The Arts of Manhood

The Arts of Manhood February 1, 2013

This past week, I’ve engaged in a couple of intense conversations about manhood in America. A lovely, thoughtful young friend of our family, age 25, was lamenting that she could not find men her age who were worth the trouble of dating. She finds herself interested only in men who are at least ten years older than she is. “They’re the only ones who ask questions and follow through on commitments!” In another chat, a former student of mine who is a military chaplain recounted to me his experiences with young male soldiers who not only are sorely lacking in coping and interpersonal skills, but have few decent male role models to help them develop those abilities. He’s only 30 years old, but he’s very much in the role of “dad” for hundreds of young “weekend warriors” in the Army Reserves.

He and I noodled together about how to help males become real men. We both promised to email each other with some basic principles about the arts of manhood. Here’s my list – and please me send your suggestions for additions!


What it takes to be a real man (regardless of sexual orientation):

* Real men ask questions.
When they are lost, they admit it, and seek direction – whether it’s about geography or about how to handle a challenge in a relationship. Real men spend more time asking questions of their romantic partners than they spend talking about themselves. Real men show real and sustained interest in who their partners are, what they want, and how they feel and think. Real men aren’t afraid they’ll look dumb if they ask a lot of questions.

* Real men make commitments and follow through on them. They aren’t afraid of making a promise if they are sincere about delivering on it. If they say they’re going to do something, they do it. If for some reason they aren’t able to follow through on a commitment, they tell the truth about it in a timely fashion.

* Real men are outrageously righteous, and righteously outrageous.
Real men put fun into hard work, and they turn their play into service to others. Real men are uproarious in goodness, outlandish in kindness. They know how to have a wild good time while making the world around them a better place.

* Real men are worshipped as sexual partners because they worship their partners first!
They take the time – even if it is a long time – to make everything just the way their partners need it to be. They ask their partners exactly what they want, and they ask for continual feedback as they give their partners exactly what they want, how they want it, and when they want it – no more, and no less. They are masters of the arts of love because they are perfect love-servants.

* Real men hang out with real men.
They have long-term bromances. They make extra effort to spend time with men they admire. They mentor each other. They share what they’ve learned with each other. They show up for each other in good and in tough times. They seek each others’ advice and counsel. They resist their inner urge to be “self-reliant” when they most need the support of their brothers. They go out of their way to befriend younger men who could benefit from their experience and network of relationships.

* Real men are servant-leaders.
They show real humility. They aren’t afraid to let the world know about their real skills and abilities – but they also recognize that they are fallible. They are rightly proud when they climb tall summits, but they are humble about the fact that they didn’t make those magnificent mountains. Real men lead by helping others do their jobs. They support the people who report to them. Others follow them because they show the way to serve. Real men aren’t full of themselves: they empty themselves into those who follow them.

* Real men are mindful.
They know themselves. They pay attention to their thoughts and feelings. They acknowledge and creatively channel their emotions. They show their joy, their sadness, their grief, without being destructive. They don’t bottle up their feelings and then explode. They are pro-active with their emotions. If they are getting angry, they take a break. They take a walk, do pull-ups, breathe deeply. They let the sharpness of the emotion subside, and only then deal calmly with whatever it was that got them angry. Real men practice mindfulness in disciplined ways such as meditation, journaling, and prayer practices.

* Real men are really strong. Sure, they might be able to bench-press hundreds of pounds, but they’re even stronger than that. They have resilience. If they get beaten down, they gather their wits and their strength and stand up as straight as they can. Real men don’t whine. They express their frustrations, but they don’t hide behind them. They tell it like it is in the moment, but don’t act like that’s the last word. They keep going. If they run out of road, they make a new one.

Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See my GUIDE to my books, “musings”, and other writings
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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5 responses to “The Arts of Manhood”

  1. My husband and I have always said that if our boat ever comes in, one of the causes we would invest heavily in is young men. I think that those of us who are fairly priviledged have no concept of the damage which is and has been done by wide-spread fatherlessness. But go into a prison or a poor school or even just enter into an intimate relationship with a man who grew up without a father and the ongoing tragedy of boys and men becomes tragically apparent. (Fatherlessness is a problem for girls as well, of course, but it’s the boys that every seems to want to just ignore or throw away.)

