The Modern Male Identity Crisis

Richard E. Simmons III at The Center Mens Breakfast at The Country Club of Birmingham, November 18, 2022.

I’m really excited about this message this morning even though I had to put it together rather quickly. I’ve spoken on a lot on these issues over time. The title of the of the talk is “The Modern Male Identity Crisis”, and I was wondering as I was preparing this, if a man’s identity, and your identity, by the way, is the way you see yourself, and we all see ourselves in a certain manner. And I was wondering if a man’s identity begins to form when we’re young. I mean even as kids. And I think the answer to that is yes. It made me think of my own life.

I went to grammar school at a private school here in Birmingham called, it was called Highlands Day at the time, it’s now Highlands. And in the fifth and sixth grade, we got this new P.E. coach. And he was real serious about physical education. And I mean, we ran, we did exercises and there were probably 20 girls and 20 boys in the fifth and sixth grade classes when I was there. And on every Friday, however, it was kind of free day. You could do what you wanted to do, but we had to do something with sports or exercise or whatever. So, all the boys, every Friday we would play touch football, and everybody played. I think if anybody didn’t want to play, we kind of shamed them into playing. And I was one of the quarterbacks, and my friend, who many of you know, Billy Pritchard, was a quarterback. He was the other quarterback. And we chose sides every Friday. And I didn’t think anything of this at the time but looking back, I wonder about my classmates who were always chosen last, or next to last, every Friday. I wonder how it impacted them and the way they saw themselves.

I think growing up, I wonder how many of us, as we grew up, hear these words in our adolescence from a coach, from our fathers, maybe an older brother, “be a man” or “man up”. I wonder what we thought when we heard those words or how a young boy today interprets that. Be tough. Be strong. Never cry. Don’t show your emotions. I think most young boys have no idea when they hear that term “be a man”, because no one’s probably ever taught them about what true manhood is. And I saw a documentary, I think it was three years ago, and it was on the Pentagon Papers. I don’t know if you are familiar with what those papers were, but they were a history of the Vietnam War, and they were kept in secret, and then they were finally revealed, and they’re very controversial. But in the Pentagon Papers, they revealed that President Johnson refused to pull out of Vietnam, because, in his own words, he said, “If we pull out, I will not be viewed as being very manly.”

And it really has to make you wonder how world events over the centuries have been shaped by male leaders who were worried about their manliness. And of course, one of the leaders on the world stage today is a perfect picture of this, Vladimir Putin. As I was preparing this, I Googled manly pictures of Vladimir Putin, and you would not believe what I got. Every single one of them, he was either riding a horse, and one he was riding a bear, he was lifting weights, but in every picture, he didn’t have his shirt on. He was showing off his muscles, how manly he is. And in one sense, that’s pretty scary because I don’t think he’s going to do anything to end this war to make him look unmanly.

This is my introduction. I’ve got one more thing I want to share with you that I think is a great entree into what I want to say. There was an article, in The New York Times four years ago, about Professor Michael Kimmel, and he is the founder and director of The Center for the Study of Men and Masculinity at Stony Brook University, which is a college, it’s a New York City College. And the article describes a day in the classroom. He’s standing up front, he’s got a big whiteboard behind him and apparently all these young men, and he says, I want to ask you a question. And he writes up on one side of the board, “good man”, and he says, “in your eyes, what is a good man?” And he said, they were kind of startled. Nobody responded. He said, “Let me put it this way. Let’s say you go to a funeral and you hear the minister say, he was a good man. What do you think that means?” One of them finally said, “caring?” To be caring? Another one finally said, “to be honest?” A third one said, “putting others’ knees before yours.”

And after he listed all these things about being a good man, he then said, now tell me what it means to be a real man. And they just all perked up. He said, one of them immediately said, “A real man takes charge.” A second one says, “A real man takes risks.” And finally, one of them said, “I think for me, being a real man means to talk like a man and walk like a man and never cry.”

