The Importance of Dreams

A couple of years ago I had a dream. Yes, I’m going to tell you about my dream, but first I’m going to tell you why that dream was important. Most of us don’t remember our dreams, some of us don’t remember that we did dream. I generally fall into the latter category. Most mornings I wake up assuming that I didn’t have any dreams the night before (even though I probably did), and even when I do wake up in the middle of a dream, within five minutes I can’t actually remember what the dream was about. However, the particular dream that I’m thinking of I can still remember specific details two years later. When I awoke from this dream, I was completely confident that it was important, and I knew what some of the aspects of the dream symbolized. It was the kind of dream that you pay attention to.

So, what was my dream? Well, to start off, it was extremely nerdy. In the dream I was a student at a school for wizards (not like Hogwarts, more like one of the Arcane Academies in Tethyr from the  Forgotten Realms D&D setting… except, you know… not evil…). Anyway, I was a student studying in this academy and I was doing well, but one day I decided to leave the school to explore the world. I wanted to see the town nearby, to visit the fighter’s guild, and to practice what I’d learned. So, I left the academy, which appeared as a huge tower sandwiched between a small lake and a swampy plain, and went to the town. I explored for a while, and then returned to the academy, but I couldn’t find it. The tower had disappeared and in it’s place was a small stone slab with writing on it that I couldn’t read. I was confused, hurt, and frustrated, and I did everything I could think of, but nothing made the tower reappear. Denied access to the place I was supposed to be, I returned to the town and joined the fighter’s guild for wont of a better option.

At this point the dream jumps forward an indeterminate amount of time. I knew that I’ve been in the fighters guild for sometime, but I wasn’t sure how long. I found myself in a party at the fighter’s guild, but I wasn’t particularly enjoying the party. I was bored, lonely, and I didn’t particularly want to talk to anyone, so I left the brightly lit guild building (I remember that it had large doors set in a massive wooden doorframe. The frame itself was wider than my hand. In the courtyard there was a fountain depicting some ancient hero of the guild, and on the fountain sat a beautiful woman. She was obviously a member of the guild, but I’d never met her before. I sat down and started a conversation with the woman, and though I’ve never been able to remember what we talked about, we fell in love. I told the woman about my time in the wizard school, and I wanted to show her the spot where it had disappeared. So, I took her by the hand and led her to the stone slab with the writing I couldn’t read, but she could read it (though I couldn’t understand what she said), and when she did the tower reappeared and we went in. I found myself back where I belonged with a beautiful woman whom I loved, and that’s where the dream ended.

When I first awoke from the dream I knew that the wizard’s school symbolized grad school. I believed at the time, and see no reason not to think, that the beautiful woman represented a romantic relationship, and I think that the fighter’s guild represents life in general. Honestly, I had almost forgotten about this dream (it has been a matter of years, not days), but I’ve recently started talking to a young woman on eHarmony who is not only awesome, but also related to one of the deans at a school that I would very much like to attend. Honestly, I don’t know if this is likely to go anywhere. It’s entirely possible that nothing will happen, but emailing with her brought this dream back to the forefront of my mind.

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone. I know that it’s the day after Christmas, not Christmas itself, but I’m at my parent’s house and we had lots of company over yesterday. I did get to spend a couple of days with my nephews though, which is always worth it, and I got to watch a bunch of Dr. Who. However, what I wasn’t going to do was write any more blog posts than I needed to, and I had to write a post for my other blog yesterday. So, merry Christmas even though Christmas was actually yesterday. The fact the I felt the need to explain all of that probably says something about me. I generally need to be understood. Honestly, this is something that’s very important to me. I’m not satisfied when people simply accept my mistakes as mistakes or oversights. Instead, I want them to understand why I do things the way that I do them. I think that we all seek for understanding, and we all want approval.

This is something that I see consistently in the gay rights movement. All too often, disagreement is seen to be equivalent to hate precisely because we feel the need for the approval of others. We want people to like us, and we want to like ourselves, and so often we seem to have this overwhelming need to connect the two. If we are not liked by others, then we cannot like ourselves. Similarly, if we are not approved of by others, then we cannot approve of ourselves. Here’s the thing though, all of this comes from an incomplete sense of self. This is not to say that healthy people don’t feel these needs, I think that we all feel the need to be liked and approved. However, we shouldn’t be controlled by those needs. If someone’s disapproval seems to become a sign of disrespect or hate, then I am not seeing myself or seeing God in myself. I am not even seeing what the other person sees in me, instead I am seeing only my exaggerated image of how the other person sees me.

