I’m in the market for a truck. I don’t know if it is due to my Montana ranching roots or some ingrained desire to be able to haul lots of stuff at a moment’s notice. Driving around town, I’ve been checking out trucks of various sorts. An interesting offshoot of my truck watching has been that I’ve noticed quite a few “MTFU” stickers on the back windows of some of the rides I’ve envied. It doesn’t take long to understand what this acronym stands for, and in light of the public discourse that focuses on power, aggression, and reclaiming masculinity, it isn’t surprising that this idea has found its way into the cultural consciousness through bumper stickers. Bumper stickers aren’t the only place this idea has come out recently. Advertisers tap into fears of men being too soft and not fully male. One radio commercial for nutritional supplements asks when it became OK for men to be soft and lack physical power – coupling these questions with a call to make men great again.
One of the areas of research that has interested me over the past few years has been the examination of the role of sports in socialization and masculinity in sport. While my job calls for me to tackle topics from a research perspective, much of my interest and work in this area comes from a very practical space. As the father of three boys, I’ve found great joy, and a bit of trepidation watching them navigate the expectations placed upon boys in youth sports. In one incident, my oldest son, about 13 at the time, was playing in an AAU basketball game. During a series of physical plays and non-calls, I watched him get more and more frustrated. I leaned over to my wife and said “watch this,” knowing that his emotions were about to hit overload.
He hustled down on defense, slapped the floor, and then, as the offensive player dribbled up to him, he dove for the ball – all the while leading with his head into the other player’s groin. Parents cheered at the fire they saw driving my kid – excited to see him tap into the aggression that sets sports heroes apart. After the game, however, I put my arm around beautiful son, told him I understood why he did what he did, but scolded him about playing with honor. While talking to him, one of his teammate’s moms walked by and said to my son “Don’t listen to your dad. We loved it. Keep going after those guys!.” I was in my son’s ear with one message of what it meant to be a man in sports – while simultaneously he was being fed the myths of masculinity in the other ear.
Former Baltimore Colts defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann says the three most dangerous words a young boy can hear are “Be a man!.” In and of themselves, these words are pretty innocuous. However, when we examine when, where, and how these words are used, we can understand Ehrmann’s view. These words are uttered to young boys in extremely emotional and stressful moments. Usually they’re said when a young boy is crying. The message becomes clear. Don’t cry. Don’t have emotions. Don’t act that way. Ehrmann points to the development of alexithymia in these men as they become unable to even identify their emotions, limiting their empathy and ability to relate to others.
As young boys learn to “be a man”, the images shared are those of unemotional domination as the broader culture holds up those who show physical athletic prowess, prowess in the bedroom as users of women, and prowess in the boardroom, often as users of others to make money 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.
As a father, 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. As a father, I wanted to support my boys and give them models of masculinity that didn’t lead to their own darkness and confusion, and ultimately, that helped them avoid the unempathetic pitfalls that I had fallen.
I’ve read, researched, and worked on these topics over the past few years, and have worked to best father my children. I would love to sit here and tell everybody that I’ve figured it out and that I have a certain amount of insight into the secrets of developing an authentic masculine identity as we navigate the world. Recently, however, I was served a large helping of humble pie, as my over emotional monkey mind took over, and I mustered all of my traditional masculinity, and deeply wounded somebody I love in an emotional outburst. I understand that these sort of outbursts are human, and are part of any relationship (as relationships bind our complex selves together). However, the reality is that my own brokenness – my own wounds – leads me to wound others, particularly those close to me. I get distracted by the noise, rather than understanding and engaging my pain. Taking on my limited idea of what it means to MTFU doesn’t lend itself to very healthy or authentic relationships with others, and can be incredibly destructive. In recovery from these monkey-minded moments, I find myself questioning how I can become more than simply some bad stereotype stepping off a b-movie screen.
One of the things that I’ve come to realize is that I’m not alone in my questioning of the traditional models of masculinity, especially when it comes to my faith journey.