    This may sound absurd, but I really believe that part of Christian’s response to this ongoing problem needs to be an embrace of traditional Christian sexual ethics – only without all the guilt, shame and coercion. Those of us who are priviledged can often navigate the sexual free-for-all we live in without too much harm. We are used to living in an orderly world and responsible use of birth control fits into that easily enough. We’re also usually reasonably well able to recognize and avoid abusive, nihilistic people and don’t engage in intimate relationships with the sort of person who doesn’t care what’s going to happen tomorrow. But a lot of people – especially those growing up without fathers – live in chaotic environments and are surrounded by abuse and nihilism. What works for those of us coming from priviledged backgrounds just doesn’t translate so well into such environments. I think that it would be a powerful statement for Christians from all backgrounds to openly embrace traditional Christian ethics for sex as a way to take a stand against the damage of fatherlessness.

    I have two teen boys and two teen stepsons. What I have taught them is to use the time between sexual maturity and when they are able to commit to a covenant relationship to (which are also the things I would say are part of learning the art of real manhood):

    1. Integrate their sexuality and their spirituality. Eastern Orthodox monks who are celibate bring their sexual urges to God in prayer, not to subsume or remove them, but to share them with God. This is very counter-intuitive in our Western minds where sex and God are seen as in opposition. But if we believe that our sexuality is good and God given, that all parts of our lives are to be lived with and for God, then this makes sense. (I think this is also the meaning behind that verse where Paul tells husbands and wives not to deprive each other of their bodies except for brief periods for prayer.)

    2. Learn to master themselves. If they are able to master their bodies, sexuality and will in a way that is positive and not harmful, then they can do anything they want to in life. Rather than being emasculating, a time of sexual abstinence can be the basis for developing the sort of impulse control, self-discipline and mindfulness which is lacking in many (most?) young men.

    3. Recognize the brainwashing which young men are targeted for via the media. The stuff that says having sex is macho (your weird uncle who doesn’t cut his toenails has sex – it’s not an accomplishment!), that being with a beautiful woman is a validation of your worth (ever hear of the hot to crazy ratio?), that worth and respect can be bought, etc. By training them to recognize these unhealthy messages, they become better able to resist them.

  2. I agree what you presented are desireable characteristics but to suggest that a man is only a “real man” if he possesses and practices these ideals is regrettable. I have seen the whimpy and whiney man, severely broken as a child in an abusive home, show in a single “No” or “Yes” to a problem in his life a character of epic proportions. No caped crusader by your standards, yet an extraordinary example nonetheless.

    Is this the checklist you want young women to have when they are seeking a relationship? Would you want those like myself who were devastated by an abusive home, filled with self-loathing, to read and compare? Be like this or you not a real man? I have found that far greater change is possible when we accept a person as is.

    There is not an ideal of perfection that we can strive for that can either encompass or surpass who we are in essence. As the image of God, perfectly created by Him, what ideal manufactured by man can know the ends of eternity.
    Each soul is unique, a singular path with its own identity, meaning, and purpose, already equipped with everything it needs for the fullness of life. We do not strive to realize this path but open to it.

  3. There will finally come a day when science can genetically manufacture the kind of people both of you think are both suitable and real to roam the earth, yet if more emphasis was placed on humility than achieving perfection, than it is possible that all might rise a little higher. Mercy, compassion, acceptance, and love: these are not the attribute of “real men” but genuine servants.

  4. Why doesn’t someone write for once about the shortcomings of young women? I guess I’m a glutton for punishment because I always click on these articles about how men today don’t measure up. Part of the situation is men have come to believe it’s a sort of bait-and-switch. What does a “real man” REALLY get out of it anymore? What is your thoughtful young princess really offering? I recognize that’s not a manly attitude by these standards, but it’s pragmatic. “Real” manliness doesn’t obtain today, that’s why today’s men aren’t manly.

  5. Real men are built by real women who are not afraid to truly love the boy in the man, warts and all. Too many women allow their boys to raise themselves in the packs of male animals roaming our streets. So many boys are torn from their mothers because the mothers refuse to fight for their young men long enough for them to become “real” men. This includes sheltering our boys from the wiles of women who want to take advantage of their innocence to build themselves up in the eyes of their own societies. This is an almost impossible task when we have so much of our “godly” society following the paths of the gods of blood sacrifice and war, but it can be accomplished when we love our sons enough to protect them. Sadly, too many of their fathers promote disdain for the love of a woman.