This is something that I’ve written about before, mostly because it is something that I struggle with. I can usually operate without the approval of others. I am capable of putting aside my need for understanding and approval in order to see things as they are, rather than how I am afraid they are or how I wish they could be. However, this isn’t always true. There are time when I need someones understanding or approval. There are many more times when putting aside my own desire for understanding and approval is very difficult. Honestly, I haven’t put a lot of thought into why I struggle with this. It’s probably something I should do. My first impulse is to say that there have been relatively few people in my life who have sought to understand me, but I’m not really sure that this is true. At least, not any more than anyone else today. I recently took a relationship needs test (I like a variety of personality tests… though this wasn’t one of the better ones) which mentioned that I might have a weak sense of self. At moments this is certainly true, but I’m not sure if its true in general. It is, however, something that needs more thought.

So, I got to spend all day yesterday and most of Christmas Eve with my family, including my two nephews, which was a lot of fun! My Christmas gifts were interesting. They were generally what I’d asked for, which included a bottle of Absinthe, a rubix cube (even though I hate puzzles), and sharpening stones for knives. I’ve found that, as I get older, it gets harder and harder to make birthday and Christmas lists. There’s honestly just not that much that I actually want. I asked for the rubix cube, even though I hate puzzles, because teaching myself to work it will be good mental exercise. I looked up the basics of how to do a rubix cube, and I’m already getting fairly good at it. However, getting the final side completed is going to be very challenging. Still, I think it should be fairly interesting.

What is Wisdom?

So, I promised that I’d write more about each of the virtues that I’d put forth concerning masculinity. I already wrote a little about courage, though probably not nearly enough, and the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be wise. This is not to say that I’ve actually come to a conclusion about it, but I have some thoughts. First, I think we often confuse knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Every journalist knows that there are six (not five) important questions: who, what, when, where, how, and why. I think that these questions also provide a good progressive exemplar for the differences between the above terms. Knowledge is simple information that has been memorized. A person with knowledge can determine the who, what, or where of a question, perhaps the when of a historical question, but he can’t go beyond this point. The knowledgeable man has only plain information at his disposal. A man with understanding not only can determine the who and what, but also the where and importantly the how of a question. While knowledge provides only rote information, understanding brings with it the ability to apply that information. For instance, a man with the knowledge of punching may be able to tell you what a punch is or where to hit someone, but he can’t show you how to actually throw an effective punch. This requires understanding. Understanding moves this person from simple knowledge of what a punch is to the ability to use that knowledge effectively. Wisdom, however, adds a third dimension: the when and why.

That is to say, in my example of the punching man, a man with wisdom will not only be able to throw an effective punch, but will be able to determine when it is good to throw that punch. He can answer the question ‘why would you punch someone’. This is, I think, exceedingly rare. Many people, like Richard Dawkins, dismiss the why questions of life as entirely unimportant (perhaps one of the greatest mistakes I’ve seen anyone make). Many others never even reach the point of considering the why questions of life. It’s not that these people have dismissed the questions as unimportant, it’s that they’ve never even considered whether the why questions might be important. So, having said this, I’m not at all sure that I’m wise. Being wise requires not only knowing enough to ask the why questions, but being able to answer them. Honestly, I don’t think that I have many meaningful answers. I can pretty easily give a lecture about what lots of other people think about a particular question, and there are some question that I can even tell you what I think, but to actually answer a why question. I don’t know about that.

About a week ago a friend called me ‘a wise man’. I responded by saying, ‘I make too many mistakes to be wise’. He asked, ‘Isn’t that how you become wise?’ When he asked that question I realized that I honestly didn’t have an answer. I have the beginnings of an idea of what wisdom is, but I can’t really say how one actually becomes wise. There are lots of people in the world with lots of opinions, and I’m fairly sure that wisdom means ignoring 90% of them. However, even with that tongue in cheek definition, I’m not entirely sure how to actually do that. Don’t get me wrong, I can ignore people with the best of them, but actually knowing who to ignore and who to listen to is another issue entirely. Take the current scandal involving Mark Driscoll, while it’s fairly clear that Driscoll hasn’t been particularly careful with his writing, there are a hundred different opinions ranging from people screaming for his resignation to people claiming that he didn’t do it in the first place to people claiming that even if he did, it wasn’t wrong. The sheer amount of voices is quickly overwhelming (I spent 3 hours last night just reading about this), not to mention the people connecting this to his teaching on Esther and his views of women in general.

So, how do we begin to parse this situation? Does a wise man simply sit back and wait? Perhaps for a while, but certainly not forever. A wise man is not an eternally passive man. However, we can say that the wise man knows when to act. A man with understanding might know what to do, but a wise man can see when to do it. He knows when to wait and when to step forward. He knows when to listen and when to speak. This isn’t an easy thing. I think that’s all I’ve got for now. I definitely need to think about this more.

