What does it mean to be a man? What has always been a difficult question for young men to navigate as they grew up is becoming increasingly difficult. They are pulled in a variety of directions in a fast-moving, digital age where professional athletes, famous celebrities, adept journalists, and popular musicians can sometimes have a bigger voice in a young man’s life than family members, friends, or a local church community.
With so many competing voices, it may not always seem clear who has the right ideas. After all, there is no shortage of harmful stereotypes that tell men that their masculinity is based on how many women they can attract, how big their muscles are, how much they know about sports, or how much money they can make – just to name a few. That being said, what can we do to dispel some of these stereotypes and how can we really answer the question, “What does it mean to be a man?”
At one end of a spectrum of misconceptions about what true masculinity entails, failure to live up to certain stereotypes are often criticized with phrases like “man up”, “be a man”, and other similar ideas. I’m sure you’ve had plenty of experiences where you’ve heard these phrases uttered as a way to attack something that doesn’t actually have anything to do with masculinity. Some common examples include expressing emotions associated with vulnerability, enjoying activities stereotyped as feminine (like cooking), or lacking interest in activities stereotyped as masculine (like grilling).
In reality, none of these examples has anything to do with masculinity. Telling someone to “man up” in situations like these not only spreads incorrect ideas about what makes a man a man, but it also can also belittle others and make them wonder if there is something wrong with them – all because of an arbitrary, silly stereotype that managed to become popular.
Despite the abuse of these phrases, I don’t think we need to throw them out entirely. We can transform them into positive tools that lift up other men and encourage them to be better. After all, no one should object to the fact that many men need to act more like who God created them to be instead of behaving in irresponsible, destructive, and immature ways.
For example, when I was growing up, I remember occasionally getting so angry with my parents that I erupted into loud, yelling tirades with them. I remember feeling that there was something noble and masculine about becoming angry and bombastic. I perceived these behaviors as showing conviction and intensity. It took quite some time, but my dad was eventually able to show me that my ideas about this were wrong. He told me over and over that throwing something that was essentially a tantrum doesn’t solve anything – you just hurt people’s feelings, elevate situations, and create opportunities to say regrettable things that you would normally never say. In situations like these, he often told me that “real men don’t act like that.” He was never trying to humiliate me or seeking to diminish my masculinity. He was teaching me that I needed to control my temper and my aggression. In just a few words, he was able to get the idea across that my ideas about makes someone a man were wrong. He taught me that if I really wanted to be masculine, I was going to have to change.
Is Masculinity Toxic?
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of false ideas about masculinity, there is a common idea that some characteristics that men are likely to have are dangerous and toxic. As a result, these characteristics are discouraged and have started to be viewed negatively. A few examples of commonly targeted traits include aggression, risk-taking, or competitiveness. If you try to make all men to fit rigidly into these categories, you will find yourself back in the realm we talked about earlier. Having these traits don’t automatically make you masculine – it’s how you use them. However, these are characteristics that men are more likely to exhibit than women.
This said, there should be no objection to the fact that some traits like these can be corrupted and end up manifesting in destructive and violent behaviors like crime, bullying, or violence. These corrupted traits are the opposite of masculine and should be discouraged; when a trait becomes corrupt and harmful, it’s valid to understand the trait as “toxic.” However, I think it’s important to make the distinction that it isn’t masculinity itself that is toxic – it is the distortion of masculinity that is toxic. A failure to make this distinction can lead men to a loss in self-understanding and encourage a lifestyle that falls short of the greatness that God has called them to as men.
As St. Josemaria Escriva once wrote, “There is need for a crusade of manliness and purity to counteract and undo the savage work of those who think that man is a beast.” If you give a sport everything you have, participate in spirited and friendly intellectual debate, or bravely stand up for someone that can’t stand up for themself – you are setting an example of what masculinity looks like in its true, authentic form. You have shown what aggression, a tendency to take risks, and a desire to compete against others is really supposed to look like.
Ecce Homo – Behold the Man!
Between all these different misunderstandings about masculinity, is there anywhere where a good, true, beautiful, and constant definition be found? Look no further than Christ. In Him, you can find the most authentic representation of what it means to be a man. You will notice that Christ’s manliness is not wrapped up in awards, fame, popularity, or his physical appearance.
A Benedictine monk named Fr. Christian Raab finds a great argument in support of this in the works of a Jesuit priest named Fr. Walter J. Ong. Fr. Ong noted that Christ stands in direct competition to sin and darkness spread throughout the entire world. He encourages discipleship so radical and militant that even your own family may turn against you (Matthew 10:34–36). He liberates all of humanity by pushing himself to the limits of his mental and physical strength. He endures self-sacrifice through pain and humiliation to the point of death so that others can be saved. Also consider that Christ willingly rejected comfort in order to discipline Himself, fight temptation, and grow closer to God (Matthew 4). He was also willing to perform tasks considered menial in order to serve others (John 13: 1 – 11). He channeled his rage and aggression into righteous and just causes (Matthew 21: 12 – 17). These are all actions that reveal true masculinity.
In my mind, and the mind of Fr. Ong, there is no doubt that the way men and women imitate and relate to Christ are often quite different. I should clarify that men and women are equally called to follow the example that Christ set in their own lives. For example, they are both called to sacrifice themselves for others but are often called to do this in unique or different ways. Consider the priesthood or fatherhood. Both are uniquely masculine ways of following Christ that do not minimize women and shouldn’t be portrayed as in opposition to them; just like how distinctly feminine traits and paths, such as motherhood, shouldn’t be portrayed in opposition to masculinity. It wouldn’t be right to ignore that Christ, as a human male, approached some situations in a distinctly masculine way.
This reality provides a clear, vocational roadmap for men to build their masculinity upon. Through Christ’s example, we can see that authentic masculinity calls men to make sacrifices, humble themselves for the benefit of others, and stand up for the right things. We can see that men should channel some of their biological characteristics into positive outlets. We can see that highest virtues of masculinity aren’t comfort, accolades, or fame. We can see that men should be responsible and accountable to those that depend on them most. We can see that honest, hard work is sanctifying and good. We can see that men, when they are at their best and striving to imitate Christ, can reveal God’s heart to the entire world in beautiful, unique, and loving ways.