What is a man?
I have written, edited, and rewritten this post more times than any other, probably representing my confusion on this matter.
I hate discussing masculinity because the concept itself is completely polarized in Western society: there seems to be very little honest middle-ground to discuss what it means to be male without resorting to either the extremes of embracing or rejecting all things misogynistic.
But I want to try to think it through on that middle-ground because the answer to that question affects us all, male and female alike.
Because I think fathers (or the lack thereof) are massively important in a child’s emotional development.
And I think as a society (maybe even as humanity in general) we have been poorly fathered for a long time.
That’s not to say there haven’t been great fathers among us in recent memory, but over the last 200 years or so, at least, there has been an overall drop in the quality of fathering.
Learning to parent (at its best) is in large part a kind of apprenticing: we learn as we have been parented; as we have been taught through observation and experience.
I think we’ve lost good fathers on a scale unknown in human history.
What is the legacy of the West – and America in particular – over the last 200 years?
The Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, in part, which have drastically increased the efficiency and potential of man’s proclivity to kill one another in war.
War is certainly nothing new. But the shear scale of war has dramatically changed.
So let’s take a few factors into consideration.
First, regarding America, look at the nature of the majority of immigrants who comprised the nation’s population from the outset: as Lady Liberty states – the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden. The extremists. The persecuted. As I wrote about in two of my first blog posts: the angry, disenfranchised and isolationist.
Not exactly the kind of people one would go looking to for emotional stability.
Second, for the West as a whole, we’ve spent the better part of two or three centuries systematically trying to destroy each other. How many generations of fathers have been incredibly damaged, if not outright destroyed, by the wars between France and Britain; the Napoleonic Wars; the revolutions; The Franco-Prussian War; the American Civil War; the Crimean War; World War I; World War II; the Holocaust; the Korean War; Vietnam; Desert Storm; Iraqi Freedom; Enduring Freedom?
Millions upon millions upon millions of sons and fathers (and daughters and mothers as “collateral damage”) dead; entire societies destroyed or massively changed; the collective psyche of the entire world stunted at the horrors and implications of massive wars.
Is it possible we actually sell short the impact these wars have had on humanity as a whole? On individual people who have survived? For our purposes, on the lucky men who came through the other side and their ability to healthily function as fathers and people?
This has been our social context, and despite an overall more “civilized” world culturally speaking, humanity has never known this kind of wide-scale death, destruction, and pervasive violence.
Don’t get me wrong: human existence has always had its share of violence, just as nature itself is violent, but the exponentially increasing scale and scope of violent capabilities within the last 200 years are unprecedented.
From these ashes, how many generations of sons and daughters have gone without knowing what a father is supposed to be? The fact that I’m not entirely sure (nor is society) how to answer the question, “what is a man?” should be damning enough.
I wrote a long description of my own family history here before deciding to delete it. Even though I wanted to share some of the progress I’ve made in understanding where the men in my family have come from and why they’ve been the kind of people they have been, I thought it came across as if I was casting blame.
And it isn’t very conducive to honoring our fathers, mothers and family – even when they may or may not be deserving of much honor at all – by airing dirty laundry for no reason other than context.
I think we all have a lot of forgiving to do. I know I do.
It’s a really, really hard truth to grasp that – despite the fact our family often screws up and mistreats us incredibly, even sometimes criminally – ultimately, the only people responsible for determining who you and I are going to be are God and me (or you).
That doesn’t excuse the behaviors of others. That doesn’t make it alright. That doesn’t make it easy to overcome what others have done to us. It doesn’t make the time to heal from hurts any shorter.
But, eventually, as adults, we are the only ones who can decide what we are going to do with our baggage. Are we going to keep dragging it around with us so that the demons we’ve inherited get passed on again to those we love? Or are we going to not be selfish, admit we’re broken, and get help for the sake of our loved ones?
I think that’s part of what being a man is: taking responsibility. Not just for ourselves, but for those in our circle of immediate influence. And not responsibility as in “authority,” but as in owning the influence and power each of us has.