Sander’s Family Christmas

Tonight I went to see Sanders Family Christmas at a local theater. I’ll be honest, I went because a friend who works for the theater asked me to come and see her work, not because of any particular desire to see the play. I’ve never really been fond of Christmas… well, anything. That probably sounds like a strange thing to say, and it’s gotten me in trouble more than once in Christian circles. The play was good though… well, it was good in that it was well-acted and well-produced all around. It was also the general mish-mash of Psuedo-Christian pluralism that generally makes me dislike Christmas. I’m not saying that anyone who mentions Santa Claus should be stoned, or even that it’s wrong to do in church, but this particular play had high moments and low moments. One of the low moments was when the matriarch of the family condemned Santa Claus (something about Jesus punching him in the face) right before the family happily sang Jingle Bells, which is clearly not a song with any particularly Christian influences.

This is the thing that gets me about Christmas… Christians get just about everything wrong. From the ages of Mary and Joseph (Mary was probably in her early teens [14 maybe] and Joseph was probably in his late twenties to early thirties) to the wise men (who almost certainly didn’t show up in Jerusalem until a year and a half to two years after Jesus was born). We gleefully mix hymns with clearly pagan songs, sing hymns with horrific theology, decorate small fire-hazards in our living rooms, and do it all without any concept of what any of it means or is supposed to mean. Honestly, I think if people were just more aware of what they were doing I’d be okay with it. There’s nothing wrong with Christmas songs or Santa Claus per say, it just that I don’t like them and I get frustrated with everyone who looks at me like an inhuman monster when I say that. Then again, I am something of a Scrooge and the words ‘Bah Humbug’ have been known to leave my mouth… frequently.

However, there was something from the play tonight that I did appreciate very much. One of the characters, the patriarch’s brother… I can’t remember his name (Sam, I think… or something like that) has something of a checkered past. When he gets up to speak he speaks of his past and of how the family has helped him change. One of the lines (and I’m sure that I’ve butchered it) say,’I’ve gotta reckon that God takes no account of talent. It’s a man’s character that matters.’ That’s the gist of the line… probably with a little Terry Pratchett thrown in since I was listening to Wee Free Men on the way home. This made me think about my own life. Most specifically the past seven(ish) years since I graduated from seminary.

Don’t get me wrong, I can me a right ass. I can be arrogant, judgmental, thoughtless, and stubborn. If the beginning of this post doesn’t prove that then the rest of this blog probably will. However, I’d like to think that I’m less of an ass and more caring, compassionate, and hopefully a little more humble than I was seven years ago. I’ve certainly learned a lot about life, about people, and about faith. I’ve been beaten over the head a few times, badly bruised both by the church and by those outside of the church, and broken repeatedly. Honestly, seven years ago I was full of myself and extremely in-secure. Now… well, I’m not sure that I actually have much to offer, but what I do have to offer I will.

As I write this I’m talking with my niece about colleges and about the degree program that I’m applying to. I remember when I first got out of school applying to one doctoral or Th.M. program after another and getting denied by one program after another. Now… well, I’m just hoping that they let me into an M.A. program and that I actually have what it takes to do well in the program. It’s scary, and a part of me is saying ‘I’m comfortable here and I don’t want to leave’. Another part of me is saying ‘It’s worth it.’ I still haven’t called Dr. Liederbach yet, but I’m going to. It might wait until January, as I’m sure all the professor’s down there are ridiculously busy at the moment, but I will call him, and I will finish my application and submit it. And then… well, I’ll hope that for once my desires line up with God’s (I wish I was better at that), and I’ll wait for him to kick me in the head if they don’t. That’s the thing I’ve learned more than anything else. What I want doesn’t matter if it’s not the same as what God wants.

Simple Complaining

I am moderately overweight (30-40ish lbs).  I’m actually smaller now than I have been in a long time. I’ve been fat since I was 10 years old. It took a diet (caused by poverty, not choice) of one can of green beans a day and some pretty intense exercise to drop fifty pounds and I’ve managed to keep most of it off (I’ve gained back about 10 pounds). This month I’m doing a planned semi-extreme diet (not as extreme as a can of green beans a day) to hopefully drop another 10-20 pounds. Here’s the thing though, I gain weight if I eat much over 1500 calories a day for any extended amount of time. At about 1500 calories a day I can maintain my weight, at 1000 or less calories a day I might (key word here) actually start to lose weight. It’s definitely a losing battle and sometimes I wonder: what’s the fucking point?

It’s not that I don’t want to look good. I’ve even at a point now where I have several forms of exercise (martial arts, lifting [sometimes], elliptical machines, and yoga) that I actually enjoy. However, 1000 calories a day and 2 hrs working out a day is hard to maintain on a busy schedule. Of course, this is also when thoughts like ‘there’s no point, no one will love me anyway’ start to worm their way into my consciousness and wiggle around inside my head. Little thoughts like that can cause huge problems for my battle against my weight, my health in general, and my emotional life at large. Nonetheless, they are there. The fears, the worries, the negative self-esteem, all present and accounted for.

