Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Beware of the dog: The mystery of manhood

This may be the information age, but nevertheless it seems men today are haunted by more really hard questions than at any other time. Questions like: What kind of world am I leaving for my children? How much did I drink last night? Is “sweet” an insult or a compliment? Am I making enough money? At what age should I start having my prostate checked? Should I throw this out or eat it? Am I turning into my father? Why do women love assholes? Celine Dion, really? Why does she always want to know what I am thinking about? Where is the remote? Could I survive in prison, you know, theoretically? Is technology making me redundant? Does my life have any meaning? Would I rather be stuck on a deserted island with Bear Grylls or Jessica Alba? Am I fooling anyone? Why do all women think they’re fat? Can this thing go any faster? What would happen to my family if I died today? Does chicken count as a vegetable?

Certainly all of these are valid questions and certainly they are but a sampling of the issues that face men today, but there is one question that haunts the men of the 21st century like no other: Where are all the real men?

It’s a question asked with alarming frequency and for such a simple sounding question it’s a remarkably hard one to answer. Maybe because it’s really a two part question: 1) What is a real man? and 2) where are they? See, once you answer part 1, part 2 should be really easy. Except it seems everyone has a really hard time with part 1…

It’s really the kind of question that is part of the background noise of every man’s heart, but every now and again, it jumps out from the shadows and assaults you. For me this happened a while ago when a friend (freshly returned from a girl’s weekend out where this was a topic of discussion) sprung it on me. OK, maybe “sprung it on me” sounds a little harsh, but “how would you define a real man?” really is one of those questions that always feel more sprung than asked. It was in that moment that I came to the shocking realization that I honestly didn’t have an answer ready. I mean we all use the term “real man” all the time, but what does that actually mean? Is there even just one definition or will the answers differ by culture and age group? So I decided to start asking around and sprung the dread question on my own unsuspecting friends. Well suffice it to say that the answers I got were varied and interesting, but clearly they were guessing as much as I was. Actually I noticed something rather interesting – all answers (well from those who took the question seriously anyway) appeared to fall in one of three categories. The interesting part is that when discussing the meaning of mankind being created in the Image of God, theologians use the exact same categories – Substantive, Relational and Functional.

Firstly (and most popular) is the substantive view – the idea that a real man is defined by something that is a part of him, some ability or characteristic that makes a man a real man. Typically these would be things like backbone, strength, passion, courage, a cool head under pressure, integrity, honour, driving skills, an awesome mullet, being responsible, things like that. In his book To Own a Dragon, (which I strongly recommend by the way) Don Miller gives his very simple definition of a real man – a person with a penis. Now me, I have always preferred the simple answers but I’m going to ask for a little more than Don’s definition here. Its not that I think he is utterly wrong, in fact I agree that he has identified a rather important component there, it’s just that if that were the only qualification we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

Secondly there is the relational view – the idea that a real man is defined by his relationships. In this view a man is a real man when he is a good father, a good husband, respected in his work, church and community. Here the idea is that it is not so much something about yourself that makes you a real man but rather that it is the way you relate to others that define you. The (Christian) guys who hold this view will often point to Jesus as a perfect example in that His greatness lay in His willingness to lay down His life for others.

Lastly there is the functional view – that a man is defined by something he does. People who hold this view would say that a real man is a leader, someone who is in charge, who can subdue the earth, wrestle bears, tame the wilderness etc. I actually got this response rather often, that a real man is someone who can walk into any situation and take charge of it and make everything that is wrong right again.

Now these three categories (and their myriad combinations) are good and well, but they didn’t really give me the answer to the question – they just gave me more options. They may be completely right, but I didn’t feel like they were. So then, after much meditating, here is the answer I came up with. Whether it is the right answer I cannot say, all I can say with any certainty is that this is my answer to the question.

I think that a “real” man is a man who is greater than his biology. Let me explain. I think the reason you never seem to hear anyone debate what a “real woman” is supposed to be is due to the fact that (and please, I’m not trying to stereotype or generalize too much here but bear with me) to a large extent, women are helped by their biology to be women. With men it’s kind of the opposite. Our biology doesn’t make us more noble, it makes us less. On a purely biological, instinctual level, a man actually resembles a dog more than anything else.

Think about it. (Remember, I’m talking about the male of the species in terms of his most basic, primal self here.) Men are aggressive, violent and yet will run away when they feel the situation becoming too threatening. Men will hump anything – (again, on the most primal level) sexually there is no such thing as “off limits”. Men love to do nothing, eat more than they need to and prefer to do what feels good in the moment without a thought for the future. Responsibility and fidelity are foreign concepts, the only thing that comes naturally is irresponsibility – as evidenced by the ease with which some men can leave their families behind for a pretty new young thing. Also, when in groups, men submit to the will of the pack – and this tends to bring out the worst in them. Not to mention the fact that men love to chase cars and eat disgusting things…

Men are also bettered by the same things as dogs. For one thing, there is discipline – a system of order with rewards for good behavior and punishment for bad behavior gets dogs to behave and it certainly seems to work for men in the form of society. If you want proof, just look at men in places outside of normal society – jails and gangs for instance – and you will notice that their behavior is far closer to that of the dog. Of course, society and its discipline isn’t really what it used to be and therefore there seems to be a return to the dog side for men. There is of course another good influence – a caring relationship. There is a big difference in behavior between a beloved pet dog and a feral stray dog and for the same reason there seems to be a marked difference in behavior between single, unattached men and those in loving family relationships. Being in the care of a superior species seems to make all the difference in the world as statistically instances of drug abuse, violence, criminal activity and other dog-like behavior is far higher among single men than among married men. Of course this isn’t always the case either as the influence is not always good. In the same way that some owners bring out the worst in their dogs, some women bring out the worst in men.

