As a pastor, I’ve noticed this in myself and in other men.
Here it is. Men are needy. As I’ve experienced it, men are generally much needier than women. We have what René Girard calls a “lack of being.”* Deep down we have an emptiness, a nothingness, inside of ourselves. And typically nobody ever teaches us how to manage the emptiness.
In many ways, our culture tells us to ignore the emptiness. Men certainly should never admit to our emptiness. A “needy” man in our culture isn’t manly. He’s weak. So, you should “Man up” … whatever that means.
But in other ways, our culture tells us to fill the emptiness with things that will never last. Sex. Drugs. Fast cars. Bigger electronics. The desire for more power and wealth. Like morphine, they give us a hit of fulfillment, but after it wears off, we sink deeper into the emptiness.
We see others in our culture who don’t seem to have this emptiness. They are the successful politicians, movie stars, athletes, and social media influencers. We compare our lives to theirs, and they seem so much more fulfilled. But we’ve witnessed in the last few months that they experience the emptiness just like the rest of us do.
We live in a hyper-sexualized culture of consumerism that cannot deliver on its promises of fulfillment. But I don’t want to blame our culture for any of this. Rather, I want to help men take responsibility for the emptiness that plagues us.
Because if we don’t we are likely to act out in unhealthy and destructive ways, especially when it comes to sexuality. For example, we risk acting out by harassing, assaulting, or attempting to dominate women. This might give us a temporary sense of power, but it never fulfills the emptiness. Unless men learn to manage the void, we’re in jeopardy of becoming addicted to a brief sense of power over and against women. And like a drug, we will likely go back for more. It’s toxic and destructive. Tragically, we are seeing the results of that toxicity before our very eyes.
So here’s my message to men: the emptiness isn’t going away. That may sound pessimistic, but the sooner you realize this, the better off you will be. You can have all the success in the world and you will still experience this emptiness. Read the ancient wisdom found in the book of Ecclesiastes. You won’t find meaning in buying new stuff or gaining worldly success. That leads to deeper emptiness because it’s all vanity. It’s all emptiness.
Jesus took on the fullness of humanity, which means he took on the fullness of our emptiness. Part of the Good News is that Jesus, God incarnate, is with us in our emptiness.
But what do we do about the emptiness? The most helpful thing for me has been to name it. Only when we name it can we begin to manage it and our masculinity in healthy ways. The healthiest thing we can do is to be honest with ourselves and with others about our emptiness. In a culture that glorifies hyper-masculinity, this requires an appropriate sense of vulnerability. By appropriate, I mean you don’t have to be on a megaphone announcing your emptiness. Making our emptiness primarily about us in an overly public way isn’t healthy. That’s because nobody else is responsible for our emptiness. We are responsible for it.
At the same time, you are not alone in your emptiness. God is with you. There are other men on the journey, too. Men who have learned to manage the emptiness in healthy ways. Authors like Richard Rohr and Peter Rollins are two of the best models I know. But there are many other kind and gentle souls who have stared the emptiness in the face and have come out the other side. Maybe the most important thing we can do is find one whom we can trust.
*For another discussion about desire and “lack of being,” join my colleague Suzanne Ross and me for a live Facebook Chat this Thursday at 5:00 CT!
**See Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred, 146. He says that we don’t know what to desire, and “The reason is that he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess.”