Thursday, February 3, 2011

On Manhood

Here is what I am: a man.

These simple three letters define a conflicting myriad of roles and responsibilities, of strengths and weaknesses, of truths and lies, of affirmations and contradictions. I cannot hope to elaborate on enough of these in a single entry to describe the full extent of a man's burdens, but I hope to explore enough of the surface of this vast sea to better understand and explain myself, if only a little.

By nature, all humans are conflicted. C.S. Lewis wrote (from the perspective of an experienced demon tutoring a novice in the ways of harvesting souls),
"Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal....a revolting hybrid... As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change."
Though I haven't yet finished the book, what Screwtape undoubtedly omitted from his letters is the fact that, among humans, men in particular are affected by a potent mix of social and biological pressures and expectations. I am sure that, armed with this information, and pertinent details, any of our own Wormwoods have a solid chance at tempting us away from our intended paths. I know mine has on thousands of occasions. It's something I struggle with every day. I've written a little on this before.

(I know that women are perhaps torn by a different, maybe even more potent, mix of pressures and expectations, but being male, I must leave that for others to explore.)

To be sure, men have gained a certain reputation in most (all?) of the cultures that have populated the earth characterized by their especial weaknesses, in particular their vulnerability to Lust. It's no use denying it, even though most polite adults do every day. No matter how elevated a society, or a man's role in that society, as soon as he falls victim to this vulnerability, everyone acts like it was inevitable, or praises him on his former chastity, but alas, now he's just like all the rest. Such a pity. So long as he is born with the typical cocktail of biochemical influences, no level of social upbringing or education can save a man from this, and no level of respect or status or social rank will excuse him once he falters. This is in the news every single day, and no adult that I know, of any gender, can claim to have been unaffected by this (negatively in every case) at some point (or several points) in their lives.

Another burden unique to men is their expectation to provide. Now, I am a firm believer that our bodies and brains were designed to make this easier for us than for women, at least when this involved defending a village from aggressors or killing next week's main course. To an extent, we are still at this stage. Most of the world's military forces are male, and while a person of any gender can become educated and employed sufficiently to support a family, in some cases abundantly so, men have been given a characteristic motivation to do so, and the complementary capacity to beat themselves up when they perceive that they're failing. Society is no less forgiving. It's no secret that a man who is not the breadwinner of his family must distinguish himself in extraordinary ways to be respected as much as men who are. Nor is it a secret that women who take this role in two-adult households are often be stereotyped as agressive. This is magnified when the household includes children.

Men are judged on their ability to meet the expectation to provide, in some cases harshly, by both women and other men, particularly those who are seen/see themselves as better providers than the subject of their disdain. Traditional views sometimes go so far as to bestow special distinction to those who can (or cannot) meet this expectation to a great degree, or despite uncommon challenges. Where I come from, for example, men who really screw this up even get titles such as "deadbeat" and "loser" which enhance the perception that, again, nobody was surprised at that man's failure. The worst judges against this imposed standard are the men themselves. Many men who cannot meet a certain, internally and externally defined, level of success as providers often fall victim to their vices, such as addiction and gluttony, which of course leads to other personal and social failures. No amount of effort to provide, even for himself alone, is worth anything to a man unless it meets or exceeds this minimum level. Unfortunately for many, the resources a man has to meet that level can sometimes be out of his reach; sometimes the very cause of denial of resources to a man is his inability to meet other social expectations.

Suffer in Silence
A man is expected to carry his own weight, and not only be able, but willing, to carry the weight of others. He is expected to do so without complaining, at least publicly. Hiding one's emotions, indeed, feigning indifference or agressive passion, is viewed as a strength. A man who does not meet this expectation is given many labels that are not suited for polite discussion, but everyone uses on occasion. We are given countless examples against which to measure the men around us--cowboys and athletes and magnates and soldiers (who says the modern hero is dead?)--and as men, are we constantly comparing ourselves to others. Though a mark of maturity is the tendency not to indulge in such self-defeating behavior (there is always another man nearby who trumps us in one way or another, so losing a one-on-one comparison is inevitable), we still do so quietly, privately, because we know the people around us are doing the same thing.

To meet these many challenges, to succeed in being 'manly,' a man is rewarded with society's admission into a fraternity of common nobles who are all allowed, for the moment, to make the statement: I am a Good Man. To fail to meet those challenges, even a little, relegates a man to a lower level of acceptance, depending on how grossly he falls short. It's usually acceptance of some kind, yes, but the kind that make everyone smile politely then turn away in disgust. Society wants us to make the grade, but looks at us when we fail like a coach looks at a player who's made a game-killing mistake. "No fraternity for you, but we really didn't expect anything different. Try again later...but for now get out of my face."

I am not above any of these influences myself. Indeed, most of my ability to explore and discuss them comes from suffering numerous failures, and my conclusions on how to either hide the things about me perceived as weaknesses or enhance (or feign) development of those things considered strengths. I have even discussed some of this with my own growing boys, not necessarily because I have these expectations of them (though some of them I do), but because I don't want them to be confused (or, God forbid, humiliated) when they realize the world around them does.

The deepest truth here is that all these criteria, all these definitions, of how a man is ultimately seen by society, and sees himself, come from my own personal expectations of myself. I am plagued by Lust. I pressure myself to provide materially and emotionally for my family. I ignore or deny most of the pains endured along the way. I fear judgement, especially by those I love, especially from other men, whether they are important in my life or strangers. Maybe I'm not as mature as I ought to be; I certainly have reason to fear. I fail in one aspect or another at being the Man I want to be nearly every day, and I don't want anyone to know it. I know the nature of love is acceptance, but because I am a man my programming overrides much of my willingness to show my True Self to those around me, despite their claims that it won't affect how they view me as a person, as a partner, as a father. And because I am human, I am imperfect: I make mistakes and don't want anyone to know about it.

But my humanity is no excuse, not when Society is the Judge.


  1. What it is to be a man.

  2. I have watched this repeatedly every handful of days since you posted it, but couldn't muster any words sufficient to thank you for sharing it. I still can't; these will have to do. This performance wrenches me. Slow down, Quentin...