Thing is though, men are not dogs. We are not simple slaves to our biology and environment the way dogs are. We don’t get to just shrug and say “Oh well, the penis is mightier than the brain, what can we do?” because there is something greater, something higher in us and we can choose that over our baser instincts. For all our faults, we are capable of so much greatness – incredible acts of self-sacrifice, bravery, love, compassion, goodness and honor. It’s not just that we can be more than dogs, it’s that we can be SO MUCH more than dogs. Seems the real problem is that a man is torn between two opposing natures – a dog-like nature on the one side and a God-like nature on the other. So then, my definition of a real man is a man who consistently chooses his God-like nature over his dog-like nature. Someone who again and again will choose courage over cowardice, restraint over indulgence, calm over aggression, kindness over cruelty. A man who will stand and fight when every fiber in him wants to get out, who will sacrifice when everything in him wants to be selfish, who is not mindlessly aggressive and yet doesn’t go to the other extreme and becomes passive. As I said, a man who is greater than his biology.

In this definition, all three views seem to come together. It is substantive on the one hand because we are talking about something in a man, something that is a part of him - mainly self control and good character - and it should be part of a man in order to be real. If it has to be constantly forced and reinforced externally, what value does it have after all? If a man only acts well because he has a woman in his life or because he fears punishment, can we really think of him as a real man? After all, remove the control and we are back to dog-like behavior. Therefore it needs to be substantive. However this doesn’t just naturally become part of a man, it has to be taught and instilled, so it is relational too. A man is not born with a natural inclination to choose God-like behavior, he has to be shown how. Family, community and above all good male role models and father figures are essential if you want a man to become a real man. To a large extent, this explains the current problem – the world is suffering from an epidemic of fatherlessness and most of the male role models tend to model dog-like behavior more than anything else. Truly, this just shows how powerful and important the relational aspect really is! At the same time, it needs to be functional as well. Being a real man is something a man needs to do, needs to choose, needs to consistently choose to be, every waking hour of his life. One can’t be abusive half the time and kind the other and expect to be thought of as a real man.

Now these are just my opinions and it is based on nothing more than my own thoughts and observations. Feel free to disagree, but please give me your opinion then because this is something worth discussing. The question regarding what a real man is is a question worth spending some time on, especially for a Christian, the question of what a real man is way bigger than a discussion about gender. There is a great mystery here which we are bound to miss if we ignore it. Think about it, God – who has to be so far beyond our concepts of male and female – chose to represent Himself as male, as a Father. Therefore, if we don’t understand what that really means, we miss out on something vital that God is communicating to us. What this tells me about God is that just like a real man, God is someone who has a lot of power and chooses to use it for creation instead of destruction, someone who doesn’t have to love but yet chooses to love, who isn’t biologically bound to care but wants to and chooses to care anyway. I think this reveals a lot about God to us.

But whether you believe that this has anything to do with God or not, the question of what a real man is still matters greatly. It is pretty obvious that there is something very wrong with the men of the world and the entire world is suffering for it. We have an entire generation of young men who don’t see a problem with slipping rohypnol into a girls drink. The immense number of family violence, rapes, child molestation and assaults aren’t being perpetrated by aliens and it doesn’t just happen among “other people”. No matter who you are, no matter where you come from men who look just like you with a background like yours are perpetrating these horrors. Now I’m not na├»ve enough to think that simply having discussions about manhood will magically fix all this, but we have to start somewhere. Something about manhood has been lost and it needs to be reclaimed or the situation will only get worse. Maybe talking about it is a start. In any case it beats doing nothing and complaining.


TPluckyT said...

My thoughts . . .

I was processing how difficult this question reallys during the first half . . . Then I read your opinion and thought you captured it quite well . . .

One slight disagreement is that in a way I don't understand or can explain (just relying on scripture), God IS love, therefore I don't know if he "chooses" it . . . Minor point in that it is not directly related to the points you are making.

I agree it is an important discussion. The impact of today's "fatherlessness" is having a huge impact on society.

Eugene said...

Regarding the fact that God IS love, I'm not arguing against that at all, basically I'm just wondering out loud why God - who cannot be "male" in the same way we are - chooses to identify Himself as such.

As an aside, I ran across this quote by Nietzsche:
"Mankind is a rope tied between beast and superman—a rope over an abyss."
So then, I while I clearly wasn't the first person to follow this line of reasoning, at least I arrived here independently...

RandomSue said...

who says God identifies himself as male? He made Adam in his image and then he took the good stuff out and made Eve. :}

Isn't it obvious that God is both masculine and feminine?

Those dog types your were refering to decided to identify God as male didn't they?

Seriously, I really like your definition of what it means or looks like to be a "real man"

Eugene said...

Sue, I completely agree on your point that God is both masculine and feminine - but He is referred to as the Heavenly Father, which most certainly is a masculine term! However my point (lest I be misunderstood) was never that God was male (or female) - I personally believe God is waaaaaay beyond all of that in ways we cannot even begin to imagine. I think all terminology in Scripture is there just to help us wrap our heads around certain aspects of an infinite Being.

RandomSue said...

I agree completely!