Father’s Day 2013 has been accompanied, as is usual anymore, by many reflections on the sorry state of fatherhood in the western world.
Many articles in this vein diagnose the problems of modern fatherhood by identifying the myriad cultural practices and ideologies that have reduced and confused the role of fathers in the family, and in a broader context, in society.
Everyone, from religious leaders to politicians and even the President, can plainly see that we are in the midst of a “fatherhood crisis.” Scores of empirical data corroborate this reality, though one hardly needs to consult social science to know that when men are poor husbands to their wives and poor fathers to their children, society suffers badly for their selfishness.
Especially in conservative and religious circles, much ado has been made about the need for men to step up to the plate and play ball. Those vocalizing such arguments often cite the terrible social repercussions and costs of poor fatherhood, the child’s need for her father or the amount of government intervention that attends the broken family culture.
In thus diagnosing the “fatherhood crisis” by referring to the meta-consequences of men being poor fathers, I think that such well-intentioned folks often miss the more fundamental and prior point of problem: Men are being poor men. The fatherhood crisis is the fruit of a “manhood crisis.” You can’t make men better fathers by calling them to be better fathers. You can make men better fathers by calling them to be better men. The solution and the problem lie far in advance of fatherhood, even “spiritual fatherhood.”
That may sound like splitting hairs, or an attempt at a clever distinction. But centrally and unchangingly entrenched in the male psyche, regardless of one’s future plans, is the ideal of manhood. In every culture, time and place, boys have passed into manhood by striving after and attaining the possession and perfection of ideals that constitute, in those times and places, what it means to be a man.
Such a desire is natural, and it can be dealt with in only two ways. The one is to dedicate oneself to pursuing those ideals, whatever they may be. The other is to abandon the pursuit altogether, to throw off the responsibility of manhood and all that it entails – leaving mother’s side, accepting and seeking to make meaningful one’s male sexuality, entering into a world in which affirmation must be earned and is subject to demands.
Of course, in a time when nature – including human nature and all its givens and boundaries – is odious to man’s sense of autonomy and constitutes either a great obstacle to be hurdled on one’s way to making oneself lord of creation (I recently was thinking that it’s only a matter of time before a man demands the right to get pregnant) or a tool to be utilized as a pure means, a common view of manhood goes down a more existential route: If all concepts we associate with sex and gender roles are structures created by those who stood to benefit by their exploitation, and if there is nothing that is genuinely, that is, innately, male or female, then a view such as mine is nonsense.
Yet while such a view may be prevalent in the social sciences or amongst the most progressive of people, it doesn’t correspond at all to the way boys actually view the world. Boys grow up wanting to become men, and they view manhood as being the expression of normatively male traits and ways of living, loving and interacting with the world and others.
The fatherhood crisis is the result of “the world” hijacking the ideal of manhood and perverting it. Seeing that the boy’s central desire is fertile for exploitation itself, the world has constructed an ideal of manhood that revolves around the acquiring of possessions, self-direction and an independence that eschews commitments and lasting obligations to anything outside the self.
During my time competing on the track and field team at Notre Dame, my teammates and I had to sit through a talk each spring about sexual assault and related issues. The sports psychologist who spoke to us would reference Jeffrey Marx’s 2004 book Season of Life, which describes three “Bs” of the socialization of masculinity (babes, booze and billfolds), on his way to enumerating his own “10 Bs” for us: ballparks, bad words, bases, banter, bar-bells, beat, bad-a**, bling and benevolent sexism.
Such a list immediately hits home for any guy who has ever graced a locker room as very near the tragic truth of how young boys view what it means to be a man. And immediately it becomes apparent that when young boys, adolescents, teenagers and college students think that manhood consists in these things, poor husband-hood is just an exchange of vows down the road, and poor fatherhood wants only for the creation of a new and precious human life.
I say that the world has perverted the ideal of manhood because there is content to that ideal that essentially constitutes the male nature. Such essentials are constantly promoted by the Church and by others whose perspective reaches back farther than the historical and philosophical processes the result of which has been the modern tendency to despise or reduce all things natural and innate to constructs. That such natural constants exist within the heart of every boy should be the starting point for any evangelization of young men.
Two such constants that dominate the male psyche are 1) the desire for self-possession or self-mastery, and 2) the desire to make of himself a gift to others. The idea of being enslaved to one’s passions or to the fads and fashions of the day offends the man’s genuine sense of strength and reliability, and every man knows at heart that only in laying his life down for others – which for most of us will consist most immediately in sacrificing to and for wife and children – can authentic manhood be lived out. Something that Saint Paul wrote comes to mind.
Yet our culture tricks men into believing that they are achieving just those ideals while simultaneously poisoning them with just those things that breed slavery to the passions, lack of self-possession, unreliability, instability, self-centeredness, cowardice, fear of true challenges and an inability to commit to others: pornography, sexual promiscuity, “bachelorhood,” a-religiousness, intemperate indulgence, complete emotional autonomy...the 10 Bs. Our culture does a remarkably efficient job of hooking boys on the ideals of manhood. It just offers the wrong truths.
If those who retain the true ideal of manhood want to reach young men, they have to be prepared to combat forces being driven by an enormous capital incentive (pornography is the most flourishing industry in the world) and a foothold on the malformed American male psyche. They need to reach out man to man and explain what manhood consists in, and in what it does not. Despite the prevalence of Beauty and the Beast mentalities, women will never reach men as effectively as other men can, since peer affirmation from other males is another central and pre-sexually-awakened constant of the male psyche.
More importantly, men need to teach other men the intrinsic value of authentic manhood. While true, pointing out to young men that the habit of masturbation will disable them from committing to real women down the road in life misses the point. Men should cultivate self-mastery, including sexual self-mastery, not only or primarily for women’s sake but for their own sake. Self-sacrifice is part and parcel of the male psyche, and a man can’t give himself if he doesn’t have possession of himself, but the most conducive approach to teaching chastity (for example) is to explain how a man lets himself down when he falls.
Is it any wonder that Christ casts the second greatest commandment thus: love thy neighbor as thyself? The problem with men today is not so much that they’re failing to love others. Preceding that is a failure by men to properly love themselves.
This past fall at Notre Dame, I delivered the closing speech of Freshman Orientation to the freshman of Dillon Hall, the largest dorm on campus. I told them that their goal for college should be to leave Notre Dame as true men. And I told them that following the world’s ways of manhood (especially the world's vision of male sexuality), far from being the gateway into maturity, would be the surest way to remain little boys, closed in upon themselves in a perpetuation of self-centeredness and self-indulgence, unable to move beyond themselves and lay down their lives for others. The manliest man I know, I said, died on a cross.
A few days later, our dorm commissioner told me that the freshman in the follow-up survey had overwhelmingly voted my speech their favorite part of Freshman Orientation at Notre Dame. I don’t know what lasting effect, if any, my words (which were certainly not original) had on them. But I do know that they heard what every young man in this unwell world desperately wants to hear: a challenge, a call to be more than what the world asks of them and their manhood.
The first step to restoring a sound culture of fatherhood is to rekindle and reorient the innate longing for authentic manhood that all boys feel; to disabuse them of the cultural lie and restore (not obliterate) the desires that have been channeled into the 10 Bs.
We need to step up and take this challenge on, with gusto, starting in our own small spheres of life and personal influence. We can’t just hope to be the finished product, reworked by others’ hands, of a better culture of manhood. We have to be its catalysts.
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