A friend who works with fraternity at Eastern Washington University has often decried the lack of an acceptable language for masculinity discussions. While various groups may look at the language of feminism very differently, there is at least a certain openness to both the words themselves, as well as an ability to discuss what the words mean as they’re applied in the greater culture. My friend’s argument is partially that when it comes to discussions on masculinity, we are lacking words that can be used and discussed openly. While traditional language surrounding masculinity has been labeled as being toxic, dangerous, and unacceptable, little to no vocabulary has been put into its place, leaving men, especially the young men he works with, confused and unable to freely and openly explore their confusion with others. These men are dealing with their alexithymia, confused by the mythology and expectations of being a ‘real man’. They also lack the vocabulary in order to begin to navigate the minefields – and feel that they will be persecuted if they talk about masculinity at all. Often, we see young men stuck in this confusion who commit violence against themselves and others as the outlet for their confusion and anger.
The Christian church is not immune to the issues facing men in the broader culture, and in fact, one of the many critiques that could be laid against the church is that they feed into the myths, or at least use them for marketing. In post-Civil War America, Muscular Christianity arose, marrying the standards of the “ideal male” with Christianity. Today, many denominations and congregations blend these traditional cultural definitions of masculinity into their practices and expectations. Christian grace, forgiveness, and love are often seen as feminine qualities. If you walk into many churches on a Sunday morning, they seem to be filled with females of a certain age. In church settings, women serve others by providing meals and teaching Sunday School while men are often absent, as if the church has nothing to offer them. In response to these trends, church leaders have tried to lure men back to the pews by focusing on the same messages of dominance, physical strength, and power given in the broader culture. Leading with the masculine images of Jesus (overturning the tables in the Temple for example) and preaching on the “armor of God” become guiding principles, often at the cost of discussing authenticity, relationship, and serving the unloved and marginalized – core teachings of Jesus.
Masculine spiritual language is also lacking, and leaves many men, myself included, yearning for more. While we may be uncomfortable with the imagery of Jesus simply being an even older-school version of John Wayne, we lack spaces, language, and the ability to explore our spiritual confusion.
I’m thankful that my faith community recently launched a men’s fellowship to explore these questions, using Richard Rohr’s work “From Wild Man to Wise Man, Reflections on Male Spirituality.” Our church has decided it is critical to provide space and shared vocabulary in order to engage in conversation around these issues. During the first meeting, 20 year olds and 80 year olds all told similar stories and had similar questions. Early in Rohr’s book he looks to the work of psychologist Anne Wilson Schaef’s language of addiction to discuss why the white male-centric world view is so addictive, both in society and in our churches. Power can be addictive, and when there is a perception that power is being taken away, the addict will go through great lengths to maintain what they see as their rightful place. One of the critiques that is often thrown out is that any discussion of the potentially toxic ramifications of traditional masculinity is that it wussifies or feminizes men. However, in breaking the addiction cycle, the individual actually becomes more free, more authentic, and more powerful.
Much of Rohr’s work looks at the pain and longings for male relationships when we are young. Young men hear and see these mythological perfections of masculinity, and can spend a lifetime trying to reach that perfection, only to continually fall short, dumping them into frustration, depression, and pain. Understanding and moving through that pain then leads to an authentic self, and then a deeper, more authentic spirituality. Henri Nowen said this, “You have to let your father and father figures go. You must stop seeing yourself through their eyes and trying to make them proud of you” in order to develop understanding and move forward.
Ultimately, it seems that understanding our brokenness helps lead us to wholeness. Our gender, our history, and our culture are all a part of that brokenness and a part of our authentic whole selves. While I want to have quick, easy answers, the truth is that I don’t, and I don’t think I’m actually supposed to have them. Our spiritual journeys are just that – journeys. They’re winding paths where on occasion we’ll need to be great again and at other times we’ll need to man up – especially as our understandings of what it means to “be a man” grow.
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