For some reason this week the idea of manhood has crept up again and again in things that I have read and listened to. It all sort of came to a head yesterday while I was working out. The owner of the gym had a talk radio show on that was discussing Alabama football, as is always the case in this state. During the course of the conversation, somehow the idea of the “wussification” of American men came up. At one point, the host who brought up the topic said, “If you have to ask what it means to be a man, what you have to do to be a man, then you are already a wuss.”
This is highly problematic for a number of reasons. I tend to believe that Socrates (via Plato’s Apology) had it right when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I also tend to believe that it’s only by asking questions that we can really ever learn anything about ourselves or about the nature of reality. So I disagree with that statement on a fundamental, philosophical level. But that’s not the level at which I was bothered.
I was bothered on a personal level.
I grew up essentially without a father. My dad worked a couple of jobs, one of which took him away from us at night on a regular basis. Even when he was home he wasn’t exactly a sterling example of how to be a man. There are a lot of times when I honestly wonder what it means to be a man. I didn’t learn any of the “manly” things that a father is supposed to teach a son. I can’t fix things with my hands, any time something goes wrong in our apartment I have to call maintenance. I have no idea how my car works beyond “it turns on and takes me where I want to go…most of the time.” I don’t hunt. I don’t watch sports. Nor do I think any of those things make you a man.
This was my fundamental problem with what the radio host said.
The media isn’t the problem and men aren’t being “wussified,” whatever that even means.
The problem is that there are a ton of guys out there who are like me, who grew up without a father figure (or with an abusive/negative one) and are having to try to cobble together a definition of manhood from disparate sources. From what I’ve observed (and this is purely based on guys I know and am friends with, an admittedly narrow pool of research), men who grew up with a father tend to have a much better idea of who they are than men who grew up without a father. The problem, then, isn’t the media or the individual who asks the question, the problem is an epidemic of fatherlessness. What’s needed isn’t a rant about wusses, what’s needed is loving men stepping into mentor roles for fatherless men. I was lucky enough in college to have a number of men mentor me. What’s needed isn’t more macho definitions of what it means to be a man or more tough-guy posturing against feminism and “wussification,” what’s needed is for men to be brave enough to do the hard work of giving a helping hand to other men who are trying to figure out who they are. And what’s needed, perhaps most of all, is a complete redefinition of manhood that takes the complete human person seriously rather than just slapping a bunch of macho cliches together and calling it “manhood.”
So in spite of not doing any of the things I mentioned above, here are some things I do: I love my wife and try to provide for her by working a part time job while being a full time graduate student. I read a lot and attempt to ask questions about the nature of the world. I try to be a good and faithful friend, son, and brother. I try to love other people more than I love myself. I try to serve others. I try to overcome my own privilege as a middle class white male and see the oppression of others around me. I ask myself “What does it mean to be a man” on a weekly, if not daily basis. And I guess that if that makes me a wuss, I’m really okay with it.