Who are you?
Because no one seems to know for sure.
Growing up in a small, blue-collar town in the rural Midwest, I was pretty sure you had dry-calloused hands with grit underneath the nails. I thought you drove tractors and thrived under the hood of a car. You wore strong aftershave—the kind of sharp-scent that dominated every room you entered. You drank beer on Saturdays and watched football on Sundays. Back then, you were big and hard and there-but-not-there.
But then my parents joined the local golf club.
And I got confused.
You still wore the aftershave, but you were different. You made enough money to leave work and play golf in the afternoon. You always had the newest clubs. And, sometimes, you seemed less concerned with your score than with the length of your drives. On Tuesdays, you never missed a men’s night dinner at the club. And, afterward, you sat at the bar, playing dice games I couldn’t understand. You still drank the beer.
Other people told me you’d never be caught dead on the golf course. They said you play basketball and baseball. (And they said you play even when you’re injured.) They said you only eat red meat and you get inked and own a motorcycle and you don’t need sunblock and you probably don’t feel things like the rest of us. They made you sound solid and unshakeable.
But then, just as I was getting comfortable with who you might be, my world got turned upside down. Again.
I went to college—a kid-from-the-corn thrust onto a campus four times the size of his hometown. And there, people didn’t seem to like you all that much. They blamed you for most of the crap that happened in the world. At best, they seemed to think you weren’t really needed.
But they were just as confusing as you.
Because the ways they talked about—the ways they slammed you and dismissed you—reeked of the very qualities they abhorred. Your critics were strong like steel, and vicious like a razor.
They were like peace protestors throwing bombs.
And, Masculinity, I don’t think I’m the only one confused about you. Ironically, part of my job now is to talk to all sorts of people about you. Every day. And they all seem pretty confused, too.
Masculinity, I thought I should let you know what a mystery you seem to be to everyone around me.
But I’m also writing, because there are rumors going round.
The rumor is, you can take many forms. The rumor is, you can drive a motorcycle and a golf ball. The rumor is, that’s all just the smoke-and-mirrors of culture and heritage. The rumor is, you’re all of that.
And so much more.
The rumor is, you are Courageous—courageous enough to touch the feelings inside of you, even when they are big and painful and self-shattering. I remember watching Michael Jordan win his fourth championship, all strength and skill and determination. But, Masculinity, I hear it was you-in-him who sobbed in the locker room afterward, clinging to a trophy and letting go of your murdered father.
The rumor is, you are Strong—strong enough to be weak. You know your weakness is your vulnerability, and you have the strength to live in it, knowing life and love explode in the weak, vulnerable places.
The rumor is, you have a Death Wish—you are willing to sacrifice your ego on the altar of accountability and apology and a bottomless love. You are willing to be eviscerated by anything that equalizes you.
The rumor is, you are a Defender—you defend those who cannot defend themselves. You stand between your wife and the part of you that is inclined to dominate her. You seek out the dwelling place of the powerless, and you protect them from being used. Your only allegiance is to those who need mercy. You were Martin Luther King, Jr., standing on his bombed-out front porch, defending the White police officers, because they were suddenly powerless against a vengeful “Colored” mob.
The rumor is, you are a Provider—you put food on the table, but you are also happy to set the table. You provide a space where your kids can be kids and your wife can feel free. You provide a sanctuary where feelings of safety and belonging can take hold of the ones you love.
Dear Masculinity, I hope the rumors are true. I hope you are all of these things.
And if the rumors are true, I hope you show up soon, and I hope you stay for good. In me. In my boys. And in the men all around me.
Dear Masculinity, where are you?