Men, Manhood & Masculinity

Over the next five articles, we will embark on a brief exploration of the complex and often overlooked topic of being male. The articles will be reflective and open to discussion, so please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below. Be mindful of one another’s struggles – or their difficulties in speaking about them – and do all you can to encourage each other and to lift each other’s spirits.


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Article 1: “Be a man!” To begin with we will look at some of the confusion around what it means to be a man today. Do we cling to narrow, old-fashioned images of masculinity? Have we become too soft? Are we lost in the clamor of society’s gender debate, unsure how to respond? Who or what currently influences our idea of masculinity?

Article 2: Being a man. In this article we consider the things that have shaped our own experiences, struggles and beliefs around growing into a man. We reflect on whether we can change what has influenced us in the past.

Article 3: Becoming more manly. Here we will reflect on ways of understanding and reaching authentic manhood.


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Article 4: Beholden to other men. It’s important to learn from the experiences of others. Here we will discover some good resources, writers and role models that will help to develop our understanding of masculinity.

Article 5: “Behold the man!” Finally, we will contemplate the person of Jesus Christ as the embodiment of authentic manhood and masculinity.

Becoming More Manly

Fatherhood

The route to true manhood – and its ultimate purpose – is fatherhood; fatherhood forms the man, and manliness is required to fulfill paternal duties. All boys inherently desire to become men and all boys are innately capable of becoming fathers. So, as the spirit cannot be separated from the body, and thus both (spirit and body) form the person, neither should the desire for manliness be separated from the capacity to sire children, and thus the father is formed.

You may be reading this feeling utterly unprepared for fatherhood but, lay or religious, married or single, with or without biological offspring, a man’s ultimate vocation is to reflect and bestow upon others God’s generative and generous Fatherhood. That is what we were created for; that’s why we were created as men. If you are searching for affirmation of your masculinity, direct your energies towards learning what it means to be a father. And then aim to be the best, in whichever form your vocation calls you, and with wholehearted engagement and commitment to the children entrusted to you. (Take a look at this excellent article about how acts of fathering and mentoring mature a man).

Does this surprise you? Were you expecting something different? Isn’t being manly about doing manly things or cultivating a manly appearance? No, listen to committed fathers explaining how the arrival of their first child was the point at which they really began to grow up and really began to discover who they were meant to be!

In his short film, Canvas of my Life, Jason Momoa, who most of us know as Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones, describes it like this: Ever since I was a little boy, I always wanted to be a father[Now,] I’m a father. I found my place, my home. Manly attributes take on a whole new purpose when providing for a child, and they are honed and developed over time to meet the growing needs of a family. For what we are called to as fathers is nothing less than the manifestation of the highest standards of virtue – a word whose ancient meanings include vertu: moral excellence, strength and vigor; virtutem: high character, goodness, valor and worth; all stemming from the simple Latin word, vir, meaning ‘man’. There is much to learn  from the eight and a half minutes of Momoa’s film (and I explore it more deeply here)!

Forgiving the failures of our own fathers

Undeniably, there are many men who flee from this opportunity to grow up, with devastating effect on their families and society. And, to some degree, most of us never wholly experience the best examples of fatherhood. Nonetheless, it is imperative for our growth towards manhood that we make peace with our own father. Forgiveness must be at the heart of our relationship with our fathers. For our sake and theirs, we must acknowledge their frailties and the circumstances that molded them, as much as we acknowledge their strengths.

This process is what psychoanalysts refer to as ‘mourning the ideal father and forgiving the real father’, letting go of both the person we wanted our father to be and of our resentment of his shortcomings. If we accomplish this, we free ourselves from the damaging, emotional impact of poor fathering – those chains that keep us tied to a quivering boyhood, constantly searching for paternal affirmation – and we are able to enter the realms of mature manhood. Psychoanalyst Stephen Shapiro, writes: We have noted that accepting the suffering that comes with ending the illusion of perfect [fatherly] care is what enables a man to emerge into the gap left by the absent father and to fill it up with his own presence.

So how do we go about mourning the ideal and forgiving the real father?

If your father is still with you, persist in your endeavors to talk with him, to build a relationship with him and to understand him. Talk especially about his own experiences of fathering and of being fathered, and of his own particular path to manhood. My father was the product of a substance-abusing alcoholic, who would leave him sitting aimlessly outside the pub for hours on end while he drank inside. He died while my father was a young man, yet my father still speaks warmly, though regretfully, of the few good times they shared together. This fragile framework of my father’s upbringing is part of the legacy of masculinity that I have inherited; the tie of empathy I have to my father because of his experience brings me closer to him. It helps me to understand his own shortcomings and makes me determined to become a better man myself. Whoever honors his father atones for sins and preserves himself from them… Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children and, when he prays, he is heard.