And so, he lists all these responses of what it means to be a real man and then Kimmel said, “now you’re in the wheelhouse.” And he pointed to the good man list on the left side of the board and to the real man list on the right side. And he said, “Look at this disparity.” And he said, “I think American men are confused about what it means to be a man.”

And guys, not only do I think he’s right, I would go so far to say that most men in this modern world that we live in have no idea what it means to be masculine. I think basically, if we fathers don’t know this, what do we teach our sons about manhood?

And this really kind of brings me to what I want to talk about this morning, the theme. And I do believe that we all struggle so much in life because we have false ideas about what it really means to be a man, what it really means to be masculine. Now, I’ve talked about this over the years, but this is somewhat of a new approach. But I did mention this in a talk I gave not too far back, mentioning the name Joe Ehrmann. I don’t know if you remember, but Joe spoke here, I want to say eight or nine years ago. He was the all-pro football player for the Colts. He taught football, but now he primarily goes out and speaks to men and has men’s conferences. And Joe is the one who says, this is, I don’t know if he does this, I don’t think he does it to be funny, but I think he does it to make a point. When he starts these men’s conferences, we’re talking about 25 maybe to 40 men, he hands out an index card, and he hands out a pen, and he instructs them and says, I want you now to write out a definition of what true masculinity is.

And he says, most men are just dumbfounded. They don’t know what to write. He says, some of them are like deer in the headlights. And he says, most of them don’t write anything. And the reason they don’t is because they don’t know. They don’t know what it means to be truly masculine. And you know what? It hasn’t always been this way for men. And today I think most men get their identities and their sense of worth based on how well they perform in the workplace.

In fact, Tim Keller, and this is a pretty strong statement, Tim Keller says, we are the first culture in history where men get their sense of worth and their identity based solely on their performance and their occupation. So many men today are caught in what I call the performance trap. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that term, the performance trap. And this is kind of the way it plays out. For most men, life is all about what I do and how successful I am in what I do. And over time, I think we begin to wonder, so what does everybody else think about what I do?

Do people think I’m successful? Think about that.

You know, I thought about this as I was preparing this. Everybody, as I look at this room, everybody has people in their lives who know you, and you have people that know of you. And I don’t think we realize, everybody who knows you or knows of you has an opinion about you. And all those opinions is what makes your reputation. And everybody has a reputation. I don’t think we thought about that, but we do. It’s true. And most men want their reputation to be, boy, he is really successful. Or man, what a great businessman or a great lawyer or a great doctor, or this is one, he’s really killed it financially, he’s loaded. These are basically, this is the way most men want to be seen and perceived out in the community.

And then there’s one final issue that I think lingers out there, and it lingers out there probably until you retire. And that is, what if I fail in what I do?

What would you think of me then? What would you think of me as a man? Now, what I’m about to say, I think most of you have experienced this or maybe you are experiencing right now, and you know this to be true, that no matter how well you’re doing, I’ll put it that way, the thought of failing and being considered a failure as a businessman is one of the greatest fears that haunts men. It’s like a psychological death. And I’ve concluded that most men are not driven to succeed, they’re more driven not to fail. And I wonder, could this be true in any of our lives? And I’ve come to see how true this is, having experienced it personally, and I could give you a lot of examples of this, but I’m going to give you one.

There’s a man that lives here in Birmingham. If I mentioned his name, almost every one of you would know who he is. And if you didn’t know who he is, you would know his business. He’s built a very nice business and he’s got a large, beautiful home. I mean, beautiful. He drives expensive cars. He’s got a really, really nice second home. But he confided in me, he said, every day my feet hit the floor, I am driven by this one thing, fear of failure. I was shocked. But I find this to be true in the lives of so many men.

Now, I want to talk a little bit this morning about this performance trap and the consequences of being caught in it. And there’s some really serious consequences. And you can see how this can easily cascade into your life and you’ll see how it impacts your identity and you’ll see how it can mess your life up but it also can help you understand yourself and to really know yourself, because I think that’s important and I don’t think many men, I can’t give any kind of percentage, but so many of us don’t really understand ourselves very well.

