Before I met my fiancée, freedom meant the open road, preferably riding on my motorcycle. It meant complete autonomy to do as I wished and never be accountable to anyone but myself. Freedom meant I didn’t have to commit to anyone long enough for them to fall short of my expectations or me to fall short of theirs.
As frustrating as I might have been to date—if I even had the guts to call them dates back then—the fact is, it’s normal for young men to view freedom this way. At least for a little while. Let me explain.
Brett McKay from The Art of Manliness explains that a man’s experience in his understanding of freedom changes as he grows. As children and even emerging adults, we think of freedom in terms of separation from things that could hold us back—“you are free if no one is stopping you from doing whatever you might want to do.” McKay explains that German philosopher Immanuel Kant calls this kind of outlook negative freedom. Picture me and my motorcycle.
Then, McKay explains, as a boy becomes a man, he begins to seek deeper desires and more fulfillment than just a world of open doors. We come to see that, in order to be the kind of men we want to be and have those things we truly value, we must make choices that will close doors. We start to realize that those self-imposed limits in life don’t enslave us, they set us free. I called them intentional stumbling blocks; Kant calls this positive freedom. As McKay puts it, “By learning to control and harness your desires, you actually become more autonomous.”
What’s not natural is staying in this “nobody can hold me back” stage of life, and, according to McKay, many men have become stuck in thinking of freedom as a boy might. “They grow up in a culture that emphasizes negative freedom as the end-all, be-all of life; happiness [equals] being able to do whatever you’d like,” McKay explains. “So they never make the transition from thinking about freedom from, to thinking about freedom to. But that transition is a big part of going from boy to man.”
Like many men, I was a little stuck somewhere between being a boy and a man. I found that, as my friends began to make choices that closed some doors—like start careers, get married, and have children, I found a new home for myself among them. I was, as McKay coins it, the “Wingman/Bachelor” to my closest group of friends, and I found some value in this new role. As McKay describes it, I was ”the buddy who remains the perennial bachelor—the guy who stays away from the altar longer than anyone else in your group of friends.” OK, that sounds a little depressing. But I also reminded my married friends of their call to be adventurers, to live out the wild in their hearts.
I hung on to that role and enjoyed it for a time. But, as more and more of my friends began to root themselves in their home, family, wife, and endless service to those things, I began to feel like I was the man who wasn’t free.
Something began to feel amiss when all of my closest guy friends were either getting married or bringing children into the world, and I wasn’t. Far from it. The list of my solo adventures was growing. From conservationist work in the mountains of Montana to living abroad for a couple years, I kept going off on my own, for the sake of individualism. Yet the more I saw my friends’ newfound freedom, the more I began to resent my own. Slowly, my boyish evasion of the things that would hold me down began to evolve into the yearnings for those things that tether a free man—namely, family.
This narrative is actually pretty typical for men today as well. Research by John Molloy, author of Why Men Marry Some Women and Not Others, shows that noncommittal men who are surrounded by friends who are married and having kids will be more likely to commit in the near future.
I’ve seen my friends become men through their commitments, specifically marriage, and it seems to me that this change is the most natural thing in the world. I see changes in the way they take responsibility for themselves and their families.
My married friends appear more focused and grounded, and they say they find more freedom in the commitment of marriage. My brother-from-another-mother Nolan says, “I found the most freedom when learning how to say no to myself.” I see how commitment challenges my friends, but I also see how they rise to the occasion and grow from that accountability. My buddy Michael put it best. He said that it was specifically in practicing “rigorous honesty” that he finds the most difficulty but also the most freedom. “This type of vulnerability reveals aspects of myself I would often rather hide, or it uncovers character defects that I was unaware of,” Michael explains. “The miracle is that this is one of the most beautiful things of making a commitment because it opens the door to me being loved for who I really am and also for who I am not. And it allows me the opportunity to do the same for my spouse.”
As a bystander to the changes in my friends, I saw how powerful an anchor can be in a man’s life. By the time I met my fiancée, I knew what I was missing in my life, and, for the first time, I tasted the kind of freedom I longed for. I was surprised to find, however, that commitment did not end up feeling like I was settling down or giving up on a life of adventure, it just changed its shape.
While recently visiting my fiancée’s family, I was riding alone on a small backcountry Virginia road—full of the twists and turns I love—and found a bittersweet feeling creeping into my chest. When I came back, I lamented to her, “You’ve ruined motorcycling for me.” It wasn’t that she “ruined” motorcycling, really, it was that she changed it. It no longer held the exhilaration of my boyish vision of freedom; I was no longer a man to myself. I missed having her there with me.
Adventure was no longer quite so amazing without her by my side. I haven’t lost my individual pursuits necessarily, but it’s more interesting to have her input than just my own. In fact, two different studies show that even the most “mundane” shared experiences are more valuable than the most uniquely interesting solo experience. This is true in my life.
Three months from my wedding day, I still love adventure and my motorcycle. But my boyish perspective on freedom is a thing of my past. Today, as much as I enjoy adventuring on my own, an adventure with the woman I love is worth a thousand times more.
Photo Credit: Taylor McCutchan