That being said, I’ve talked about self-esteem in general before, and I view negative self-esteem the same way. Just like positive self-esteem, negative self-esteem is a bad thing, not because it builds a poor self image, but because it isn’t based on anything real or true. Self-esteem is, at its core, an over-focusing on ourselves, and an under-focusing on others. Whether that self-esteem is negative or positive doesn’t actually matter, both are equally bad. Both equally over-focus the mind on the self, and both are built on lies that we tell ourselves, not on actual experience that reflects who we really are. Self-esteem is fragile precisely because it is fragile and selfish. The fact that it doesn’t have any basis in reality makes it much harder to disprove (no, seriously, try to actually prove that Unicorns or Dragons don’t exist sometime). The experiential evidence of life doesn’t matter, but at the same time, anything (whether experiential or equally as unreal as self-esteem itself) that throws our self-esteem into doubt is immediately counted as a threat and attacked.

I fall into this the same as anyone else. I fight back against the idea that there might be a point to trying. I argue that I’m worthless, stupid, pointless, and undesirable. I make a point of convincing myself about these things precisely so that I can convince other people. Honestly, I’m doing a lot better about this than I have in the past, but its something that I still struggle with. My ‘self-esteem’ isn’t based on any kind of reality. Honestly, a lot of it is based on the fact that women keep rejecting me. However, the fact that I’ve had a lot of rejection doesn’t actually say anything about my value as a person. The only thing that it might provide real evidence for is the claim that I’m undesirable. It certainly says nothing about my worth, intelligence, or purpose. Not only is my self-esteem unrealistic, but it is entirely self-involved. I can get so busy throwing myself an idiotic pity party that I forget to consider what’s around me and miss opportunities to actually be a worthwhile person.

Like I said, I’m getting better about this. It’s still a work in progress, and still far from completion, but I am getting better, and I hope to keep getting better. So, right now my answer to the question: what’s the fucking point? Is: I want to.

What Does it Mean to be a Man? Part 5

I’ve been discussing what it means to be a man for a while now. So far I’ve presented an introduction of the problem, shown that innate traits and talents are not a qualifier for manhood, argued that emotional maturity is one qualifier for manhood, and defended the idea that particular skills are not a qualifier for manhood, but dedication to mastering skills is. So far all of this has led to one overarching conclusion. It is not how I appear, what I have, or what I’m good at that makes me a man. It is the choices I make. Real masculinity lies in the character that I develop and portray on a daily basis. The claims that I have made thus far all lead to this conclusion. Neither the way I look nor my inherent capabilities make me a man. The emotions that I feel also do not make me a man, though the manner in which I express them might. The skills that I pursue do not make me a man, but the dedication with which I pursue them certainly says something about my manliness. All of this leads us back to the above conclusion: true masculinity is found in the qualities of character that an individual develops.

This being said, what character qualities make one ‘a man’? If we remember Kant’s argument that it is respect, not admiration, that is truly valuable in determining quality, then the conclusion is obvious. Those character qualities that are inherently respectable are what separates a man from a boy. Of course, in all of these things the same could still be said to separate a woman from a girl. While there are clear physical and emotional differences between the masculine and feminine genders, the qualities that separate an adult from a child are still going to be largely similar. Plato proposed four qualities of character essential to a valuable person: Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance. The code of Bushido argued that the significant qualities of character were Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Honesty, and Loyalty. Confucius argued that the character qualities of a man were seen in five right relationships: Ruler to Ruled (Obedience), Father to Son (Respect), Husband to Wife (Devotion), Elder Brother to Younger Brother (Filial Piety), and Friend to Friend (Loyalty). The Christian Bible lays out the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, faithfulness, kindness, goodness, patience, gentleness, and temperance.

Many of these we can see as similar. For instance, Plato’s ‘justice’, Bushido’s ‘rectitude’, and the bible’s ‘goodness’ all speak of essentially the same thing. Similarly, Plato and Bushido both set forth courage as an important trait, Plato and the bible both set forth temperance as an important trait, and Confucius and Bushido both set forth Respect and Loyalty as important traits. Some of these we can also throw out entirely because they result from other traits. For instance, if one is righteous (just or good), benevolent, courageous, and loyal, then one will be honorable. Similarly, if one is good, kind, temperate, and gentle, then one will be patient. If one is loving, faithful, and at peace, then one will be joyful. At the same time some, while not exactly the same, are similar enough that they may be embodied in a single word. For instance, love, kindness, and gentleness may all be embodied in the word ‘love’. If one is truly loving, then one will be both kind and gentle. So, here is my first compilation of the essential traits of a ‘real man’: Wisdom, Courage, Righteousness, Temperance, Fortitude, Love, Honesty, Devotion, Humility, and Community.

