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.
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.
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.
Being a Man
My previous article finished by asking questions about the things that impacted our development as males. Did you find them useful? In exploring our sense of masculinity, it’s helpful to assess the points of reference we had throughout our youth. This is not just to understand the things that influenced our notions of being male, but it also helps us track how far we’ve come in our understanding. Every journey has its starting point, but it also has its vantage points from where we look back and take stock of the view. So, to help you consider your journey, here’s my mine so far.
Growing up, I never felt I was a typical alpha male. Physically, I’ve always been fairly underwhelming. At 5’8” in my socks and moving from around 120 to 160 pounds during my teenage to adult years, I was never going to play a major role on the school rugby team nor stand out among my peers as someone of impressive physique. And these days, although I work out, go hillwalking and kayaking and take a keen interest my local and national rugby teams, I’m no sports fanatic. Socially, beers with the bros, watching the game on the big screen in a man-cave, this isn’t really my cup of tea.
Educationally, I was above average but not outstanding to the extent that I was able to forge a well-paid career in, say, medicine, law or academia. If the regular alpha male measures success through acquired status in terms of profession, income and accumulated wealth, then I’m still pretty low on the scale.
Emotionally, well that was a whole other ball game. I realized early in my childhood that I was far more sensitive to many circumstances than my male peers. I cried more easily in tense or fraught situations; I searched for more meaningful friendships than they appeared to want; I needed to verbalize my thoughts and feelings in order to understand them and the world around me and therefore wanted to converse more than they did; I had a more visceral response to beauty in art, music and nature. A lot of the time it felt as if I had to suppress my emotions to remain manly, and this often got me into trouble as they would build up and eventually explode. Resentment, anger and depression followed me into adulthood to such a degree that, at times, I genuinely felt I wasn’t in control of who I was.
As I grew up, I inclined more towards literature, art, philosophy, classical music and the natural world than I did to men’s magazines, pin-ups, bar talk, rock bands and computer games. But, moved as I was by the former, I was nonetheless enthralled by brute masculinity. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, my favorite stars were Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. I loved war films – and still do – and wanted to be a soldier. I envied the easy camaraderie of sports teams, platoons and fraternities. I loved tales of knights, spies, daring, heroism and chivalry. I wanted to be Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. Or James Bond.
Throughout my youth, then, I was acutely aware of this gulf between who I was and what I wanted to be. I felt literally and metaphorically small in the presence of the type of man I admired: men who were tall, strong, talented, relaxed, leaders, easy in others’ company, men that other men wanted to be and wanted to be with. To be honest, I never actually met a man with all those qualities in person, but I found myself in enough situations with individuals who embodied enough of those attributes to make me feel inadequate and bereft of virility. The end result was that I continually felt fractured, lacking in wholeness, striving for an ideal of masculinity that seemed a physical and metaphysical impossibility.
Of course, this state of mind can be – and undoubtedly was – attributed to a number of factors that simply made me feel insecure about myself: negative aspects of my upbringing, my emotive personality, troubled relationships with those close to me, a lack of affirmation, guidance and direction. The dominant influences in my childhood were strong, severe females; the males I knew were good men, but emasculated and unable to positively intervene in my life.
Although these factors created a rather gloomy upbringing, they are simply reflective of a range of issues faced by people moving through childhood to adulthood, and were by no means equal to the suffering that many children go through. But the point I want to make is that this was my formative experience of being male – one where I felt adrift, alone, at the mercy of my emotions and uncertain of how I should grow and develop.
But let me introduce two photographs of myself, taken with one of my sons, five years apart in the same spot. We are on a gondola going up the side of a hill to a place in England called The Heights of Abraham. I’d remembered we’d taken the first photograph and so took the second one for fun, but when I later compared the two I was staggered to see the difference in my appearance in the intervening years.
It wasn’t so much the outward physical changes that take place with time – the beard, the gray hair, the fuller face. No, it was the sense of unexpectedly witnessing a huge inward change from the person I remember being back then, to the person I am now. If eyes are the window to the soul, then five years previously my soul lacked depth and tranquility. I look hesitant, wary, unsure of myself, slightly agitated and unable to relax in the moment. This is in contrast to the second picture, where I see wholeness, happiness, a greater peace with myself and my circumstances.
So what happened? I’m no more wealthy than I was then; I live in the same house; I’m still a teacher; there’s nothing perceptibly different between the two time periods that has made my life better. I know, of course, that my life has reached a better place. But the pictures suddenly drove home that something had happened to make me a different person.