And I want to start by asking you to think about your relationships. And this is where you see a real divergence between men and women. You know, I would venture to say if my wife, Holly, who is very transparent, very open, very friendly, if she met your wife for the first time and they had lunch, it’s amazing what they might share with one another. It’s amazing what they would say. It’s amazing how transparent women can be. But then you get two men who get together and have lunch for the first time, the first thing they’re going to say is, so what do you do? And you talk about work, and you talk about business, and you talk about sports. You maybe talk about politics. And it’s not that when you meet a man for the first time, that you should share your struggles with him. But most men don’t share their struggles with anybody. And I think we somehow come to believe that as men, we’re not supposed to struggle. We’re not supposed to get down. And we falsely believe that real authentic men never get depressed because it would betray my male identity. I had this conversation with Jay Lloyd, and we were talking about how the depression rate among men has risen so dramatically over the last 25 years. It’s shocking. It’s 10 times more than what it was 40 or 50 years ago. And Jay made this comment, he says, well, the rate of depression in men that you see written about all the time is low. I said, what do you mean? He says, it’s low because you wouldn’t believe the number of men who struggle with depression, but they never come out of the closet. They never tell anybody, and they never seek to get help. And maybe that explains, and this is kind of serious, what I’m going to say, maybe this explains why the suicide rate in men is so high. This is pretty startling what I’m going to tell you. Eight out of 10 suicides are white men in this country. And I think a lot of it has to do with what we’re talking about. I really do.

Now, some of the older men in the audience may remember this song from Simon and Garfunkel. I thought I’d throw this in. You remember this, “I am a rock. I am an island and a rock….” What? Feels no pain? “And an island … never cries.” Feels no pain and never cries.

And I think this is what many men think we have to be.

I think this is why so many men hide themselves from others, because I don’t want you to know that I’m struggling. I don’t want to betray my male identity. And for this reason, I think many men suffer in silence. They suffer alone not realizing, when we live in isolation, we’re harming ourselves. We’re becoming dysfunctional.

Second, I think the performance trap explains why we feel so compelled to compare ourselves with other men in our sphere of influence. Usually we’re not aware how often we compare ourselves with other men, but we do this because I think this is the way so many of us measure our lives. We compare ourselves with others or we compare our kids with other people’s kids as if our children will validate us as men.

I’ve shared this before. I’m not sure how long ago I shared this, but it’s really kind of pertinent to this. I remember watching, it’s kind of like a documentary on Bloomberg television, and it was called “Game Changers” and they would feature the life stories of certain business leaders. And on one of the particular documentaries, they highlighted the life of Larry Ellison, who is the founder of Oracle. And at the time, he was worth $49 billion. You would think that’s enough, but what you learned from the show is that Ellison’s life was fixated on Bill Gates who was worth $72 billion at the time. Number one on Forbe’s 400 list. Ellison was like number four. And in this documentary, Ellison’s colleagues reveal that his great desire was to dethrone Bill Gates as the richest man in America. Now, I don’t know if he’s gotten over that, but you got, now you have Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, and I’m not sure where they all line up with the crazy values of their stocks. But you see his problem—comparison. Comparing himself with Bill Gates. Guys, this is what we do and it can eat you up.

Finally, the performance trap explains why men seek, why we seek to impress other people. And again, sometimes I’m not sure we’re even aware of it, how we drop names, how we do all kinds of things to impress the other guy, and it happens like this. Men will do everything they can to appear outwardly successful and accomplished. And I was asking a guy this yesterday, have you ever thought about how when you meet somebody new, say, a man that you don’t know and y’all meet and you have some time to be with him, have you ever thought about how we so easily start sizing up other men? We have this unconscious tendency of doing this and we compare ourselves with them and we look for opportunities to impress them.

