By Ken Trainor
What does it mean to be a man?
Courage, certainly, would top most lists though courage is by no means the exclusive province of the male (In fact, much of what follows likely applies to women as well. I'm just not qualified to compile that list).
Courage for what though? To face your enemies and slay them? That's what we're told in the heroic tales of boyhood. Those stories remain a staple of the local multiplex, chief purveyor of boyhood fantasies, where men — and sometimes now women — are transformed by heroic acts.
But all those enemies lie outside us. What about the enemies within?
The biggest may be boyhood itself, which lingers long into adulthood. But boyhood is not a demon to be slain. The boy within becomes a problem only when we build a permanent shrine to him.
A man doesn't become a man, however, until he lets go of the boy. Many forces, not just our own fear of adulthood, encourage us to keep the boy alive. Becoming a man is hard enough — harder still when doing so puts you at odds with the surrounding society.
In ways large and small, we receive mixed messages. Frequently we're asked to surrender the boy without becoming a man, leaving us in a state of developmental limbo. Courage is required to relinquish boyness and is also required for the transition into manhood. The latter isn't encouraged, however, because men aren't so easily cowed and controlled. They think for themselves — bad for herding.
The courage of manhood is the courage to stand for something and to say what you stand for out loud. But it's also the courage to compromise without undermining who you are and what you hold dear.
It is the insight to recognize when you're wrong and the courage to admit it, even when you believe the other person is wrong, too, and doesn't have the courage to admit it. It means owning your part of the problem. Being a man means having the courage to face a loved one's anger, disappointment or disillusionment over some mistake you made, and then making amends. It means acting even when you know mistakes are likely — or even inevitable.
Being a man means coming to terms with fearfulness. It means having the courage to become a better man, not being afraid to go through the unsettling, uncomfortable process of personal growth. It means listening to others and not being so damned certain all the time. It means giving up the quest to be cool, understanding that growing up is not just about giving up boyish ways but growing into something better, bigger, more worthy of respect.
It means acknowledging how ordinary you are even as you aspire to be extraordinary. It means finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Being a man means taking charge as well as taking someone's lead. It means having a strong enough sense of self to be able to set aside your ego, to momentarily downplay your own needs so you can attend to another's. It also means stating clearly what you need and want when that's called for.
It means feeling things strongly enough to let your emotions spill over and become visible. It also means recognizing those moments when you simply cannot afford uncertainty, moments when you have no choice but to come through in the clutch.
What it means to be a man has changed over time and will keep changing. A man embodies the truth as he knows it, with the understanding that his sense of what is true keeps evolving. Manhood involves being tender as well as being tough. It means finding your voice and using it.
Being a man means seeing responsibilities as an opportunity to live more fully, to engage life more deeply, not as an obligation or chore to be disposed of.
Being a man means striving to fulfill your potential even when fulfilling your potential has dropped several notches on life's priority list. It means honoring your dreams even after you've accepted that most won't come true. It means accepting that life is not all about you, but that you are all about life (as Richard Rohr likes to say). It means valuing wisdom more than acquiring material possessions. It means learning more than teaching — but not being afraid to teach.
It takes a long time to become a man because it takes a long time to let go of the boy. I think back to various points in my life and cringe as I recall how unripe I was. Maybe I'm too hard on myself. Maybe I'm not hard enough. Either way, it's a process. Some of us just take longer.
The ultimate measure is not pace but progress, moving ahead and ignoring the boy who cries out that this is all too hard. With each stage of life, there is more to being a man. It means continuing to ask oneself just what that means. Life circumstances have a way of forcing the question. This happens to be one of those times for me.
Ultimately, a man recognizes that this is a journey worth taking — a genuinely heroic journey.
And then has the courage to take it.