“Be a man.” All Things Considered posits that these are possibly the 3 scariest words a boy can hear. Part of me tends to agree. Part of me thinks they’re scary for grown men too. Part of me also hears it as a call (a challenge if you will) to be better. A reminder that, in our time, masculinity has been warped through commercialization that is pressed on us non-stop both directly and subliminally and that we must find a way to lift ourselves up from this.
If it truly is a calling, then it is a lifelong calling. It is something which must be worked at, honed, and exercised. One must create a muscle memory if you will, so that it becomes reflexive from repetition. From my experience it is not something that comes naturally. Rather it is born at best through the teachings of your family and community and at it’s hardest through a sincere effort to improve one day at a time through learning and action.
I was fortunate enough to be raised in a family and community with strong male role models who represented some of the best qualities of a man – leadership, work ethic, morality, physical strength, emotional availability. Chief among these was my own father, but there were plenty of others as well – uncles, friend’s fathers, teachers, coaches, etc. Yet, somehow when I reached the middle of my college career I found myself seeking out knowledge about manhood, masculinity, and what it meant to “be a man.”
I am sadly part of a generation unwittingly forced into Prolonged Adolescence by many compelling societal and economic factors, so when I first looked to my peers I found them to be, on the whole lacking. Many of my closest friends contained the potential to be good men. Diamonds in the rough, if you will, but for most of them those parts of their character were overwhelmed by other aspects. This led me to look elsewhere. I found it in some of my male professors. But I found myself mostly drawn to the early writings of Brett McKay. Brett is the creator and chief author of the now deservedly popular Art Of Manliness.
Admittedly my early fascination with Art Of Manliness was quite in line with my priorities at the time – materials. I was fascinated with articles on straight razor shaving, pocket notebooks, knives, and how to dress myself. Yet over the years it has been the in depth articles on the more philosophical aspects of manhood that have truly captured my attention.
The question of manliness, of “being a man” lingered on in my mind for years, especially during my year long sabbatical in Korea. However, when The Wife and I found out last year that we were expecting our first child, the question returned to the forefront of my mind with great passion. Suddenly I was looking on the matter from a whole new perspective – fatherhood. In my early panic about whether or not I would be a good father, I found myself looking back more and more on those role models and teachings I had found years previously, my father, my professors, the writings online. I found great solace in the parable of Hercules – that a life of ease is no life, and only through toil can we find success and joy – and also the writings of Seneca on stoicism. I made changes in myself. I made choices in my life. I chose to cut the fat, and live a healthier existence.
And then over the last couple of days I came across two things that made me want to talk about all this.
First, was a piece I found a few days ago over at what is possibly the blog most responsible for me being able to dress myself like a respectable adult. The fine gents at Put This On posted about a piece they had read. It was written by Andrew W.K., who apparently has his own advice column, in which he talks a good deal about what it means to be a man but from a wonderfully different place. I actually recommend reading the whole thing. Sidebar, a decade ago I thought Andrew W.K. was a total wacko, but have since come to really appreciate his approach to life.
Then today, while driving home with Scout sleeping in the back, I was tuned into NPR and this piece from All Things Considered came on. It’s an interview with former NFL player Joe Ehrmann, about what we as a society are doing and messaging to young boys and young men and what affect it is having on them long term. Mr. Ehrmann couches it in terms most familiar to him – his experiences with coaches and players on the field and the different types of relationships they have. Most importantly though he uses two terms in reference to those relationships, “transactional and transformational.” He goes on to talk about the crisis he sees facing manhood and I have to say it really resonated with me. I won’t go into terrible detail about what he says, I think you can find the 7.5 mins to listen to it.
At the end of the day, the core of both these pieces is essentially this – that being a good man means being good. However, there still seems to be a line drawn in the sand between being a good human being and being a good man. So what makes the two different? What constitutes that line? And how does it remain in our modern society where so much work has been done to erase the barriers between genders? Is it that men still hold an assumed position of power and strength? And through that are we held to a higher expectation of decency not to abuse that position? This seems to be the next line of thinking I have to pursue on this lifelong journey. Let me know what you think in the comments.