(Photo by Sandra Damiana Buskirk, 2011)
What does it mean to be a man?
We live in a confusing time in a confusing world. Is it any wonder, then, that so many of us search the rubble of old notions for clues about who we are and what sorts of people we should be?
Sadly, all too many of us seem bent on creating more rubble (figurative and real) in the course of that search. This is especially true in the realm of masculinity. While both men and women have soundly rejected the SNAG (“Sensitive New Age Guy“) attempts of the late-’70s/ early-2000s, our world still needs strong, vital masculine behavior.
The old “slash-n-burn” bully boy routine clearly doesn’t work. That legacy has deforested half the world, poisoned our environment, ushered in wars that have killed over 150 MILLION people since the year 1900(*), and sparked extinction-level events unseen since the end of the dinosaur era… all in slightly over a century. It may destroy us yet. All too many people are determined to live out some mad poetry scribbled down millennia ago, insisting – as we kill every living thing on earth – that their Big Daddy War God had this in mind all along. The deranged glamor queen of the gun-waving masses thinks that a war with Iran “will toughen (us) up,” even as she demands compassion for her own offspring. 2009 Republican candidate Harley D Brown “scream(s) like an F-15 fighter” that “since just one of our subs packs enough Fire Power to level a continent” we should “use our HEAVY EQUIPMENT” just to prove how tough we are. (Yes, the phallic metaphors fly thick and fast on Harley’s website.) Meanwhile, recent advertising campaigns demand that men in doubt should “Wear the(ir) pants” ordump their hot wives off for rape or worse rather than surrender their badass tires.
(Manhood: You’re Doing it Wrong.)
Now, yes – men should be strong. That’s the cornerstone of masculine identity, a quality demanded not only by boys’ clubs, women or society overall, but by life as a male member of most species. “Strength,” however, has lots of connotations, all too many of which are bound to domination. Profound misunderstandings of “the way things are” – often brought about by a disconnection from the natural world(**) – equate “strength” with “subjugation.” The “Law of the Jungle” is evoked by people who don’t understand how jungles actually work. If Nature behaved like man behaves, gangs of elephants would have trampled every other ground-dwelling species on three continents (probably starting with us), and prides of lions would have eaten their way through every living thing in Africa… and then promptly starved to death. Clearly, the ability to kill shit just because you can does not define “strength” under Nature’s way.
So what does?
Here’s what 46 years of being a man, exploring masculine and feminine spirituality, and enduring (and enjoying) my own masculinity suggest:
(Photo by Vixy Dockery, 2009)
– Responsibility: Owning your shit, and dealing with it in ways that preferably do not stir up more shit.
– Accountability: Being man enough to say, “Yeah, i did such-and-such” – for good and ill – and accept the consequences (again, both good and ill) of doing it.
– Balance: Knowing where to step, and how to compensate when you step wrong.
– Perspective: Looking out so you don’t step in shit to begin with… and realizing that you inevitably will.
– Wisdom: Learning from the previous experiences.
– Courage: Not the lack of fear (which is insane), but the ability to move past fear when need be.
– Confidence: Knowing your worth – not the things you take from others, but the things you earn within yourself.
– Vulnerability: The ability to touch, feel and share… and yet survive to prosper from it.
– Protectiveness: The defense of those who cannot presently defend themselves… because you’re occasionally one of them, too.
– Restraint: Because dogs do NOT actually eat dogs unless something’s seriously wrong with them.
– Compromise: Understanding that it’s not All About You(TM) comma dammit.
– Flexibility: Because if the previous sentiment is not obvious already, Life will see to it that it becomes so.
– Generosity: Not indulgence (or self-indulgence) but a willingness to share, be shared with, and say “yes.”
– Boundaries: Giving, getting and creating structure through the ability and willingness to say “no.(***)”
– Love: Affectionate reverence for the world that is, not a fantasy of what it must look like before you can affectionately revere it.
– Respect: Both given to others and earned through one’s actions.
– Passion: Acting as though life is not a spectator sport. It is only when you choose to watch rather than to do.
– Resilience: Because, as the Tao Te Ching says, “neither heaven nor earth is humane.”
– Compassion: Because it falls to us to be humane in its place.
(Photo by Antonios Rave-N Galatis, 2011)
Note that “strength” is not exclusive to males. Nor, for that matter, are things like vulnerability, flexibility, passion or perspective exclusive to females. The divide between “manly” and “feminine” traits is a false dichotomy, nurtured by rivals, merchants, governments and religions that exploit our doubts to provide their profits. Women, gay men, men who – through lack of physical or emotionally vitality – fall short of athletic perfection… these people, too, can be strong. Yes, strength is the cornerstone of masculinity, but it’s not defined by raw might, genitalia, or the place you park said genitalia at night.
A “real man” is not a burly brawling homo-hating subjugator of wimminfolk, but a strong, courageous human being who takes on Life head-on… not to beat it, but to make the most of it. He is strong not because he pounds everything around him down, but because he rises above the limits of mortality, even as he knows that he is mortal.
Masculinity is not sold over a counter, injected in a vein, put on leg-by-leg or earned through shooting at people. It’s learned through experience, nurtured through activity, and honed through contemplation of one’s place in the world – a place which is neither as vast as we might like it to be nor as small as we fear it really is.
Masculinity is not a fast car or a barroom brawl. It’s a quest through Life for Love. In the sense that it’s a “holy war,” that war is fought within one’s self – to save what is holy from the damnation of our own fears. Masculinity grows from the fertile soil of Self, Soul and Culture, ideally becoming the Tree of Life – nurturing, sheltering, seeding, growing – in the world around us.
Let us be the trees, not the axes that fell them.
Let us be the forest, not the fire that consumes it all.
When we chop trees down, may we built homes from the remains.
When we make ashes, may we grow new life from the old.
What is it, now, to be a man?
It’s the strength to do what must be done, the vision to avoid doing it badly, the confidence to understand your worth, and the reverence to appreciate it all.
copyright(c) 2011 Satyros Phil Brucato
Please feel free to re-post or circulate, with proper attribution.
* – For folks doing the math, that works out to roughly half the population of a small modern city (or 50,000 times the people killed on 9/11) killed per year (or 410,960 people killed per day) for 100 years.
** – Ever notice how many of the “war hawks” and “real men” of Church and State are flabby, overfed boys clinging desperately to ideals of manhood they themselves never meet? Gee, I wonder why…
*** – As Sandi quoted me the other night (from a book, the title of which I cannot recall): “The ability to say yes is based on the freedom to say no.”