If your father is no longer with you, you have a more difficult task, especially if he was absent throughout your life or there was little peace between you. Still, there is much you can do to explore his story: speak with those who knew him; go through his old possessions; research his family tree. Find out what made him who he was. Converse with him in your mind about your time together; write him a letter about the things you miss through his absence – as well as the things you don’t; tell him how his influence has shaped your sense of masculinity.

The narrative of human fatherhood goes back to the beginning of creation, passed on from father to son. Even without good fathers of our own, we can draw strength by tapping into the spirit of manhood of countless generations of fathers before us. We also need to do our part for the generations to come. We must stand up as strong, virtuous fathers, as the next in line, and we must do this in expiation of our own inadequacies and those of our fathers, to ensure they are not passed on to our sons.

Brotherhood

We aren’t expected to reach manhood entirely on our own. Traditional societies understood this, and the transition to manhood was structured around communal rites of passage, drawing boys away from the women and into the intergenerational assembly of grown men. Here, each learned to play his part in upholding the safety, cohesion and prosperity of the community.

But today’s individualist in his various forms – the hero, the lone wolf, the tyrant, the libertine – thrives to the extent that he distinguishes and separates himself from his fellow men, through power and prowess. That is his understanding of manliness, formed by the misguided belief that the main purpose of his masculinity is simply to attract a sexual partner before the next man gets her (hence flippant references to his manhood). But even if we don’t see ourselves in any of these extremes, we are still dragged into the game of measuring up against every man we meet, seeing him as a threat to our sense of self: is he more attractive to women? Does he dress more expensively? Is his car or house bigger? Does he have a better job? The tendency in these situations is to respond either aggressively or defensively, turning to displays of macho posturing to bolster our egos or limping away with a sense of lost virility. There is no longer any belief in the profound archetypal, fraternal relationship that connects all men.

As Catholic men in particular, we are called to unity under the leadership of Christ and in the common cause of the Faith. We should treat every man we meet as a brother, one who has the same calling to true manhood as ourselves, and behind whose face is the face of Christ. Therefore, actively seek out brothers in the Faith, men with whom you can join together not just in superficial manly pursuits, but in sincere conversation and in the common cause of a great and noble nature. As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. And, writes author and psychologist, G. C. Dilsaver, in such company you will discover inspiring examples of men of virtue and the dynamic of positive Catholic peer pressure… as [you] strive to develop the strengths of Catholic manhood.

Self-discipline

Historically and throughout the world, traditional rituals of transformation from boyhood to manhood are often excruciating ordeals, where boys must demonstrate feats of discipline and endurance before having the mark of manhood conferred upon them. In effect, the boy within them is being violently put to death so that the man can arise and take up his responsibilities to the community.

In this day and age, with no elders to forcefully pluck us away from the apron-ties, we are obliged to do that particular violence unto ourselves, through unyielding acts of self-discipline. In all acts of self-discipline, we experience and endorse manhood over boyhood; we cast out our reactive, juvenile ways of behavior to make room for an active mastery of the will. This facility to do things by decision rather than default, to be responsible for making our own choices rather than to be influenced by the will of others, leads to the mastery of all our other faculties, mental, emotional and physical, giving us the capacity to amply fulfill our paternal duties.

G. C. Dilsaver again:

The ability to heed the call of duty, to do what one knows is right regardless of, indeed often in contradiction to, what once feels, is a trait required of all men as they fulfill the office of [fatherhood]. It is self-discipline that empowers a man to so heed the call of duty. Self-discipline entails the subjugation of one’s own inclinations, desires and feelings unto one’s will. Thus, self-discipline develops a will that is both master over the mental, emotional and physical faculties and a servant unto one’s duty, ideals and faith.

Or, if you like, St Paul:

When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child;

When I became a man, I did away with childish things (I Corinthians 13:11).

In all lapses of self-discipline, we don’t just fall short of an ideal; we essentially hand over control of ourselves to someone, or something, else. In doing so, we reduce ourselves to something less than a free, complete and authentic men: we become slaves to that which controls us.

