Although the official name for tomorrow’s calendar event is “Father’s Day” I think it is appropriate in this gender fluid era to expand the intention to make it “men’s day,” a day to celebrate manhood. At first blush this may sound like a tribute to machismo, but not surprisingly I have another tack to take, and I want to share my efforts, past and present, to square up what it means to be a man in this ever-shifting social order. So first I want to offer some perspective.
My father died when I was only two, so I didn’t get an opportunity to observe my father's efforts to adapt to the inevitable changes impacting his culturally defined role as a man in the post-WWII 1950s and to learn from him. But I imagine him watching me and my generation attempt to evolve into more gender sensitive men as more and more gender equality was being expected and accepted. And I think he would have been even more impressed when he watched my sons, his grandchildren, as they became ever more part of nurturing their children as they adapted to the challenges of two family incomes, changing presumptions about “male authority/privilege,” and dealt with the shift to gender equality in general in the workplace, community and public life. And now as I look back on my experience of the ongoing shifts in societal male roles over at least fifty years, I can celebrate the evolution towards equality and what it means to have become a better version of a male in these times.
Women have also been faced with tensions related to gender equality, of course, not the least of which is the often frustrating pace of change as men resisted their losses of privilege and exceptionalism. From my experience the transitions have often simply been confusing. With no particular models or guideposts about how to accommodate and adjust to the transition of gender roles, the demands and expectations of a change of behavior and speech felt like shifting sand under my feet. But I am clear now that I have been part of this extremely important evolution of cultural norms that now give me such deep satisfaction to see our sons so involved in the daily lives of their children, and I am very pleased that all our grandchildren, both boys and girls, are now far less burdened by the constraints of gender inequality.
But for a moment of reality as well…The shift to gender equality is far from over, of course. Many of my male brothers across the country continue to mightily and violently resist the shift. White males especially have traditionally benefited from the privileges of simply being male, and the movement toward inclusiveness and social ascendancy of not only women but people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ people, among others, presents a threatening loss of power and privilege that is painful to observe (at least for me as I attempt to empathically understand their anger) and politically dangerous. Simultaneously our culture is caught between a threatening dynamic tension that is both happening too slowly and not fast enough.
Which brings me back to my thoughts about manhood. It seems to me that our understanding about gender at birth is a biological, God-given reality, but how we go about defining, naming and thinking about gender and manhood is a linguistic and social construct. There are many ways to define manhood that transcend and transform the one I grew up with. Over the last fifty years or more of my life I have been creating and recreating my understanding of manhood for myself and for my children and the coming generations. The process has led me to appreciate the liberation of becoming a “sensitive male,” less authoritarian, less worried about the power of simply being a male and instead exploring, growing and nurturing my power to create a world informed by, and responsive to, a commitment to the practice of nonviolence. I can think of few things demanding the male virtues of courage and protection of loved ones greater than the practice of nonviolent, sacrificial love and life-affirming service to family and community.
I believe our angry and besieged white brothers actually already have the capacity for that kind of commitment for love and protection that is presently misdirected into frustrated expressions of rage and violence. But as we continue to envision and create models of manhood that are committed to equality, nurturance, nonviolence and inclusiveness, we are part of generating a new, hopeful model of manhood that will lead to a more peaceful world. Blessed be!