What is a Real Man?

I recently read that there is a Pentagon document in which President Lyndon Johnson is quoted as saying he didn’t want to pull out of Vietnam because he wouldn’t be viewed as manly. It makes you wonder how world events have been shaped over the centuries, by men who were concerned about whether they appeared to be manly in the eyes of others.

I recently read an article that appeared in The New York Times back in August. It was about Dr. Michael Kimmel, who is the founder and director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University, which is a New York State University. The article describes a day in the classroom:

Michael Kimmel stood in front of a classroom in blue jeans and a blazer with a pen to a whiteboard. “What does it mean,” the 64-year-old sociology professor asked the group, most of them undergraduates, “to be a good man?”

The students looked puzzled.

“Let’s say it was said at your funeral, ‘He was a good man,’” Dr. Kimmel explained. What does that mean to you?”

“Caring,” a male student in the front said.

“Putting other’s needs before yours,” another young man said.

“Honest,” a third said.

Dr. Kimmel listed each term under the heading “Good Man,” then turned back to the group. “Now,” he said, “tell me what it means to be a real man.”

This time, the students reacted more quickly.

“Take charge; be authoritative,” said James, a sophomore.

“Take risks,” said Amanda, a sociology graduate student.

“It means suppressing any kind of weakness,” another offered.

“I think for me being a real man meant talk like a man,” said a young man who’d grown up in Turkey. “Walk like a man. Never cry.”

“I think American men are confused about what it means to be a man.”

Dr. Kimmel had been taking notes. “Now you’re in the wheelhouse,” he said, excitedly. He pointed to the “Good Man” list on the left side of the board, then to the “Real Man” list he’d added to the right. “Look at the disparity. I think American men are confused about what it means to be a man.”

I think Kimmel is on to something. American men are confused over what it truly means to be masculine.

In the wonderful book Season of Life by Pulitzer Prize-winning Jeffrey Marx, the former All-Pro defensive end with the Baltimore Colts, Joe Ehrmann, explains how men’s identities so often get messed up because of what he calls “false masculinity.”

It begins on the playground in elementary school as young boys begin to play sports. The better athletes are elevated in the eyes of their peers, and those who are not as athletic become deflated. The ability to athletically perform seems to be dominant in the lives of young boys.

And then they reach puberty and move on to high school where their lives are measured by their ability to relate to and win the opposite sex. A real man has the ability to attract girls. A teenaged boy has to project the macho image that women love. Ehrmann notes that it is very shameful for young men if they feel like women are not attracted to them.

Then, as an adult, economic success becomes the gauge with which a man measures his life. It is as if one’s whole value and worth as a man is based on job titles and bank account balances. Those who achieve and acquire the most are deemed to be real men. And those who do not grab the brass ring, well…

To whom should we look to define true manhood?

So how do we uproot these false ideas about masculinity, and what do we replace them with? Can a man replace his isolation with a sense of belonging? To whom should we look to define true manhood? If you read the New Testament, it becomes quite clear that Jesus is the epitome of true masculinity. God makes it clear that instead of focusing our lives on performing and achieving, He wants us to be most concerned with the type of man that we are becoming. He wants us to become more like Christ.

Now, I realize that we live in a culture in which men might not believe that “Christlikeness” is very manly. I know that for me, for many years, it did not have much appeal. In my mind, it means that I had to become more religious … that I had to withdraw from the world and go into hiding, which is not what I desired for my life. However, over the years, as I have studied the life of Christ, I have come to recognize that Jesus was not religious. In fact, the religious people in that culture had great contempt for him. What I have learned is Christlikeness is:

  • To be transformed in our character,
  • To grow in wisdom, and
  • To love, have compassion, and foster high-quality relationships.

Character, wisdom and love make us the essence of what it means to be an authentic man. But how can I make them into realities in my life?

The answer is simple: You can’t, at least not with only your own strength and power.

The truth is that we do not have the resources within ourselves to produce these qualities. Augustine recognized how feeble and weak we are as men, and therefore, he realized that he needed something outside of himself to come and transform his life. He required something or someone who could enable him to do that which he could not do with his own strength. He realized that this transforming person could only be Jesus. Only Christ can bring forth the change that we need by strengthening our hearts, enlightening our minds, and giving us a greater capacity to love.



Continue by listening to Richard’s podcasts on this topic

The True Measure of a Man in the Midst of Economic Hardship


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