What IS "Masculinity"

I generally really enjoy the daily meditations I receive from Fr. Richard Rohr.  Today's was a little challenging, and I'm still processing it:


Question of the Day:
How can a man befriend
both the boy and the old man within him?

I believe in every man there are two basic archetypes and they are most simple:  the young boy and the old man.  In many of our lives, one or the other totally dominates, some men never grow up and others never grow down. The ideal is when the two become friends and meet somewhere in the middle.  That is the “grand” father that we all love and need.
Our native peoples said that “the young man who cannot weep is a savage and the old man who cannot laugh is a fool.”  That is now the motto of our men’s work worldwide (M.A.L.Es, Men as Learners and Elders).
Liberate men to be truly masculine.
The body text sounds right on, but I have to admit, the "mantra" at the end makes me nervous.  "Liberate men to be truly masculine."  What exactly does "truly masculine" mean?  And is what's truly masculine for one man truly masculine for another?  And is that "truth" inherently differentiated from true femininity, or is it true "humanity" we're really talking about?  True adulthood?  True self-awareness?  Perhaps, true self-actualization?

Talking about masculinity makes me nervous for a number of reasons.  First, I've never been a particularly macho guy.  Christian Youth Culture was always awkward for me growing up, because I wasn't an athlete, and so much of the activities focused around athletics.  Second, I have always been emotional.  I'm the guy crying in the theater at the romantic comedy, not my wife.  Third, I have gay friends.  Where does "true" masculinity fit for them?  Finally, I don't think it's legitimate to talk about masculinity in a theoretical vacuum: to explore masculinity is to explore femininity, and we need to be careful that statements we make about one are not in any way exclusive.

Sensitivity is a feminine trait.  Sensitivity is a masculine trait.
Aggression is a masculine trait.  Aggression is a feminine trait.
Nurturing is a feminine role.  Nurturing is a masculine role.

I checked out Fr. Rohr's M.A.L.Es site.  It reads:
Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM has been exploring issues of male spirituality since 1987.  From this work Richard observed that men in our western culture were lacking in their experience and understanding of the transcendent power of God.  He has established Rites of Passage programs to help guide men through a formal initiation process that they may have missed during their critical developmental period as young men.

This premise rings really true for me: there is a lack of awareness in our culture when it comes to becoming a "grown up."  I assume the same is true both for men and women.  We see a fictional reality portrayed in incongruent, contradictory simultaneity on television.  We watch our parents or teachers, coaches or pastors - all imperfect and well-intentioned - but there is little ritual left in our society.  There is little to mark our passing into adulthood.  There is little to guide us into a deeper sense of self...

And so we take on these broken, warped pop-archetypes of gender and act out what we have observed, hoping it fits.  And we make a mess - men and women - and we hurt ourselves and each other because nobody ever said, "Peter, this is how to be a man..." and certainly not in a way that transcends cheap, damaging stereotypes, completely out of date and inappropriate to an egalitarian society.

So I appreciate what I assume is the heart behind Fr. Rohr's program.  It's just that mantra that gets me: "liberate men to be truly masculine."  More often than not, it isn't men most in need of liberation.  But we do need liberation.  And perhaps, we need liberation from the de facto role of oppressor.

I'm reminded of a program a friend of mine, Doug, told me about some time ago:
The ManKind Project

What are your thoughts and experiences on gender?  How have gender labels helped or hindered you?  What wounds or blessings have you encountered relating to the process of understanding gender?


Lutestring said...

I really appreciated this post, Peter ... shallow cliches around gender are so rampant where I live in the Bible Belt.

The church itself has definitely hurt me a lot in this area ... when I was younger, as a teenager I was with some other young women in a study about femininity and our role in that ... and it was very, very limiting. "Women do this, men do that, bla bla bla." This was at a time in my life when I felt very powerless about a lot of things and it really did nothing to help with that but enforced my learned passivity and shallow self-image.

My (women) leaders were also very dismissive of some pain that men had caused me in my life, and justified a lot of it on their masculinity "men need to feel respected, in control" ... this deepened a desperate depression and self-destructiveness/hatred in me that has taken years to subside.

That is one of my biggest wounds with the church ... I am not the only woman by far either.

So much of my experience with gender concepts has been very hurtful ... with women, it has often limited/sentimentalized/objectified them, with men, served to excuse and glamorize many hurtful, destructive things. I hate that.

A lot of my healing has come from just soaking up great art/books/movies/music ... and paying closer attention to the people around me. I found that both women and men were free to be more than they were ever allowed to be by any culture.

A lot of the affirmation first came by finding strong, powerful, independent women in different places, both stories and history ... but as I progressed, I began to notice some male heroes that weren't your normal male hero either ...

Often our culture, through different things, has glorified the macho, forceful, dominating male hero ... but I found a different kind ... This different hero may use violence, but if so he uses it regretfully, preferring to use his heart and peacemaking skills to diffuse tension. If possible he puts his own self on the line to heal the wounds in the world around him. He is kind and compassionate and selfless towards everyone.

I couldn't say what needs to be done to heal gender issues for people ... I do think, that if we realized we were all free to be so much more than we've been told or shown, the world would change dramatically. If you have any further thoughts on what might need to happen we would love to read them.

I am sorry I wrote a book - it is rarely I find a place where this stuff is acknowledged, so it all kind of spilled out.

Al said...

I suppose the biggest liberation any of us need is to be set free from the stereotypes you are talking about. The church certainly hasn't always pointed in the right direction on that one!

