What it means to be a man is one of the most debated questions of the 21st century, and probably for good reasons. Rarely are two answers to the subject ever the same and rarely can it be posed online without emotions dominating. Still, it is a question in desperate need of a solution.
As a teenager, I was lured into a false belief about manhood by various publications that target young 'modern' men. I remember reading men's lifestyle magazines on my phone as a 16-year-old and thinking that if I dressed this way, or drove that car, or spoke like him, or had that haircut, or wore that cologne, I would be a man. Those things might have made me 'cool', but they wouldn't have made me a man.
It wasn't until I started dating my wife that I began to question my perception of what a man was. One day, out of nowhere, her dad looked up from what he was doing, stared straight into my soul and said, "what do you think it means to be a man?" After stuttering incoherently for a good few seconds looking for an answer that wouldn't lead to him fetching the shotgun, I conceded that I would have to get back to him on that.
I resolved, however, not to get back to him unless I found the answer for myself and not for him. I eventually gave him his answer, and a few years later, I married his daughter. It would take a book to recount what I told him, but the substance of this article, instead, is what I didn't tell him - what it doesn't mean to be a man.
There are too many young boys carrying their swagger around in unnecessarily high and obnoxiously loud vehicles, taking too many selfies at the gym and thinking too little of women. I speak to a lot of young men, and the best way to describe the state of their masculinity is that it's saddening. They talk smooth, they dress suave and groom like stars, but it's all just the fragile shell of what they could be as men; they have little masculine substance. So, for their benefit, here are seven things you probably think make you a man, but don't:
1. Style and Swagger
Like 16-year-old me, many young men kick about town thinking that dripping in swagger with style coming out of their ears makes them a man's man. On the other extreme, there are many who reckon a flannie with a pack of durries rolled up in one sleeve and a Blue Heeler on the back of the ute epitomises all it means to be a man.
The hard truth is, you can feel like John Wayne by looking like Ryan Gosling, but you're probably all hat and no cattle. You've got all the gear and no idea. You can be the suavest chap in the streets and expect the privileges of manhood, but until you accept the responsibilities of adulthood, you're not getting anything. Don't get me wrong, I like to dress well as much as any man, but I don't expect it to affirm my masculinity. You know a tree by the fruit - your threads will make the first impression, but the first words out of your mouth can destroy it.
2. Getting Swole
If the number of gym selfies on your phone is higher than the pounds of weight you lift, do everyone a favour and stop. Understand me; go to the gym, and go often. But if you're going to the gym to fill out your Instagram page instead of your mind and body, you'll come up short of fulfilment. Don't think I'm trying to say that you can't take selfies at the gym either. Of course, show off your progress, be proud of yourself, but walk humbly. Get that dopamine hit from the growth, not from the number of likes on the photo.
If you're a particularly jacked dude, read this part carefully: do not use your stature to intimidate. The mark of a man isn't in his strength or ability for their own sake or the power they potentially give him; it is what he uses them for that counts. This does not imply passivity; only good judgement. It implies the use of strength to produce, to defend, and to protect. It does not mean using force to take, to destroy, and to consume. The right and just use of masculine strength add to manhood, the mere possession of it does not.
3. Drinking and Fighting
In his book, Manhood in the Making, author David D. Gilmore tells of his experiences of masculinity in many different cultures. Many cultures, particularly in the pacific islands, actually consider drinking and fighting excessively in youth as a masculine trait. Drinking and fighting is a common tendency of young men the world over, although it isn't thought of almost as kindly in the west as in other cultures. The proclivity is to be seen among your own demographic, participating in the rough and tumble of male youthhood.
Thankfully, the west in the 21st century places a higher premium on the early adoption of responsibility, education and economic pursuit among its youth. It's better having a degree, starting a business or contributing in some way at 21 than drinking and fighting until the age of 30. However, a large portion of young men pursues beer drinking with a fair margin more zeal than they do education or commerce. The trouble is that the tendency remains among young men everywhere to be involved in the rambunctiousness of their demography.
I am not impartial to a jolly wee dram myself on occasions, and I am certainly not immune to attraction to rough sports play. But the responsibilities of manhood place boundaries on these things. A man disciplines his drinking, and he constrains his capacity for violence to the defence of himself and others or the rules of the sports field or arena.