Over the next few months (I said days when I started this series and it’s been two months already) I intend to discuss each of these in detail (I’ve already discussed Courage), but for now I’ll give a brief explanation of each:

Wisdom: A man pursues both knowledge and experience. He considers the world around him and is not rash or foolish in his decisions. He is capable of being impulsive without being ruled by his impulses.

Courage: A man does not allow himself to be ruled by fear. Instead of running or hiding, a man faces his fears and masters them.

Righteousness: A man has a strong moral compass and holds fast to those beliefs. He does what is right simply because it is right and does not knowingly choose to violate his moral understanding. (Please note that I have not attributed Righteousness to a particular moral system here)

Temperance: A man is emotionally stable and capable of controlling his actions. He rules his desires instead of being ruled by them.

Fortitude: This is one that you will not see in any of the lists above, though Plato does include fortitude in his idea of courage. A man does not avoid difficult things. He does not shy away from doing that which is good and/or necessary simply because it is hard or uncomfortable. Courage and fortitude are related, but courage is directly related to fear, while fortitude is simply a steadfast endurance in the face of hardship.

Love: A man shows concern for those around him. He is kind, caring, gentle, and patient. He willingly puts others before himself. Moreover, a man loves fully and deeply. He does not hide his heart away, nor does he build walls around it. A man accepts the risk of being hurt by others in order to have the chance of investing into their lives.

Honesty: A man speaks the truth. He is open, truthful, even vulnerable. A man is blunt when necessary, tactful when appropriate, and always speaks truth in order to be a boon to others, not to harm them.

Devotion: A man commits. Whether this is loyalty to a nation/faith/organization, dedication to the pursuit of a particular skill/career/path, or commitment to a woman or family, a man shows commitment to the things that he pursues.

Humility: A man has an honest view of himself. He is capable of seeing his strengths without being puffed up, and he is capable of seeing his flaws without being destroyed.

Community: A man realizes that he does not exist in a vacuum. He understands that independence is an illusion. Instead of insisting on his own independence, a man is willing to depend on others when necessary, and allows others to depend on him. He considers those in his community in his actions, he contributes to the community, and he allows the community to support him.

Obviously, none of us is a perfect representative of any of these traits. Courageous men falter, wise men make foolish choices, devoted men stray, and humble men have moments of pride. The judgment of manhood must not be an unrealistic expectation of perfection in these qualities. Instead it must be an understanding that one’s life should be characterized by these qualities. One should be known for these qualities, however imperfectly, instead of being know for foolishness, fickleness, pride, selfishness, cowardice, or deception. So, hopefully soon I’ll be discussing each of these qualities in greater depth, but these are the qualities that a man of high character embodies.

List Makers

Americans are obsessed with observable, trackable progress. I’ve noted this for many years in martial arts. For any of you familiar with martial arts you probably know that the system of ranking by colored belts is an American invention. In fact, since I started practicing twenty years ago, the number of belts has increased while the time required between them has decreased. When I started most schools recognized white, yellow, green, blue, brown, and black belts, and there was generally anywhere from three to six months between tests. This time increased the higher you went, so you might wait three months to test from white to yellow, but a year to test from brown to black.  Today I know of many schools that recognize white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, red, brown, and black belts, and some schools require less than a month to test from one belt to the next.

This is not what martial arts used to be. I briefly attended one school in Virginia Beach that used an archaic Japanese ranking system. When I started the first thing the instructor told me was that I had to understand that there were no belts in his class. I was a student until he told me to go start a school, at which point I would be an instructor. I had senior students (everyone else in the class), and I was the most junior student. Outside of this there were no ranks, tests, or obvious format of progression. I loved this system, and if I hadn’t moved away, I’d probably still be studying there.

I mention this because it is symptomatic of a much deeper problem in American culture: we want to be in control. Whether it is making a bucket list for the week/month/year, making a detailed list of short/long term goals, or making a list of qualities that we want to see in a spouse, we like to try to control our lives and the world around us. I’m not saying that having a list of goals or desires is a bad thing. It can help keep you on track, help you focus, and help you say no when you need to say no. I have a short list of long term goals that I’m working towards (I’ve posted this before). I have a short list of things that I’m looking for in a future spouse:

1) I want a wife who is a committed Christian with a visible desire to grow closer to Christ.

2) I want a wife who is intelligent and capable of carrying on an interesting conversation.

3) I want a wife who is kind-hearted and compassionate: who consistently puts others before herself.

4) I want a wife who is beautiful to me and to whom I am physically attracted.