But I kinda think that isn't to say that men and women are inherently identical. A child needs the full spectrum of input characteristic--things like nurturing, sensitivity, assertiveness, affirmation, ambition etc. And one parent probably won't be strong in all of these areas. But it doesn't have to be the Dad who is assertive, or the Mom who is sensitive (to say nothing about same-sex parents).

Perhaps 'true masculinity' or 'true femininity' is as unique as fulfilling your personality as it has been given you. Freely and completely expressing the character and identity you have.

Good question, Peter. Food for thought.

Brent said...

I wrote a lot on this and will be posting it once I get a chance to clean up the grammar.

The idea of spiritual masculinity doesn't even make sense. Does it? I always been of the understanding that our spirit is without gender.

Peter said...

Lutestring, as always, thanks for sharing. The women closest to me have experienced much of the hurtful things you name here. Please don't ever apologize - visitor comments are what keep me going on this site!

I think what needs to happen is ongoing dialogue. I think it's unfortunate that the comfort of "good enough" slowed the progress of what might be called 3rd wave feminism. A lot of feminist writers see regression over the last two decades, rather than progress. Others say progress continued, but is slowed. It's not for me to say, but I strongly advocate continuing effort, dialogue, advocacy and even protest when necessary. Even as a man I can see how far we are from equity. There's work left to do.

Al, my friend, eloquent as usual: "Perhaps 'true masculinity' or 'true femininity' is as unique as fulfilling your personality as it has been given you. Freely and completely expressing the character and identity you have." Wonderful.

Brent, I agree in objective terms of gender. I wonder (and it really is wondering, not certainty) if many of us still inherently need to identify ourselves and even our spirituality in ways that align with our gender. I'm sure that's not the case for everyone, though.

Makes me think about the Holy Spirit: in Hebrew, "spirit" is feminine. I think it's masculine in Greek. We either neuter the spirit, or make it masculine, in English. There is a strong line throughout Church history, of regarding the Holy Spirit as Divine Feminine.

What if spirit is uniquely feminine? Does that rock our personal gender views? Just a thought....

Something I am considering: pursuing a woman as a mentor. I have had mixed experiences with men as mentors, and wonder if I might discover just as much about myself (even my male identity) through a woman. I know I prefer female therapists...

Brent said...

I was just talking to a friend of mine about this same idea of there being no defining moment leading into adulthood. She also expressed having these feelings of never obtaining adulthood, so like you said it seems to be both males and females experiencing this. I have also talk about this with both my parents several years ago. They have also experienced this, more so my mom, even saying she still feels like a child from time to time.

However even though there doesn’t seem to be a defining transition to adulthood, I don’t really think rights of passages would have any more effect on a person than just being another type of birthday. Everybody develops at different speeds. Becoming “grown up” has many influences and I don’t believe a single cultural passage event would have a significant effect on the psychology of becoming an adult, since I would contend adulthood is a process that can only be fully reached once the biological maturation has taken place. Our current American culture doesn’t help much on influencing the individual to this adult stage either. The responsibilities of adulthood are delayed so much some never learn. I’m not sure what the definition of adulthood is and suspect it’s probably differentiate for everyone. For me it is being responsible to those around me. This was the same idea I had in my youth but, then I was deceived to belief that this responsibility would be easier.

Now as for the feeling of adulthood, or lack of feeling, I have recognized it was my young perception that had and has misled me. So instead of hyper-reflecting on obtaining “adulthood” I now focus on the capabilities I have that I didn’t then. Hyper-reflection on reaching “adulthood” only breeds the opposite of that which we desire.

I tend to think the biological aspects of our genders are what get construed most in current society. There are distinct biological traits between the genders not just gender roles created by socio-cultural aspects described in the social learning theory and Gender schema theory. I would contend that these biological aspects of gender are not only exaggerated by society but just as many are repressed. The repressed one I encounter over and over again are younger woman friends who convey a longing to raise children but feel an intense pressure to obtain a college degree in order to have a career. Many of them don’t even seem aware of this maternal drive that is such a part of there biology. What they convey seems to be a frustration between these two paths they are faced with choosing. I’ve even had one friend say if she married a guy who could provide for a family on just his job, she would have children instead of going to college. It wasn’t that she would never go to college it’s was just that she has a stronger desire to raise children than pursue a career. Not all women have this biological drive and they don’t even need it to live a meaningful life. But what there seems to be is a repressing of this desire in many women. In general our American post-modern society does not seem to be a very friendly place for this desire to come to fruition. I would agree women with this desire should still look out for themselves and pursue college and careers if their current situation is not friendly to raising children, if that is their desire. What I don’t like is the social pressure that has been put on women to go to college when many would rather raise a family. This is one example of genders getting misconstrued. The flexibility is everybody doesn’t need to fit into a gender role but, I do think there are benefits when they line up with the biological aspects of gender. Just don’t confuse these biological factors of gender with the cultures perception of gender.

Brent said...

Lutestring, thanks for sharing. I think what you have conveyed rings true for so many of us as we grow up. The good thing is you recognized it, which gives and gave you the advantage of growing beyond the cultures ideas of gender. We all deal with our cultures, churches and even families views of gender roles. Not all are horrible but not all are helpful. I grew up in Oregon so I’m sure the ideas are far different than the Bible belts ideas. I’m glad you have found healing in this area and pray, if you need, you will find more.

Pete, you may be right about aligning those with our gender, I’ve also wondered about that. I have many more thoughts on that but I’ll stop now. lol

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