that, when I reach the end of it, will leave me satisfied and rich with happiness and the memory of a life well-lived.
I’ve jumped off of 60-ft waterfalls, I’ve had my taste buds overwhelmed by the magic that is taste. I’ve killed (even flies count) and I’ve also come close to being killed. I’ve climbed mountains, swam in the ocean, and gotten to see the far side of the world. I’ve had the pleasure of holding a hand, and of sharing the company of people I love dearly. I’ve seen views I will never forget, alpine forests, a rainbow of color on the horizon, snowcapped mountains reflecting the full moon on a backdrop of starry canvas. I’ve heard birds sing in syncopated harmony, and experienced the bending of chords in a human chorus. I’ve held the hand of a dying man, and had a loved one die in my arms, but in them I have also held new life. I’ve traveled to other realms of thought, and had the absence of thought in sleep. And all of these crazy, magical experiences, are all part of a bigger, just as magical experience; this journey we call life.
I would like to think, and say, that life is very easy; perhaps that is relative. But the reality, for me at least, is that it is not. It is full of uncertainties and doubts. It is a maze of words, actions, and circumstances, a river of people, ideas, and experiences. It can be too much at some points, and at others, not enough. But I think that it is this struggle, this uncertainty, that makes the good parts so good. And in the end, and even in the middle, it is all worth it.
I’ve had this idea, it’s been an obsession really, that I’ve got to be “A Man,” that it’s time for me to be “a man,” that I’m old enough to be “a man.” Maybe if I took it for what it is, instead of trying to qualify myself, it would be easier. Less Stressful. With that said, I can feel the changes, Manhood is in my grasp.
Life is a continuous process of learning, a continuous process of growth. We learn to better adapt to our environment, to be able to navigate our environments more efficiently and effectively. We are never not learning. All of our behaviors are the results of what we’ve learned up to this point. What works? What doesn’t work? I think one of the differences that distinguishes between “children” “adolescents,” and “adults,” is how much we’ve learned, and how well we can use this knowledge to navigate society and manage our lives. And how 18 year-olds have learned to act today, is much different from how 18 year olds would have learned to act 20,000 years ago, and how 18 year olds learn to act on the west coast of the U.S., is different from how 18 year olds learn to act on the west coast of Africa. Although we both like to party.
Every individual has a unique life experience, and every individual is different, but there are visible generalities that pervade a culture. Here, everyone looks so much younger than they actually are. In Dakar and Kedougou, I’ve made groups of friends, thinking they were all around my age, but many of them turned out to be between 20 and 25! Everyone here looks 3-10 years younger than they actually are. I don’t know if it’s all of the RBST in my milk or what, but they look so young, and good looking over here.They also seem to act a lot younger. Maybe it’s just me, the “American” coming from the context of my culture where we value certain traits as being more “adult-like”. Traits like seriousness, independence, business-like behavior. Here, families and the people in them are interdependent, and very interconnected, and it does not foster or facilitate the growth of independence. Most people here are friendly, whether young or old, and (minus the occasional male competition), they are welcoming and glad to be your friend.
I remember when I was in 1st grade, man those 6th graders were just the biggest and the baddest. Why, they were practically adults. And I remember when I was in 6th grade, the seniors, or 17/18 year olds were eons past me. Why, they were practically adults too. Shoot, even those pesky 10th graders were practically adults. It was physically impossible for my brain to ponder what life would be like that far ahead. They were so sure of themselves, so powerful, so—old! Now that I’m in my 19th year (at the end of it I’ll earn the badge of the number 19, and it’ll be a well earned one at that), I see how much I was mistaken for all those years. Now that I’m “practically an adult,” I am old enough to look at my friends, and 30 year olds, and know that we are not all so sure of ourselves, and that 30, 40, and even 60, will be here before I know it.
When I was younger, I was “smarter” than everyone. I also probably didn’t get as much social interaction as everyone either, but I was always praised, put into a better position, and I came to believe that I WAS better than everyone else. Now that I am a little bit older, an a little bit wiser, I can see that this is not the case. Sure I hold my values higher than others’ (that’s why they’re called values), and as more “pure”and “better”, but I also know that other people have values and lives that are just as important to them as mine is to me, and did I ever stop to think that perhaps they have the same human value, as me? Now that I’m older, the playing field has been leveled, and I realize that whether I like it or not, I AM THE SAME AS EVERYONE ELSE! To society, to the universe, there is no difference between me and the next guy. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who care about me deeply, or that there aren’t any unique things about me, but in terms of human value, I’m the same as you, you’re the same as Mrs. Klages, and we’re all better than Hitler.
There is no fine line between childhood and manhood. They are ideas, abstractions. But with the change of self-association between these concepts comes a lot. It comes with surety, self-confidence, independence, potency, the ability to manage your own life, and to add to the lives of others. With it comes strength and the power to protect, but also, the power to destroy. With it comes knowledge, and the ability to use that knowledge well. Being here really helps me see where I am in this stage. I find myself still asking for permission, which is appropriate for some things, and inappropriate for others. It is an interesting thing realizing that I am on my own. A frightening and liberating, uplifting realization. It’s cool being able to see the transition in yourself towards being able to manage yourself–yourself. I feel like the Lion King over here (on good days). And I look so much older than how I feel. It’s funny, everyone here thinks I’m 25, I’ve gotten away with 30, and I don’t even have a full beard! I don’t even have a half beard, I’ve got like a quarter beard. I look in the mirror, and I see how old I look, and I don’t feel as old as I look,but then I think I’m becoming as old as I look, and then I think I’m a weenie for thinking all these things and I think I’ve got to just live. I would like to be completely independent right now, to not feel like I have to answer to anyone,but the reality is I don’t, and that’s okay too. It is strange being here, and feeling the pressure to “be a man,” and realizing that I don’t know how to.
Life starts with birth, and ends with death. It’s the circle of life. There are many more opportunities to see both here. It is more blatantly, more explicitly a part of life here. I’v seen a goat and a sheep get slaughtered for meat. A snake and lizard beaten to death because they were liabilities. And when someone dies here everyone comes to pay their respects. A man in the village died. That same night everyone in the village came to the widows house. I helped the men make a stretcher out of bamboo, and the strips of bark stripped from the inside of a piece of tree bark which is ready-to-use, nature made cord. A child in my extended family died yesterday. He was playing kickback with his brother and running backwards, and tripped and fell into a well. He drowned. It’s a shame that his life was cut short, but that is a part of life. There is always the possibility of death, we cannot chase death away entirely, but we can make sure we see as little of him as possibly taking precautions, being careful. But the fear of death should not keep you from living. Bomb a mountain on a skateboard, scale a rock face free hand, jump off of that waterfall. Live a full exciting life. Because the circle of life will come full circle, soon enough.