5) I want a wife who is between 5 and 11 years younger than me (6-10 ideally, with 8-10 being the real ‘sweet spot’). Right now I’m actively against dating anyone who is more than 11 years younger than I am, simply because it’s been a habit that lead to very painful results in the past.

6) I want a wife who desires me and is willing to pursue me as hard as I pursue her.

7) I want a wife who is a virgin.

I know that I want these things, and I ask God to bring this woman into my life on a regular basis. However, in all of our planning and list-making we often forget one very important detail: we aren’t in control. My life is not my own, it belong to Christ and he can do with this life whatever he desires. God does give us the desires of our heart, but sometimes they don’t look the way we want them to, sometimes he asks us to do insane things, and sometimes he puts us through the ringer before granting those desires. If you don’t believe me, then read Isaiah 19-20, where God makes the prophet walk around naked for three years. Or read Ezekiel, where God makes the prophet lie on his side for a year and a half eating only bread cooked over dung. Or read Jonah, where God makes the prophet go and preach to the people who have oppressed, terrorized, and slaughtered his people for years. Or read Hoshea, where God makes the prophet marry a prostitute and accept children that are most likely not his own. Or read the gospels, where the father commands the son to suffer, die, and pay for sins that are not his own.

We don’t get to control our lives. This is true of everyone, the control that we are looking for is an illusion we create in the hopes of protecting ourselves from fear. However, in the Christian it should be especially true because we actively give up control over our own lives when we choose to follow Christ. Our purpose and highest goal is to glorify him in everything, and that should trump every other desire or goal that we have. Because of this all of my life-goals, all of my desires for a wife, everything that I could list out and say ‘this is what I want’ is negotiable. My will is to be subsumed in Christ, and anyone who thinks that Ezekiel wanted to lie on his side for a year and a half eating dung-bread hasn’t actually read the book. Ezekiel talked God down from making him eat bread cooked over human dung (bargaining with God anyone?), Christ begged God to ‘let this cup pass’ from him. We don’t see these kinds of objections recorded in Isaiah or Hoshea, but it isn’t difficult to imagine the difficulty the prophets had obeying the commands of God.

We must relinquish our need for control in our own lives and in the lives of others and learn to accept the things that God chooses for us. This is the path to true happiness, and this is the path to greater, truer, and more meaningful relationship with God.

What Does it Mean to be a Man? Part 4

In part three I focused on the emotional, and presented the first positive signifiers of manhood. Prior to this I had only presented negative signifiers of manhood. For instance, a child is not a man, a mental vegetable is not a man, and similarly I have shown that certain commonly revered qualities (such as wealth, physical strength, or attractiveness) are completely unimportant in a discussion of ‘real’ masculinity. Immanuel Kant, in Critique of Practical Reason, provided an interesting point that has, in some ways, guided my rational in determining the qualities that must appear in a true man. Kant argues that those things which truly define us are those things that are truly capable of being respected. For instance, one does not respect an individual who was gifted with great natural strength or beauty. One may admire those persons, but there is a significant difference between admiration and respect. We admire those qualities that we find desirable in others (i.e. strength, beauty, wealth, charisma, etc), but we respect those qualities that an individual has achieved through their own means (i.e. emotional stability, strength of character, a good work ethic, etc). For instance, wealth itself is not inherently respectable. A man who inherited $20 million from his father’s death and through no practical effort of his own is not respectable for his wealth. However, a man who earned $20 million through hard work and wise decisions is certainly respectable. However, in this man it is not the wealth that we respect, but the qualities that helped him attain that wealth. The means by which such wealth was obtained may change our respect for the individual. For instance, a man who earned $20 million through questionable practices such as extortion or ruthlessness is less respectable than a man who earned $20 million through hard work that exemplified a care for those around him and a concern for fair play.

In the last section, I argued that a man who is not emotionally mature cannot be called a ‘real’ man. Whether the individual is emotionally closed off and incapable of dealing with his feelings in a healthy manner, or emotionally frail and prone to excessive sensitivity and outbursts, the lack of emotional maturity is not a respectable quality. Emotional maturity, on the other hand, is very respectable. A similar argument is true in the case of skill. Often certain skills are attributed to ‘real’ men. For instance, ‘real’ men know how to cut down a tree, kill and skin a deer, repair a car, build a house, start a fire, etc. The various lists of skills attributed to ‘real’ men is rather lengthy and certainly monotonous. However, the problem is that each list connects ‘real’ manhood with a particular skill set. One group argues that ‘real’ men are men of the wild. They have skills associated with survival away from civilization. Another group argues that ‘real’ men are builders. They have skills associated with the construction of certain items, often items that require a degree of physical strength to create (i.e. many argue that real men build cars, work with stone, wood, etc. Few argue that real men knit doilies). A third group argues that ‘real’ men are warriors. They have skills associated with finding and killing the enemy. The problem with each of these is that none of these skill groupings is inherently more or less respectable than the other. All have value in the world, all are important in maintaining an orderly, functioning society, and all are equally difficult to master.