We see this most often in the arena of male physical desire, in the ways that men relinquish their sexual self-possession to the captivating charms of the opposite sex. How often during a night out on the town have you observed a man drop everything – his schedule for the evening, his planned destination, his obligations to his friends – at the mere, but suggestive, flash of cleavage or sway of the hips in his direction? He may happily see himself as the essence of virility as he leads her away to the bedroom but he has, in reality, surrendered ownership of his very nature to someone else. He has enslaved himself to the illusion that a woman’s enticement is enough to make him a man!

Such capitulation is the mark of a person trapped in the prison of feeble boyhood. But the same also goes for the times we persistently surrender our intellectual selves to hours on social media; our emotional selves to the anxieties of work or to rage against events we can’t control; our bodies to the sofa and the games console; our potency and fertility to pornography. So, heed the advice of British explorer and swordsman, Sir Richard Francis Burton: Conquer thyself, till thou hast done this, thou art but a slave!

However, as any honorable martial arts or boxing movie demonstrates, there is always resurrection from inertia and despair after diligence, hard work, persistence and pain – and the support of a wise mentor and inspiring team. So, on this note let me introduce you to the discipline of Exodus 90, if you have not come across it before:

Exodus 90 is based on a challenging 90-day period of purification, a dying to self, which is supported by a fraternity of like-minded men for greater interior freedom and, eventually, a more purified and selfless love.

Exodus 90 is for the man who has difficulty finding God and desires to radically unite himself to his Heavenly Father. Exodus is not a program of penance and self-abasement, nor is it only for men who struggle with chastity. It is a program for men who seek, together, to strive for more-perfect freedom. This is the cornerstone of the spiritual exercise and much will be lost if that is forgotten.

If that looks a little daunting, then discover what Fr. Branson Hipp has to say about the importance of creating a rule of life and then consider the commitment you must make to a life of self-discipline.

An authentic interior life

Who are you in your daydreams? What do you do when you sit alone? Do you conjure up grandiose visions or versions of yourself in your mind, while your private actions remain mediocre, or worse? Or is your mind simply empty, as you lose yourself in the glowing void of consoles, streaming movies, and televised sport?

Time to oneself is important, but moments of quietude are there for us to gather strength, assess our actions and consider our next steps, not for numbing our hearts, minds and bodies. Use these moments to scaffold your growth to mature manhood:

  • Take yourself out into the natural world. Rest your mind on its serene outlines and pit your body against its rough inclines; let its immutable stillness and beauty inspire deep reflection.
  • Pick up some tools and acquaint yourself with a craft or hobby, keeping your attention and your hands busy while, in the background of your mind, you contemplate the tasks of your paternal vocation.
  • Read informatively about authentic masculinity, a few pages a day, making notes of the things that strike you as you read. My next article will recommend some good books, but there are plenty of links in this article to get you started.
  • Discipline yourself to write a journal, where you plan, develop and track the evolution of your inner self. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself, states author Susan Sontag. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood.
  • Above all, spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament, opening your heart to Christ the King, drawing on his strength and seeking his guidance.

Fill all these moments with prayer, that ongoing conversation with your true Father and the Author of everything good. For, says Scott Hahn, if we do not fill our mind with prayer, it will fill itself with anxieties, worries, temptations, resentments, and unwelcome memories.

In time, you will discover the convergence of your inner and your outer self. You will feel less drawn to exhaustive displays of shallow, unfulfilling and attention-seeking machismo. You will become more in control of your passions, more composed and at peace with yourself.

Know thyself

A final thought, which you can take or leave as you will. Over the years, I have found the Myers-Briggs personality test, and others like it, to be an incredible platform for understanding why I do what I do and feel the way I feel. I’ve found the analyses of the test results extremely helpful in identifying my strengths and weaknesses and for considering how best to use my gifts. They’ve also been an invaluable tool for conversations with my wife, my parents and my siblings on how we effectively interact with one another and support one another. In terms of my journey towards authentic manhood, they’ve helped me to deeply contemplate and develop my sense of self; in other words, a great resource for those moments of stillness and reflection.

However, some people understandably set the tests on a level with star signs and tarot cards, and ask how you can possibly determine someone’s personality from a basic set of questions. Indeed, how can you even categorize the billions of people there are on the earth into just sixteen different personality types? In my view, the personality types are there as a simple framework, expressed on a sliding scale in as many different ways as there are people. My mother, one of my sisters and, intriguingly, my wife all share the same personality type and many of the traits that go with it. Yet they are obviously individual people.

All I can say is, that everyone I know who has taken the test is astonished at how plainly they recognize themselves in the results. Try it, and let me know how you get on: https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test