The answer – without meaning to be casual or clichéd about it – is life. Life happened. Life’s gritty circumstances that test us with the aim of making us better people. For me, the tougher aspects of life were having four children in five years; working in a profession that drove me into the ground; persistent depression and anxiety; a long-term injury that caused regular inflammation and prevented me from being in good physical health; one failed business project and a second project set up alongside my full-time job; financial difficulties; marital difficulties. Each situation stretched me to my limits, exposed me at my weakest, floored me and pulled me completely apart – and then somehow rebuilt me into an adult with a greater awareness of self.
Specifically, each situation forced me to see the things about myself that I didn’t like to such an extent that I was resolved to deal with them. But there were no quick fixes. Some issues had specific answers – a therapist for the anxiety, an osteopath for the injury, generous parents and a cautionary bank for the finances. Others issues, such as my anger, acedia and lack of prudence have only been tackled through learning from painful experience, plenty of self-reflection and dogged rehabilitation.
I’ve also learned that the passage of time and, with it, the natural accumulation of skills and experiences, are totally underrated answers for many circumstances that seem insurmountable when we’re younger. And so I am now, for example, better at my job (and my marriage, for that matter) than when I first started, and better able to handle its daily strains and stresses. Tasks that used to faze me no longer seem troublesome or hard work purely because they have become habitual over time; the anger I used to feel when dealing with difficult situations is no longer there as I’ve learned to either anticipate and diffuse the situation or to respond differently knowing that anger never got me anywhere.
Not only that, but time allows us to come to terms with our weaknesses and to see them as part of the fabric of who we are. Acceptance of our sins is an acceptance of our humanity, which places us firmly in the ranks of every flawed human on earth, whether they are short or tall, handsome or plain, intelligent, wealthy, charming and popular, or not – and brings with it a freedom that allows us to recognize others’ flaws and shortcomings and to live alongside our own failings without being dominated or restrained by them.
Looking back, there is one more factor that seems prominent in the changes I’ve felt in my life: I hated my inadequacies and longed to be a different or better person. That desire has often been misdirected, I admit, leading me to resent my imperfections or to helplessly covet things I couldn’t have. Don’t believe the message that you can have everything you want if you work hard enough – I’m never going to be 6’4”.
But this desire has also helped me strive to be a better version of myself, to be, as St Catherine of Sienna urged, “who I was created to be.” My quest to be authentically male has become far less a narrative about appearance, achievement, wealth and popularity and more about how I honestly express who I am as a person, through the filter of my masculinity. It makes me ask questions such as, what is it about being male (in contrast to being female) that influences how my humanity is conveyed to others? How do I best use this unique version of short, emotive masculinity that I’ve been endowed with for the good of others? Am I using, for example, my acute emotional intelligence to guide my children, particularly the boys, through their own emotional difficulties as they grow up? Within this more reflective framework, the development of key masculine traits takes on a different meaning. So, am I driven to work hard in order to help provide for my family, rather than to prove my material worth? Am fit enough in order to support the physical needs of my growing children rather than to flaunt my physicality? Am I skilled enough to fix and repair in order to be financially prudent and to create a beautiful home and garden, rather than to show off my prowess? Am I resilient enough to give my family a good example of grit and determination, rather than to prove a macho toughness? Indeed, this is not so much a quest for authentic masculinity as a quest to be authentically me, a human created in male form.
Looking at the two photos, I also realized the extent to which we have the capacity to change and to be changed. Men are often stigmatized with the accusation that they can’t, won’t or don’t want to change, and in many sad circumstances this is undoubtedly the case. But it’s not the truth. Life has the ability to change us; our decisions and reactions to what life throws at us can trigger many unexpected changes. The journey towards authentic masculinity involves change and, in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, to be perfect is to have changed often.
Take some time to think about the following questions. Find a pen and notepad and jot down your answers. These questions consider the steps you have taken to develop your understanding of masculinity. They also link to our next article in the series.
- Do you consciously think about what it means to be a man? If so, have you come to any conclusions?
- Do you think there are ways to improve the expression of masculinity in this day and age?
- Do you read helpful literature that supports your understanding of being a man? If so, what has been particularly useful? If you don’t, would you know where to look for it and what to look for?
- Do you discuss masculinity with other men, or share experiences of growing up as men?
- In what ways do you think that being a Catholic helps you – or could help you – to be more conscious of your masculinity or provide opportunities for you to express it?