I’m going to give you an example of this. It’s been a long time ago, but I was in the property and casualty insurance brokerage business for 25 years. And the last 10 years of that run, I was the CEO of our company. And if you know anything about the insurance industry, we were brokers, we represented companies. When companies are doing real well, they will take you on these unbelievable trips and they’ll take your spouse with you usually. And they pay for everything. And so, Holly and I, we took some incredible trips. I mean even to Europe, all over the United States. And we would end up at these meetings and we would have these dinners and often we would be at a table like this with people that we didn’t know from all over the country. We didn’t know them. And what you realize is you’re doing this; you start sizing each other up. And for me as a man looking at other men, particularly men in the industry, men who did what I did, I would look at him and say, how does he look? And how does he dress? How intelligent, how really, more, how articulate is he? Where was he educated? What kind of education did he get? And then you wonder, so what is it you do, do you own your own company? Are you part of a public company? What is your title? What are your responsibilities? And this is an interesting one. What about his spouse? Yeah, one of the things, I think that explains really why some men marry trophy wives so they can show them off.

And then we drop names, we share fancy, exotic vacations we’ve been on. And finally, we talk about our kids. How accomplished are your children, where do they go to college? I think, and this is no, I’m not in any way disparaging this, but I think parents love to be able to tell somebody else, my kid goes to an Ivy League school. Makes you look really good. But that’s what we do. Now, guys, if this is the criteria to measure a man’s life, how well do you do? Because I’m not so sure I do that good. I mean, I work for a non-profit organization. I live in a middle class community. My kids didn’t go to Ivy League schools. I mean, I live in a decent house. I drive just a, you know, a regular car. But I will tell you this, you would be impressed with my wife. I hope you see that the problem with this criteria, it’s all about the externals of life.

And in the work that we do here at The Center, I think we have all, I know I have, come to notice a pattern in a man’s life. They leave the academic world, they go out into the working world, they have a vision of their future life, a picture of how they want life to be, and it’s all based on how well they can perform in the visible, measurable dimensions of life. You see, we all have this outer public life which everyone sees, and that’s what they judge us by. But it’s all external. It’s all what people see. It’s the part of our life that we feel compelled we need to manage this well. And the reason is this is where we believe we get our worth and identity as men. But it’s all external. It’s all performance based. It’s all about impression management. And I think what most men are oblivious to is that we have this public outer world, and then we have what Gordon McDonald calls our inner private world that nobody sees. You see, we have a heart and a soul that needs to be nurtured and cared for and strengthened.

And I find that it takes a number of years for us to come to the realization that outwardly you can look great, but inwardly and relationally you can be bankrupt. And then it’s just a matter of time before your life implodes. So, I know I’ve painted probably pretty grim picture of men being caught in this performance trap. But the real issue becomes, what do you do about this? What do we do about this?

And I think a good place to start is by answering the question, what is true masculinity? What is real manhood? What is the true measure of a man? As you sit here this morning, can you answer that? But I think the vital question we should consider is, what does God tell us? I think you would agree, His opinion should matter most.

And my first understanding of this came when I first encountered Romans 8:28. It says, we know that God is causing all things to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. What a great verse, a great promise that God makes to His people. The problem when I first heard that is I had misinterpreted the word “good”. I believed that “good” meant, what I thought at that time was the good life. God was causing all things to work together for my success, my prosperity, and my financial well-being.

It was several years later that someone pointed out, you know, you really need to look at the next verse in Romans 8, Romans 8:29, because it reveals what the ultimate good is and that is that we be conformed to the image of His Son, that we as men would become more Christ-like.

Now, initially, I didn’t know much about Jesus, so this idea of becoming Christ-like did not have a great deal of appeal to me. And maybe it doesn’t have much appeal to some of you sitting here this morning, but as I’ve read more and more about His life, I’ve completely changed my mind. His life was full of joy. He, on two occasions, He says, I want to give you My joy. He also says, I want to give you My peace. And as businessman, I would ask you, do you have peace in your life? But what I’ve really learned is that over the years, that true masculinity is to be Christ-like, and Christlikeness involves three components. And not just necessarily three, but three that I see that are very obvious, and these are big. And after I share this with you this morning, I think you will acknowledge, I want that for my life.

And the first, of course, first of the three, is your character. The foundation of Christ’s character, of course, was His humility. And Andrew Murray says, humility is the root of all character and virtue. But you know, character’s not emphasized in our culture because we’re so focused on performing and achieving.

