Last week Mtuseni was chatting with me about City Year and how much he was enjoying it — and I told him how happy that made me. Then he shifted gears and said “But part of me gets nervous.” When I asked why, he said he was worried about diverging from his radio career path by joining the program. I assured him that the door to radio hasn’t been locked shut forever, and that City Year will give him new skills and a broader network for whatever his career might be. I told him to just ride this raft down the river, take in the scenery, and enjoy the experience. He agreed that he would, and seemed to feel better.
Later, I thought about his simple statement to me… “I get nervous.” I could never have said that to my father, or to my mother, at his age or at any age. Growing up in my family, any expression of vulnerability was brushed off, squelched, or criticized. Not that my parents were trying to somehow toughen us up, but just that they couldn’t be bothered. So as a short, chubby, brainy, fey, shy boy, I learned to stuff all my fears, hurts, and insecurities inside. It wasn’t until a couple decades later that I was finally able to let all those dark feelings out in a therapist’s office. But for years, they weighed me down like Jacob Marley’s chains.
I’ve watched Mtuseni grow so much. We’ve had many open, heartfelt talks over the years about his fears and worries, stemming from personal self-doubts to feeling “less than” living in a shack settlement. He’s made enormous strides in terms of confidence; I don’t hear much of the nervous boy I first met. Even though he’s brimming with young 20-something bravado these days, I’m glad that he trusts me enough to share his vulnerabilities. Just being able to express them — and have them validated — can make them float away. I wish I’d had that option at his age.
As always, I feel profoundly blessed that I can share Mtuseni’s moments of success — and his moments of weakness. It reminds us both that not only are we men trying to forge a path through life, we’re merely human. And that’s okay.
Follow and share updates about the Long-Distance Dad book project on Facebook!