A few years ago, I was asked to share some thoughts with the male students on campus about the challenges of being a man and offer some encouragement to them. I remember thinking hard about what to say. The leaders who invited me had some specific concerns they were looking to address. Young men struggle with the temptation and the relational consequences of pornography, which is so accessible to them. They struggle with managing romantic relationships in a world that objectifies women and confuses intimacy with sex. And they struggle with a number of other issues from professional to financial as they seek to make their way to autonomy and adulthood. I could have addressed any one of these specific topics, challenged them to think about their choices, and encouraged them to soldier on.
I took a different tack. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that underneath all the issues facing them— underneath all the personal, psychological turmoil they were experiencing—were fundamental issues related to motivation and the expectations they had, or did not have, for themselves. I was not convinced that all boys “want to” be men, that they possess the drive for masculine maturity or a vision for personal manhood that was well-formed and intentionally carried out. So, I chose to talk to them about the need to examine whether they wanted to be men and to think about what kinds of men they wanted to be.
In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he embeds an illustration or observation that I believe gets to the point. In that well-known chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13, we read these words, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (13:11, ESV). This illustrates the point that true love, which is unselfish and other-oriented, requires maturity. The innocence of children is often touted, but the truth is less innocent. Children do not naturally share. They say mean and unfiltered things. They bully one another. They lack the ability to take the perspective of others. They are developmentally egocentric. This is natural and understandable. After all, children are children. We don’t expect them to exhibit more mature thoughts and actions. This is part of growing up. But the goal is to get beyond childhood and these childish ways. The goal is to grow up. The goal is maturity.
My challenge to the men that day from 1 Corinthians 13:11 was to examine themselves. To honestly assess the degree to which they wanted to be men, and admit honestly to themselves the degree to which they preferred to be boys. Being boys means accepting childishness as an unavoidable or even justifiable quality. But men take responsibility. They “give up” the childlike ways. I thought this was a timely challenge, and it sparked a series of very productive conversations with many students.
Today, I think I would take the same approach. Not much has changed culturally. In fact, some may argue things have gotten worse. Some argue that there is a form of toxic masculinity that is tearing at our society. There is a concern that we are tolerating bad examples for our boys that will lead to further crudeness. Others react that traditional manhood is unfairly under assault by those who possess a social and political agenda rooted in extreme forms of feminism. It is as though anything traditionally masculine is also inherently misogynistic and harmful. So, now we are divided along yet another line in our society. And this line isn’t simply male and female. It isn’t about gender, gender roles, or gender politics. It’s more complicated than that; cultural lines always are. In my judgment, this is about our attitudes regarding maleness and femaleness. And the knee-jerk responses and reactions to an advertisement—fueled by social media outlets and expressions—misconstrue and twist these attitudes, amplify the extreme ones, and turn us against one another. This effectively shuts down any meaningful dialogue about cultural norms, current tensions, and challenges we face every day. We need this dialogue. We need it in our homes, schools, churches, and in our friend groups. We need to find way to increase the “want to” in our young men and women to act and think as respectful adults.
I admit that I am confused. Since I was a boy, I’ve always believed nothing is more manly than to defend the defenseless, stand up to bullies, treat women with respect, protect them from those who mistreat them, and be motivated by things other than libido. How did this become a quandary? Do I defend this view or apologize for it? I think what I’ll do is keep asking young men and women to honestly examine themselves and encourage them to “want to” be mature and to think about the kinds of men and women they want to be.
This article was originally published in the Bucks County Courier Times on January 27, 2018.