I received the message one recent Sunday morning: “I’m interested in this...can I come by this afternoon?” and within a few hours a mud-dusted pickup truck shuddered down our street and parked at the mouth of our driveway—its driver a bearded farmer, his hair peppered grey, and the passenger, his young daughter.
They took a look at the portable dishwasher we’d been trying to sell, asked how we enjoyed the area we had moved to—curious about where we went to church and if we were settling in, all the kinds of awkward yet disarming things one does in these kinds of chance encounters the internet creates.
And then the haggling began—“How firmly are you attached to your price?”—before the man began to say how high my price was and how he had others in the area he’d go to if the deal fell through. A previously genial atmosphere screeched into an awkward silence in which the man, larger than me, suddenly stared at me wanting an answer. Gone was the curiosity about my church life. It was only business now, and I caved.
Those who know me, know that I’m certainly not one for confrontation, and confrontations with men whom I perceive—according to our strange societal preferences—to be much more of a man than I am always end in me taking the quick and easy way out. It was a situation that made me wonder why it is that I so quickly turn away from these confrontations. In the face of terse conversation, when faux-kindness turns to cut-to-the-chase clarity, why do I balk? Why is it that certain men feel they have an advantage over others?
These questions I ask myself seem to be the kinds of questions many people are asking, and more publicly, these days. 2017, if anything, was a year in which masculinity itself was called into question, and for good reason. Masculine characteristics like overconfidence, charisma, pride, and power have fed an unchecked system, and thanks to many brave people, we are starting to see a crack in the rigid misconception of what it means to be a man.
Like dominoes, major “important” men of the age fell—from film producers like Harvey Weinstein to television hosts like Charlie Rose or Matt Lauer. I certainly had never looked to those men as important figures in my own life, but still, I’ve also asked myself, why are there so few men in the public sphere modeling what it means to be a man in a humble, servant-like way in which no attention is drawn to you, a world in which compassion—and not intimidation or abuse—is the norm?
Closer to home—in the world of writing—the stories of masculine bravado are inherent in our very canon. From the brashness of Hemmingway to the inability of writers like Cormac McCarthy to write strong female characters, or to preference violence over some other form of resolution, the relationship between masculinity and humility is surely nonexistent. And I’m continuously devastated by the repeated stories of prominent male writers who have failed the creative writing system—rock star poets and novelists who abuse their positions by harassing students for sexual favors or other benefits. I’m struck as a young male writer trying to find a road in a world that has repeatedly failed itself—a road in which maleness does not operate at the expense of everything else.
In the face of flawed masculinity, I still hope that literature and writing can pave the way. I recently re-taught the excellent and aptly titled short story collection American Masculine by Shann Ray (whose work has been featured in Ruminate before) and I am always floored by the way Ray depicts the interactions between his male and female characters. Again and again, we see the masculine break against the feminine (sometimes between male and female characters and other times the confrontation happens within a single character). In this kind of conflict, those characters who exhibit more masculine tendencies (violence, charisma, brash independence) reject what society might consider feminine (display of emotion, care, weakness). In Ray’s own words, the masculine rejects the feminine at the same time the feminine holds contempt for the masculine. Only when there is an exchange and integration of these characteristics (and the discarding of toxic ones) do characters exhibit real change and transformation. Instead of conflict, there is acceptance. Instead of rejection, a weaving together of masculine and feminine.
Take for example Ray’s story “Rodin’s The Hand of God,” where a father attempts to help a daughter through a suicide attempt after she loses her children in a car accident. In the world’s eye, the father has everything—a successful career, a demanding job—but his career has come at the expense of his marriage and his relationship with his daughter. And yet in this story, Ray leaves the door open for forgiveness and reconciliation. As the father waits beside his daughter’s hospital bed, he realizes his faults and recognizes his proper place not as an alpha male but as a servant willing to give up everything for the sake of the beloved: “Take me, he prays. The words that enter his mind appall even him, so hollow and made of shadow, and he is reminded of how incapable he is.” His willingness to take his daughter’s place is couched within a larger humility, an acknowledgment of his own failure and ineptitude. At the end of the story, as his daughter stabilizes from another suicide attempt, the father “goes to where she sleeps in her clean, well-lit room that overlooks the city and he doesn’t sleep, he prays. He holds her hand, and prays.” The father is humbled by the divine, subjects himself to it, and in his longing for the healing of his daughter, a much more beautiful depiction of masculinity springs forth.
I certainly am frustrated when I find characteristics of flawed masculinity in my own life—when I feel puffed up with pride and ego at a compliment or temperamentally upset at criticism, when I entertain for a second the kind of influence I can have from positions of leadership, when I view others only as conveniences for me to reach my own goals, to satisfy my own needs. These are dangerous tendencies I wish to rip out, to radically divorce myself from everything that is not symbolized in the meekness of Christ, the radical yet humble way in which he set about challenging the social status quo. Sometimes, his approach called for boldness as in the case of his raiding the Temple of people who had forgotten the building’s purpose, skewing a place of worship into a marketplace. More often than not, humility was symbolized in the conversations Christ had with those on the fringes of society—the healing of blind men, the restoration of dignity to the woman at the well, the close conversations with a priest, Nicodemus, recognizing the failure of his own priestly system and wanting more. That is what I’m after—a restorative, not restrictive, maleness. This has been my prayer over the last year—long before the headlines of masculine failure flashed across our screens—a simple and direct prayer: Lord, what is in me that is not of you, rid me of it.
I envision the fingers of the divine holding a scalpel to my soul and etching out the darkness, the abuse of what is not meant to be. I hope and pray the same for others out there who wrestle with their own maleness, too.
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At the moment, the assumption to question is that we humans have a right to be on earth and that it will indefinitely support us. When the very ground is taken from beneath our feet, where can we stand? What is left to us, when the familiar forms of our physical existence are taken away? Nothing, perhaps—yet I wonder.
I would charge that tree at sixty miles per hour, the following curve rated for thirty-five. Headed home after school, in the after-practice gloam, in the dark after work—to turn, or not to turn? That was the question. It was an option. Something to consider. I suspect most of us don’t think of this as a decision, per se, but it is. Every day, we decide, even if for most of us the answer has become reflex.