Several years ago, there was an article in The Wall Street Journal about Harvard Business School and the title of the article, interesting, the title of the article was “A Modern Business Education Provides Theories and Metrics, but No Moral Center”. And I think that’s what’s happened in our country. When it comes to education, they focus on what you can learn up here, but pay really no attention to the formation of the heart and the character and the soul. But I’m convinced of this, the quality of a person’s life is determined by their inward character.

Now, a second component of Christlikeness is to possess great wisdom. I don’t think I mentioned this, I’ve written a book on wisdom. It’s like 64 short essays. And I wrote it because wisdom is of such great importance. Solomon says it’s more valuable than silver and gold. Nothing you desire compares with it. And it comes from the Hebrew word chokmah, which means to have a skill or expertise in living. I mean, seriously, guys, what would that be worth to you? To have a skill and expertise in living this life?

Wisdom helps us understand how life works. It enables you to see the principles that govern life and wise people think clearly, they think maturely, and they have a depth to their life. And ultimately, and I think everybody knows this wise, people make good choices and decisions. So wisdom, character, wisdom, and the third component is the ability to love. The true mark of a man is his ability to love. Are we teaching our sons this? Because if you really think about it, the ability to love has such an impact on the quality of your relationships. And clearly, I just want to make this real quick comment and then I’m going to wrap this up with two illustrations. If you think about it, our relationships with our wives and our relationships with our children are just the foundation of all human relationships. But I don’t think as men, we realize how important friendship is. To have not just acquaintances, we all have a lot of acquaintances, but I’m talking about true friends. And for most men, the quality or substantive relationships are hard to come by.

Ehrmann points us out in his book, and yet, friendship can bring something into our lives that marriage and family can’t. I’m going to read these couple of sentences out of the wisdom book. “Really good friendships have to be deliberately pursued and forged over time. And when we’re willing to come out of hiding, be vulnerable, and be willing to share our secrets with a close friend or two, these friendships will deepen. It seems that the power to honor the truth and speak the truth openly or at the heart of being a healthy, authentic man. And of course, when I have these discussions with men about Christlikeness, usually it’s just a matter of time before someone says, well, how do you do that? How do you become Christlike? Well, guys, you need to hear this. You can’t on your own strength, you can’t do it as an act of your will. We don’t have the resources within ourselves to do this. And a person who really understood this was Augustine, he realized how feeble and weak he was and therefore he understood that he needed something or someone outside of himself to come and transform his life. And of course, he concluded that the only power outside of himself that could transform him was Jesus.

And so, what I’ve learned as a Christian over all these years, that if we diligently seek Him and deepen our relationship with Him, He will transform us. And so please hear this guys. I’m not talking about being religious. I’m not talking about trying to be good. I’m talking literally about the life of God working in the soul of a man’s life.

And I want to share with you this great illustration that points this out. You know, in a number of Jesus’ parables, the Gospel is compared to a tiny seed. And I’m not sure we realize how seeds have a paradoxical strength to them. Think about a small acorn. I bet a number you have oak trees in your yard. Think about it. Take a tiny little acorn. I mean, it seems so insignificant and powerless, yet there’s everything in that acorn to grow into a large, beautiful oak tree. And then out of that oak tree comes thousands of other acorns. So that one little acorn has the power to cover the world in oak trees.

And the Gospel of Christ is like that acorn. It can come into a person’s life. And when it’s nurtured, we will eventually become what Isaiah calls oaks of righteousness or to become Christ-like.

And I love this illustration from G. Campbell Morgan, who was visiting Italy. And one day he wandered into an old cemetery and he says there was a grave that was there that was centuries old. It was apparently, he says, the grave of some prominent wealthy man in that town. And on that grave was this enormous thick slab of marble, and somehow an acorn had years before fallen into the grave and over the centuries, grown out under the side of the marble. It had become a huge oak tree and had cracked the slab of the marble and rolled it off into two pieces. And this was what was so amazing to people, that a little acorn could do this over time. Yet, when a little acorn is given a chance to release its power, it could do something a team of horses could not do. And in this illustration, the seed represents Jesus and when He releases His power into our lives, and when we surrender to him and we grow into our relationship with Him, he has the power to roll any slab out of your life.