4. Obsessive Economic Pursuit
People say that money is the root of all evil as an excuse for being bad at managing it, even if they're good at making it. Wealthy people, on the other hand, rightly believe that the love of money is the root of all evil because they know how to manage it, even if they're bad at making it.
Economic pursuit may be one of the most stigmatised activities that men can set their sights on. The obsessive pursuit of wealth and unchecked commerce is a worthy place to attach stigma, but to be generally opposed to the accumulation of wealth and market proficiency is to discourage effort.
Another takeaway of David D. Gilmore's exploration of cultural masculinity is that provision is one of the primary responsibilities of men the world over. That doesn't mean a man must provide a Wagyu tomahawk with salmon caviar under a crystal chandelier for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It means he must allow education, the chance for experiences, exploration and cheerful charity and giving. Just as the possession of strength isn't the mark of a man, neither is the mere possession of wealth, but its right use.
5. Sports Obsessions
Sport, particularly team-based contact sport, is a primary facilitator for the development of a strong masculine character. To strive as a member of a team in the pursuit of a common goal, the regulated use of violence and controlled aggression, the equal comradery in both victory and defeat, are invaluable to masculine development. But these things are not the totality of what it means to be a man. It is the lessons they teach that are applicable off the field that gives sports their masculine qualities: many a college, university or professional athlete have become the worlds most successful men off the sporting field for that reason.
Theodore Roosevelt once aptly said, and this paraphrase will do butchery to his words, that if all that will be told of a man's life is that he was the star player on the high school, college or professional field, or coached a winning team but never anything more, what kind of life has he lived? Roosevelt was a passionate advocate of American sport. But he also knew when it could become an unhealthy obsession. He used the British army in the Boer War to make his point, posing that if the infantry had been as concerned with soldiering as much as it was with cricket, they might have been an equal match for the much more dedicated South African Boer. Sport is one facet of the pursuit of masculine character, but an obsession with it is only a hindrance.
6. A Man Cave
I'll be the first to admit that a man needs a quiet place - not a safe space, but a quiet place. Whether it's indoors or out, sometimes a fellow needs only his own company. Not to escape, not to avoid, not to evade, but to renew and replenish. Let me define my terms here; a man cave can be that place. But the common cultural idea of 'man cave' is to escape responsibilities, plant your big ol' behind on the couch with a bag of chips, and there remain until the kids are in bed and there is quiet on the front. Neon signs and a mini-bar don't add anything more to manhood than bear hunting and beards if they're just a decorative escape from the realities and responsibilities of adulthood.
No word of a lie, as I was sitting in my study at home writing the paragraph above, my wife called out to me for help with a particularly nasty diaper situation perpetrated by our 9-month-old. I sprang to action without hesitation because, while my study is my quiet place, I don't shed my responsibilities when I walk through the door, even though I wish I could. A quiet place is a place of contemplation, or learning, or productivity, or all of the above. It is never an escape from the responsibilities of manhood. If you shirk those responsibilities, don't then hold out your hand for the privileges that come with them.
7. Sexual Exploits
This is where some readers might become tempted to call me a beta. But so be it. One of the most damaged precepts of masculinity is sexuality. Hook up culture, recreational dating, and the diminution of the institution of marriage and family, and many other things have damaged millions of young people all over the world. Bragging rights for sexual conquest is a slow-acting and self-perpetuating poison to the character of our young men as well as to the self-esteem of young women.
A mature masculine character will never perceive a young woman as a conquest of self-gratification - it will view her as another man's daughter and the final act and pinnacle of God's creation. The biggest blight on modern masculinity is the sexualisation of young women, and it has become so profoundly permeated into mainstream culture that not one of us is immune to it. If you are not mature enough to imagine how you would want a young man to treat your daughter one day, you have no business laying eyes, let alone hands on another man's daughter while still claiming the title of a man—end of story.
I believe that manhood is a duality of two things: soft hearts and hard hands. That means that genuine masculinity consists first of inward character: kindness, egalitarianism, charity and servant leadership - a soft heart. Then, and only then does it consist of strength and ability, economic pursuit, competition, provision and healthy productive leisure; all guided, regulated and kept in check by the strength of the inward character.
The mark of a man is not a flash facade of style and swagger, or culturally stereotypical hobbies, or the accumulation of wealth. It is the adoption of responsibility and the transition from consumption and dependence, to independence of spirit, production and provision.