I was 5 years old the first time I heard the word “gentleman.” At the time, I was staying with my grandparents and I had just discovered an antique sword that had been in our family since the 19th century.
Much to my grandma’s dismay, she found me parading around the house with this family heirloom (which was almost as tall as I was), challenging various pieces of furniture to single combat.
My grandma hurriedly confiscated the weapon, informing me that this sword could only be held by someone who was “an officer and a gentleman.” I inquired what a “jen-tall-mun” was, and my grandma, who never missed an opportunity for a life lesson, informed me that it was someone who picked up all their toys, ate their broccoli at dinner, and played nicely with their little sisters.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that what it means to be a gentleman isn’t quite as clear as it seemed when I was 5. If you believed everything you saw in advertising, you’d probably imagine that a gentleman is someone who always wears three-piece suits, drinks scotch, and smells of rich mahogany. Maybe you’ve seen a building or two bearing the words “Gentleman’s Club.” In these establishments, being a gentleman is about paying a woman to undress (rather than paying her the respect she deserves). But is this really all it means to be a gentleman? It has to be about more than wearing luxury clothing and treating women like they’re objects.
A Brief History of the “Gentleman”
Historically, the title of “gentleman” was a birthright, used to identify men of a certain rank among English nobility. No doubt these men were expected to be well-mannered, but their status as gentlemen didn’t depend on how they acted. They were merely born into it.
Over time, what it meant to be a gentleman began to change. The title began to be applied to any well-educated man of prosperity. Gentlemen no longer had to be born into a social class, men could work their way to “gentleman-ship” by achieving worldly success.
That definition has shifted again. Today’s “gentleman” is often defined by what the world has determined are gentlemanly actions – holding doors open for women, designing the most elaborate prom-posals, and being social and likable – rather than being men of true character.
This “modern gentleman” will tell a girl she’s beautiful, but the moment she expresses that she isn’t interested in him, he will make all kinds of nasty remarks.
He will go the extra mile when he knows it will make him look good in front of his friends, coaches, or even youth leaders, but won’t put in the same effort at home with his family, or to help out a random stranger.
He adheres to a strict workout regime in the gym, but won’t apply that same level of routine and self-disciple in other areas of their life, such as prayer or community service.
The True Gentleman
Men, there’s nothing wrong with culturally accepted gentlemanly behaviors like learning how to tie a bow tie, treating a girl nicely, or minding your manners, but we need to realize that being a gentleman is about a lot more than these behaviors. Being a true gentleman starts with building a foundation of manly virtue in our lives – self-discipline, courage and love – and letting that foundation be the source of those good behaviors.
How do we grow in virtue? The same way we grow in physical fitness and strength – by tirelessly working on it. Aristotle writes that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
To grow in self-discipline, challenge yourself every day. One way I live this out is that the minute my alarm goes off in the morning, I drag myself out of bed, kneel down, and spend the first few minutes of the day in prayer. It’s often the last thing my body wants to be doing at 7 am, but it’s amazing how this small act of self-disciple has a positive impact on the rest of my day.
Force yourself to step outside your comfort zone. Stand up for what you believe in when you’re with your friends, sit next to the kid at school that has no one to sit with him/her, persevere with a project even in the face of failure. Recognise that courage in these situations isn’t the absence of fear or hesitation, but the willingness to battle through these emotions and do what is right anyway.
One of my favorite quotes by OG (original gentleman) St. John Paul II is “Man cannot live without love. …his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own.” Train yourself to always be looking out for opportunities to carry out small acts of love. Make an effort to affirm your friends, give your parents a night off and cook dinner, do a random act of kindness for a stranger.
He Respects Women
The need for true gentlemen is particularly obvious in light of our culture’s huge problem with the objectification of women. The gentleman places special emphasis on the way he treats his female counterparts. He is called to uphold the dignity of all people and not use women as objects for his pleasure.
The gentleman doesn’t speak in ways that degrade and he doesn’t dismiss such speech as “locker-room talk.” The gentleman doesn’t use pornography, and if he is struggling with porn addiction, he will do everything he can to overcome it. The gentleman doesn’t deny women the respect they deserve by having casual sex outside of marriage and he respects all women equally, whether or not they hold him to the standard of true respect.
Real men of virtue show respect and consideration for all women, simply because they deserve it by nature of their creation. Courteous acts like holding doors open or giving up one’s seat are great, but what’s more important is a man’s underlying motivations for such acts. If we’re primarily motivated by some other agenda, like attracting a pretty girl’s attention, then we’ve still got work to do. If a girl has to be at least a ‘7’ for you to offer to carry her books then you’re sitting at a solid ‘1’ on the gentleman scale.
He Strives to be a Gentleman Everyday
Saint Josemaria Escriva once said, “There is a need for a crusade of manliness and purity to counteract and nullify the savage work of those who think man is a beast. And that crusade is your work.”
Men, the world is in desperate need of true gentlemen – men who are committed to virtue in all aspects of their lives. Being a gentleman isn’t easy. There will be times when you will fall short of the standards you set for yourself, but remember that the gentleman isn’t deterred by failure. He gets up, brushes himself off, and tries again.
Remember also that the virtuous man is vastly different from the man the world is comfortable accepting. At times, you may feel pressured to compromise your standards, ridiculed for your “outdated” beliefs, or excluded because of them. When it happens (and it will happen), don’t settle for being less than the true gentleman you were created to be.
Live a life of virtue. Be a gentleman.
If you want to learn more about growing in true masculinity and living a life on fire, check out Fire Inside.
And if you’re eager to dive into your faith, in fellowship with other holy, Catholic men, consider joining us for the Life Teen Men’s retreat. Click here for more information.