So, does this mean that skills can have no impact on a meaningful discussion of ‘real’ manhood? Absolutely not. While no particular group of skills can be identified as ‘manly’ or supremely respectable in and of itself, the effort, determination, and drive to master a particular skill set is certainly a highly respectable quality. While a soldier is no more or less respectable than a carpenter or an academic, a bad soldier is certainly less respectable than a good soldier. The ‘manliness’ of skills lies not in the choice of skill to master, but in the achievement of mastery in that skill. For instance, a man who is unwilling to put forth the effort necessary to master a skill, who waffles from one skill set to the next, dabbling in many things until the learning becomes ‘too difficult’ or ‘too tedious’ to continue is not particularly respectable, nor is he particularly manly. However, a man who puts out his best effort to master a skill and, through drive and commitment does so, is certainly both respectable and manly.

However, this brings us to a problematic question: does this mean that a male who lacks natural aptitude at a particular skill is not a man? Again, it does not. This is, I think, an entirely positive qualifier for manhood. Those who have set forth and made the effort necessary to master a skill are certainly respectable and manly. Those who (and this crosses somewhat into the realm of character which I will discuss later) lazily give up because something is too difficult for them to try are not particularly manly. However, there is a third category: those who put forth the effort to master a skill, but still fail. Every individual has a different set of inherent aptitudes that, to some degree, limit their ability to learn a particular skill. For instance, my friend… John… plays the Piano. However, if John and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart put in the same amount of effort and practice, Mozart will still be significantly better than John at playing the Piano. This is because Mozart had a very high natural aptitude for the piano and John has only an average aptitude for the piano. John may work his hardest to improve, but he will still not surpass Mozart. However, this does not make John less respectable or less manly than Mozart. Kant’s argument concerning admiration and respect applies here. Mozart’s devotion to the piano is respectable, as is John’s. However, Mozart’s aptitude for the piano is not more respectable than John’s aptitude because it was not earned in any way. Mozart’s aptitude for the Piano is more admirable than John’s, but it simply makes him better at playing the piano. It does not make him better at being a man.

Admittedly, as I mentioned above, parts of this discussion of manhood and skill are inextricably interwoven with the discussion of manhood and character. This will be my next topic, but some presuppositions concerning that topic can certainly be made from this discussion.

It’s Impossible I Tell You!

I have a superman complex. Especially when it comes to romantic relationships. Show me a young, broken, hurting woman who is not ready or willing to commit to a serious relationship and I’ll pursue her for all I’m worth, convinced that I can heal her wounds and we’ll live happily ever after. So far this hasn’t worked well for me, but I think it’s symptomatic of a more significant problem both in me and in American culture as a whole.

As a culture we push for the impossible. This is evident in our entertainment media, in our heroes, in our attitudes, and in the things that we pursue. As a culture we strongly emphasize pursing and doing things that should be impossible. I’ve talked a lot about doing hard things, and I think that it is important to do the things that are hard. The things that challenge us, stretch us, and push us are also the things that grow us as individuals and as a community. It is important to challenge ourselves, to push ourselves, and to set goals the require us to rely on God and on others. That being said, it is equally important to set goals that are realistically achievable.

Actually, one of the foundational keys to success is to set achievable goals, and this is something that we aren’t often encouraged to do. American media and culture encourages us to ‘reach for the stars’, ‘believe in the impossible’, and ‘trust that we can be whatever we want’. However, this has led to a patent and pervasive denial of realism. A few days ago I spoke with a friend of mine who is currently frustrated with waiting for her boyfriend to be ready to commit. I challenged her to set a realistic goal concerning how long she would wait, and her response was ‘I’ll wait for him forever’. While this certainly sounds romantic, it never actually works. We hear stories about the few people who can do something like this, who wait for their beloved for 10, 12, 15, or 20 years. I once knew a man who pursued his ex-wife (who had left him) for sixteen years before finally winning her back. I have to admit that there is a part of me that wishes I could do that, but I can’t. I’ve tried. I can last a few months, maybe a year… but my record is two years before finally giving up.

The attitude that ‘I can do anything’ is clearly and utterly ridiculous. For instance, as an extreme example, I can’t walk out the door of my favorite coffee shop and fly away. I am limited by my physical capabilities. I will also never be an astronaut. I am not mathematically minded enough nor committed enough to truly succeed in this career. Thankfully, I’ve never particularly wanted to be an astronaut. However, the principle is sound. We are all limited by our physical, intellectual, emotional, and psychological abilities, and while it is important to expand those abilities, it is equally important to set goals that are achievable within those abilities. Through hard work, determination, and commitment I can successively set grander and more difficult goals. However, those successive goals must be representative of my expanding abilities (i.e. they must remain achievable).

