To be an older millennial—one approaching his mid-30s—is an interesting phenomenon because of how we’ve been able to see the world evolve, shift and change.
We obsessively engage with smartphones, WiFi and social media, yet we vividly remember what our lives were like before those things existed. We’re the generation that slides in DMs, hops on Tinder and religiously subscribes to the orthodoxy of Netflix and Chill, yet we’re also the generation that remembers taking notepads and pens to school dances to get numbers, hit on our crushes by asking them to skate around the roller rink with us hand in hand to Force M.D.s’ “Love Is a House” and made mixtapes for when we were hanging out with our girlfriends/boyfriends.
One thing older millennials like me didn’t have when we were young was a seemingly unlimited access to a wealth of knowledge, ideas and opinions on dating and relationships. We didn’t have forums we could easily jump into, social media platforms where we could efficiently debate hot dating topics, or Google to help us address our most embarrassing sex questions. That’s what our friends were for. Their cogent ideologies became our own, just as much as their own ignorance.
As I began eighth grade, my friends, most of whom had already lost their virginity, introduced me, a somewhat-sheltered virgin, to a world of fast hookups, semicasual encounters and rampant superficiality. At the time, the things I heard and witnessed were just the accoutrements of growing up. My parents had always inundated me with the importance of treating women with respect, but my young mind was now meeting girls far more confident than myself—at least on the surface—who were requesting the same things I was taught never to do. That’s confusing for a young boy battling his hormones, grappling with understanding the world around him and still trying to be cool with his boys, with whom he spends more time than his own family members.
I jumped into the scene head first.
That summer, while visiting my grandmother in Montreal, I had a conversation with my uncle, who was several years older than me. He was living a life that resembled the existence my friends were just embarking on. Though I was still a virgin at the time, I wanted him to bless me with some “game” that would help me shed the burden of this socially perceived anti-masculine chastity. But he had no game to give me. Instead, he provided me with advice I never asked for but have never forgotten.
“Every relationship you’re in will affect you for the rest of your life. You ain’t gonna see it all now, and you ain’t gonna know it right when it happens, but everyone you entertain stays with you. How you treat them and how they treat you shapes who you grow into.”
This dude really looked me in the face and said this to me at 11:30 p.m. before his boys swung by to take him to a house party filled with women, weed and wining (like most West Indian fetes). Because I was too young to attend, I sat on the couch trying to deconstruct why the hell he would tell me what he did instead of giving me tips on how to finally get it in. But the longer I sat there and thought about it, the more it hit home.
And I suddenly had a “Neo in the hallway” moment and thought to myself, ‘Maybe no one has the answer.’
My friends weren’t educating me about adult relationships, they were just projecting their own ideals, full of insecurity and ignorance. I wasn’t as much burdened by hypermasculine expectations as much as I had unwittingly subscribed to the notion that there was someone out there who was in a position to authoritatively judge my being. I didn’t need to follow any musty footsteps in the sand because there’s value in creating my own.
I won’t sit here and say that from that day forward, I never made a bad decision or never treated a woman unfairly, but that moment was definitely the turning away from a path that was potentially harmful. A path rife with a critical disconnect from who I truly am as a person.
Today, my viewpoint on relationships and the world as a whole has been greatly influenced by that advice. Although I’m far from religious and do not actively subscribe to the karmic nature of the cosmos, I do believe that inflicting pain and hurt on someone else defines us, just as thoroughly as bringing joy and happiness into someone’s life does. I believe that manipulating and exploiting people alters us as significantly as helping and caring for someone does. And it’s those intangible actions that define how we behave in relationships and how we love (or refuse to).
When I think of my friends, I realize that as young Black boys, many of us didn’t know our worth. When it’s hard to see your own worth and the value of “tomorrow,” it’s hard to see the worth of those you bring into your life.
Lincoln Anthony Blades blogs daily on his site, ThisIsYourConscious.com. He’s author of the book You’re Not a Victim, You’re a Volunteer. He can be reached on Twitter @lincolnablades and on Facebook at Lincoln Anthony Blades.