We hear it all the time, “Be a man”, “Man up” etc. Men, young and old alike, who hear this get the notion that they are deficient in certain aspects that constitute manliness. How many of us though, were ever taught what it means to be a man? How many had a figure, a mentor in our lives that was there to guide us through the rights of passage to become a man? Conversely how many of us are holding to what society tells us it means? And yet in our society we find that when one thinks of masculinity it is, often times, a derogatory.
Enter the image of an overbearing Type A Alpha male sitting in his boxers, beer in hand with barefoot pregnant wife at his beckoned call. These dualities and lack of guidance leave us, as men and young men grasping for a truer identity.
So, let’s look at those attributes that make up manliness?
The dictionary definition: having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength or bravery.*
Society, from TV shows to our community, says that we should never show weakness; be emotionally steady at all times; be aggressive; be a rock no matter what’s going on and most of all suck it up and deal with it.
For example, consider the term unmanned, not in the unmanned space flight context but in the context of the current conversation. This was a termed likely coined in the early 19th century. -to show vulnerability to the point of shame, to lose self control, or to become subservient to others.
Further this was also used to note a time when a man would become “soft”, meaning that it was deemed inappropriate to see a man show emotion, even if it is appropriate given the situation.
In one poignant example of this we see the recorded thoughts of a civil war officer recounting his learning of Abraham Lincoln’s cruel death:
”Upon learning of Mr. Lincoln’s cruel death I was completely unmanned. I went immediately to Washington and saw him as he lay in his grave-clothes; the same benevolent face was there, but the kindly smile had departed from his lips, and the soft, gentle eyes were closed for ever.” **
Note the beauty of the expression of grief. And yet the overtone which precedes it is shame for acting in an unmanly manner-the giving of one’s self to grief to the point of tears.
It is as if, as men, we do not have the permission to share these emotions through some unwritten rule which we, as men, and as a society believe to be true.
One common, and rather destructive, expression which to be fair I use often, is “Man up”. Ben Zimmer wrote an interesting piece on the origins of the phrase in the New York Times. Originally the term was simply used to reference supplying manpower. Later the term was used in football and military contexts, meaning one should harden up, get into the warzone, grow a pair of balls. The obvious failure to do so resulting in an outcome of feminine quality or being neutered, read “freakin pussy”.
And so, in our culture, and speaking from personal experience, we naturally respond to this call to action. How? By getting harder, being cold-hearted, more competitive, and becoming more callous about the unanswered wounds of those closest to us. We make “get over it” more important than working the situation through to resolution. At the end of the day, we value reaction versus thoughtful, strong action.
Ok, now that we have all that out of the way, I’d like to consider the values or principles that should, but may not, be considered in developing a “real” man. The things that we keep in the shadows, far from the eyes of those closest to us, for fear of being “unmanned”.
Those principles of being vulnerable, empathetic, transparent, and intimate. We may say that these are feminine qualities but I pose that finding a balance and embracing these qualities will result in being a holistic strong man.
Note that here, I do not speak from authority. I have not reached a level of comfort or self-awareness to embrace these qualities on my own. I am simply at a state of early awareness. I am not comfortable with these qualities as of yet, finding myself drawn more readily to the hard and fast qualities of my previously mentioned manly definition.
I do feel that once we learn to embrace this side of ourselves, once we respect the duality of our masculine presence, which takes balls, we will have the capacity to express emotion competently and take powerfully focused action, which will empower men to serve to the benefit of our families and our communities.
Perhaps, with this new-found self, the term mankind will be an acceptable one. For the purposes, here, true masculine power then is entrenched in this merger of the soft and hard characteristics.
This will show itself as a forceful and proper alignment of rationality/analysis, compassion, and grit. And in the end, when this alignment is achieved, and exacted in each of us we will act out of true masculine energy.
Considering it from this vantage point, there is an amazing beauty when we as men are fully authentic.
An exquisite beauty in its dyad.
Rough and affectionate, gentle and ferocious, living from the gut and yet simply understated. Here we will live fully secure. Anchored in the confidence of one’s true self.
** Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War (Abridged, Annotated) By Admiral David Dixon Porter