All to often the attitude I see in myself, and in others, is that I can do anything without effort. I set grand goals for myself (like healing a broken heart or waiting for years for someone) that are not even remotely achievable within my current capabilities. Often I see the same in my students. I can’t count the number of students who have declared to me, in grammatically atrocious (barely understandable) English, that they are going to get a Ph.D. in whatever their chosen field may be. Some are willing to do the word it takes to improve their writing and thinking abilities, but many are not, and this makes their goal clearly unattainable. Doing hard things doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, effort, commitment, and a willingness to suffer in order to obtain even minor steps towards our overall goals. The impossible isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be easy. It it was, then it wouldn’t be impossible.

What Does it Mean to be a Man? Part 3

I’ve spent most of the week thinking about how to write this next post. I think that we’re coming into the most important areas of question in this. While strength is certainly emphasized when it comes to manhood, most people won’t argue that we should judge the ‘manliness’ of an individual based on his property, appearance, or inherent abilities. This is quite clearly ridiculous. However, I think it is worth pointing out here that we often do judge an individual’s manliness on these qualities, and not just an individual’s manliness, but an individual’s worth. It is easy to dismiss a person as ‘not our type’ or ‘not the right kind’ based on how they dress, how they look, what they can do, or what they have to offer us, and I think we need to realize that this is a foundational element of American society. We judge one another on stupid things.

Admittedly, to some degree, in the context of romantic relationships ‘not my type’ is a justifiable objection. A strong romantic relationship requires physical attraction, and trying to date someone that you aren’t at least kind of attracted to is a bad idea. That being said, we often blow this one aspect of relationships far out of proportion, both romantically and in less physically important relationships. It really doesn’t matter if I’m attracted to my friends. In fact, if they are friends of the opposite sex, it is often better if I’m not particularly attracted to them. That way we can actually stay good friends.

However, I got a comment (still not letting any comments post, but I’ll always try to address the good ones) from a reader addressing a key message that men receive in American culture: Men “Gotta be strong, self-sufficient, never vulnerable, never fragile, never in need”. I think this is actually one of three major messages that American males receive on a regular basis. The second is that men have to be emotionally sensitive, fragile, and womanly to be acceptable. While the first message leads to the ‘man’s man’ stereotype, the second leads to the metrosexual stereotype, and neither of these men is a particularly good example of a healthy man. The last message I often see combined with both of these. This is that men are cretinous, stupid, worthless, and beastly. We live in a culture that repeatedly casts men as the villains, and if you don’t believe me try the following experiment. Go sit in a coffee shop or bookstore until you see both of the following scenes: an older man leading a young girl (5-6 years old) into the bathroom, and an older woman leading a young boy (same age) into the bathroom. Ask yourself which scene made you more uncomfortable and why. Then consider that there is a growing body of research arguing that sexual assault by female perpetrators, both on children and adults, has been grossly under-reported for decades, and that women are only slightly less likely than men to be be sexual predators. Lastly, consider that a relatively small portion of the population. Realize that, in 2011, there were just over seven hundred thousand registered sex offenders living in a nation of over three hundred million. Also realize that public urination can result in registry of the offender as a sex offender. We live in a culture that casts men as villains.

So, the majority of these messages have to do with the next category that I was going to discuss: emotions. Can we judge manhood based on emotions? I think the obvious answer here is in the negative. We all have emotions, and to be emotionally healthy we must recognize and deal with those emotions. This is just as true for men as it is for women, men simply often do this in a different way. However, there is nothing inherently masculine about being stoic, sensitive, etc. Being overly stoic and bottling things up, or overly sensitive so as to be incapable of functioning are both signs of emotional immaturity. So, the obvious answer is not necessarily correct. While emotional maturity does not ‘make one a man’ it is certainly a very important component of true masculinity. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, emphasizes a mature emotional state that recognizes feelings but is not controlled by them. I think this kind of maturity may best be described as sensitivity combined with endurance. True men must embrace their emotional natures and understand what they are feeling when they are feeling it. However, they must also respond appropriately to those feelings. A boy refuses to acknowledge his feelings. A boy throws a temper tantrum. A boy tries to stand strong on his own when he is vulnerable and weak. A man recognizes his feelings, good and bad, and acts on them appropriately. He expresses anger well by calmly addressing the situation. He stands before those he trusts, admits his weaknesses, and asks for help. A man is strong precisely because he knows when he can’t stand alone and is willing to accept that and ask for help.

So, while emotions may not entirely define manliness, they certainly add something to our understanding of what a man actually is.