And so, a good question this morning as we move towards wrapping this up, what kind of slabs do we have in our own lives? What weighs us down? What steals our joy? What steals our peace? We do all have slabs.

And for so many of us, we struggle with this slab of the performance trap. And guys, I don’t care how dysfunctional a man’s life might be, the power of Christ can crack and roll any stone out of your life. This is the hope that we are offered.

Now, the second illustration comes from sociologist Charles Cooley, very famous sociologist. He died in 1929, but he came up with a landmark theory called the looking glass self. And it was a human development theory. And though it’s a hundred years old, it still applies today. And it’s a theory about your identity. And we all have an identity. We all see ourselves a certain way. And the theory goes like this. A person gets his identity based on how the most important person in his life sees him. And it starts when you’re a child and your parents, you get your identity from your parents, what they think of you. And you can see how a person’s life can be messed up starting when they’re little children because of the identities they develop because of the way their parents treat them. But then, of course, I don’t care how good a relationship you have and your parents are how wonderful your parents are, every child becomes a teenager and then the most important people in your life are your peers. And that’s why, you know what, teenagers can have such a difficult time with their identity because teenagers can be so rotten, they can be so cruel, they can be so ugly. And then when you throw in social media, it’s amazing how it can impact a teenager’s identity. But then as you know, you move from being a teenager into an adult. And unfortunately, I think for us, the most important people in our lives are the people that we want to win their approval, our peers, our colleagues, those we work with, those we compete with. And without realizing, we allow this audience to make the final verdict on our lives and our identity. The problem is, guys, the verdict on our lives is never in because our performance is never over until we reach old age and retire.

But this is what I want to leave you with.

What do you think would happen to a person’s life if Jesus was the most important person in your life? Just think about that for a second. How would that change you?

I contend it would change you radically and would set you free from the performance trap and put you on a path to becoming Christlike. Jesus does not love us guys and does not accept us based on our performance. But because you are of such value to Him, we’re told we are His workmanship. It’s in the book of Ephesians, and workmanship is the Greek word “Poema”, which means work of art. God looks at you like a precious work of art. And when C.S. Lewis became a Christian, he really got all this. He understood everything that we’ve talked about this day about identity. And basically, his life was transformed, as was his identity. Because as he read the Bible, he says he found a new way to establish his identity. He called it coming to terms with his real personality. And this process, he says, involves losing yourself in your relationship to God. He says, “Until you have given yourself up to Him, you will not have a real self. You will not have a real identity because you will always be controlled by the opinions of others.”

And so, I leave you with these words. This is why Christ and only Him, only Jesus, can set you free from this performance trap so that you can become the man he designed you to be with a strong, healthy identity.

Now, before I close in prayer, I just would ask you to, to think about this. If any of this has spoken to you in any way, get involved in a men’s study. If you’re not sure about, you know, your faith and where you are with God, go through The Investigative Study After the Bubba Watson breakfast, I think I’ve been through it with four men, and they’ll tell you had a huge impact on their lives. If you’re a father with a young son, think about Brian Pitt’s ministry. If you have sons who in their late teens, early twenties, I encourage you to buy two copies of the book, The True Measure of a Man, and go through it with him, discuss it with him.

I think it’d be fantastic for your relationship with him. But anyway, y’all have been a great audience. I’m going to close with prayer and when I’m finished, you’ll be dismissed.

Father, thank You for this time together. We’re grateful to be in this beautiful place and eat this wonderful meal. We do thank You for what You teach us about what true manhood is and that You’ve given us the perfect example in Your Son Jesus. Lord, I pray Your blessing on each man here, on each marriage represented here, on each family. I pray that You would bless us as we spend time with our loved ones this next week during Thanksgiving. We’re truly grateful, recognizing all that we are and all that we have comes from You. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

Thank you very much.



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