Man up. Be a real man. Act like a real man. These messages have seemed to bubble up from various corners of our society in the past few years. One of the biggest problems with these tag lines is that they lack foundational language and understanding upon which discussions can grow.
Former Baltimore Colts defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann says the three most dangerous words a young boy can hear are “Be a man!” These words are uttered to young boys in extremely emotional and stressful moments. They’re said when a young boy is crying. The message is clear. Don’t cry. Don’t have emotions. Don’t act that way. Ehrmann points to the development of alexithymia in men as they become unable to even identify their emotions, limiting their empathy and ability to relate to others.
The images of “manning up” held up in our culture show physical athletic prowess, prowess in the bedroom, and prowess in the boardroom as the ideal masculine model. Domination and control are sold as keys to success and, ultimately, becoming a real man. Emotions, empathy and authenticity are to be cast aside.
I know deeply the temptations of this dominant male model. I was raised on a steady stream of old John Ford western movies, where John Wayne reigned supreme. I bought into this image, striving to dominate in these areas – only to be left frustrated when I didn’t achieve the ideal. In my own walk, the frustration and confusion of failing to meet this masculine standard lead to deep questions and an ongoing search for more. My limited idea of what it means to man up didn’t lend itself to very healthy or authentic relationships with others, and can be incredibly destructive.
I’ve come to realize that I’m not alone in my questioning of the traditional models of masculinity, especially in faith. One of the many critiques that could be laid against the Christian church is that they feed into the male myths. In post-Civil War America, muscular Christianity arose, marrying the standards of the “ideal male” with faith. Today, many denominations and congregations blend traditional definitions of masculinity into their practices. Grace, forgiveness and love are often seen as feminine qualities.
Church leaders lure men to the pews by focusing on messages of dominance, physical strength and power. Leading with masculine images of Jesus (overturning the tables in the Temple for example) and preaching on the warrior image of God have become hallmarks, often at the cost of discussing authenticity, relationship and serving the unloved and marginalized – core teachings of Jesus.
In my own search for authentic spiritual masculinity, I’ve been exposed to Franciscan friar Richard Rohr’s works, which look at emotional pain and longing for relationship, particularly in men. We see the mythological perfection of masculinity and spend a lifetime trying to reach that perfection, only to fall short, descending into frustration, depression and pain. Rohr offers pathways to wholeness and authenticity, but it takes moving through the pain and understanding the damaging messages of the past.
Ultimately, it seems that understanding brokenness and our masculine weakness leads to wholeness. Gender, history, culture – all a part of our brokenness and a part of our authentic selves. While on my search, I want a quick understanding and the white-hatted hero to win out, just as John Wayne always did. However, that isn’t what my journey has been. Mine has been a winding path where on occasion I’ve needed to man up – especially as my understanding of what it means to “be a man” deepens.
Chadron Hazelbaker is an associate professor of physical education, health and recreation at Eastern Washington University.
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