Allegorical or not, the first sin man made as Adam was related to shirking responsibility. Adam disobeyed God’s command; more than that, he didn’t defend his wife but instead blamed her – God asks him what he did, and he replies with, “Well, the woman you gave me said this was good to eat…”
A man owns his actions. He also knows when specific actions are called for. He knows when it is time to stand and fight or defend; and when it is time to stand down. He knows that fighting is seldom with physical violence and instead with resolve and determination.
A man provides security, which instills confidence and ultimately identity. Security is far more than physical protection, though that is part. It is (perhaps more importantly) emotional. It is affirmation that a child is safe; that a child can face life’s challenges; that a child has the strength to persevere.
I am writing this post for reasons more important than the coming of Father’s Day on a calendar. I write because many of my emotional and spiritual struggles come from “daddy issues.”
The central issue of my Christian life right now is an inability to receive the love of God the Father. My heart just doesn’t know how. I can’t “make” it. I know the right answers in my head, but my heart is just a stone in this regard.
I know the truths of God the Father’s love for humanity as depicted in scripture – the touching tale of the love of the father in the story of the prodigal son stands out for me.
But it doesn’t penetrate my heart.
Because I don’t really believe it; because I’ve never really experienced anything like it.
I needed a father to affirm me and tell me I was strong, loved, capable, powerful, and would be victorious when the demons of depression and panic ravaged me as a small boy. My own dad had been tormented by the same demons. God the Father did not respond in a way I could understand (if at all).
I don’t agree with a lot of things author John Eldredge writes, but I think he gets a lot right. In his book “Fathered by God,” he points out several useful truths.
He says every man has a core question regarding his existence, and in essence that question is “Do I have what it takes?” Eldredge states, though, that “Before and beneath that Question and a man’s search for validation lies a deeper need – to know that he is prized, delighted in, that he is the beloved son. Our need for a father’s love.”
Yet Eldredge then accurately points out the truth at the heart of many of our experiences: “You are the son of a kind, strong, and engaged Father…[but] this is perhaps the hardest thing for us to believe – really believe, down deep in our hearts, so that it changes us forever, changes the way we approach each day…I believe this is the core issue of our shared dilemma as men. We just don’t believe it. Our core assumptions about the world boil down to this: we are on our own to make life work. We are not watched over. We are not cared for…When we are hit with a problem, we have to figure it out ourselves, or just take the hit. If anything good is going to come our way, we’re the ones who are going to have to arrange for it. Many of us have called upon God as Father, but, frankly, he doesn’t seem to have heard. We’re not sure why…Whatever the reason, our experience of this world has framed our approach to life. We believe we are fatherless.”
Yeah. That’s me. Spot on.
“A boy…yearns to know he is adored. Uniquely. That he holds a special place in his father’s heart, a place no one and nothing else can rival. Without this certainty down in the core of his being, the boy will misinterpret the stages and lessons that are to come, for as a young man he will soon be tested…and those tests and challenges often feel to men like a form of rejection or coldheartedness on the part of God, because he does not first know in his heart of hearts that he is the beloved son…Without this bedrock of affirmation, this core of assurance, a man will move unsteadily through the rest of his life, trying to prove his worth and earn belovedness through performance or achievement, through sex, or in a thousand other ways. Quite often he doesn’t know this is his search. He simply finds himself uncertain in some core place inside, ruled by fears and the opinions of others, yearning for someone to notice him. He longs for comfort, and it makes him uneasy because at thirty-seven or fifty-one shouldn’t he be beyond that now? A young place in his heart is yearning for something never received.”
This is what I hope to impart to my daughter. I don’t know how to receive it for myself. I pray and am being prayed for that God breaks through to me, but it will take an act of divine intervention to melt through the defenses I have – defenses I don’t even know how to let down.
So let’s pray for our fathers; for men. This is not an easy period of history for us.
That isn’t to take away from the struggles women have faced and continue to face at the hands of male domination, intentionally and unintentionally.
I’m not trying to participate in the game of one-upmanship a lot of men and women are playing, trying to argue who has it “worse.” It isn’t about that. It’s about being real with each of our struggles and giving proper consideration to the real struggles we do each have.
We are all human and we all need help; we all need love and support. We all need good moms and good dads.
In my own case, and the case with many men and women right now, it just seems to stand out more in general that we have more blatant fathering pains.
Again I ask: let’s pray for men and fathers.