The 3 Scariest Words

Last week two boys got into a scuffle right here at school. Because I have spent most of my adult life in boys’ schools, I have seen this scene before: A small group of early adolescent boys, their friends, formed a circle and looked on as the two combatants went at it. A minute later, a teacher showed up, and all the boys ran away.

I want to come back to this scene in a minute.

Two weeks ago, I talked to you about MacBeth’s revealing line, “Let’s quickly put on manly readiness,” and tried to make the point that MacBeth makes a crucial mistake in believing that masculinity is something extrinsic, something from the outside that we literally put on ourselves.

Last week I was fortunate enough to hear former NFL star, Joe Ehrmann, whom Parade Magazine has called “the most important coach in America,” address the same issue, and he began his talk on “Redefining Masculinity” by saying that the 3 scariest words in the dictionary are, “Be a man.” That’s what I’d like to focus on for a few minutes this morning.

What comes to mind when you hear, “Be a man”? For most of us, those words may be a distant memory of an adult, perhaps it was a dad, telling us not not cry, to suck it up, to avoid even the temptation to express emotion, especially if that emotion is connected in any way to weakness.

For others “Be a man” may be a warning. If you are an aficionado of Budweiser ads, you’ll know that “Be a man’s” hipper linguistic cousin, “Man Up!” — which is always voiced by someone with a remarkably deep baritone — means to not only avoid purchasing the wrong kind of beer, but it is a command to coolness. Because you never want to be THAT GUY. That guy is the dude with the wrong clothes, the wrong haircut, the wrong phone, the wrong computer, the wrong car, or the wrong beverage. Having the wrong anything can ruin us because, and this is as subtle as a sledge hammer, our “stuff” defines us. If “Man Up!” means anything, it is a command to conform. And rest assured, if you don’t measure up, someone may someday threaten to take away your “man card.”

“Be a man” is almost always a warning for us to separate our head from our hearts. It may have its roots in stoicism. Remember the Spartans? They never played for the tie; when Spartan soldiers went off to battle, the advice they received from their mothers was this: “Come back with your shield or on it.” (Do you wonder if there was ever a wise guy Spartan who replied, “Thanks, Mom! Really appreciate your support!”)

(An aside: It is said that Spartan mothers publicly rejoiced when their sons died in battle. It meant that a son had achieved the ultimate prize, an honorable death. (This was at a time before acceptance to Queens Commerce or Yale meant almost the same thing.) If a Spartan warrior managed to survive a battle, however, and returned without his shield, he was shamed because the shield was more than just a piece of equipment; it was a symbol of protection for the community. Your helmet protects you, the warrior. Your shield protects the rest of us. Given the size and weight of a Spartan shield, it was assumed that anyone who had returned empty handed must surely have run from the battlefield.)

When I was talking to you about MacBeth and manhood, I showed you a clip from Jeanne Kilbourne’s “Killing Us Softly,” a documentary that shows how the media manipulates and objectifies women. (I do appreciate, by the way, your respectful response to Kilbourne’s film.)

I think, though, that we could do our own documentary, one that shows how males are also victimized by mass culture. We, too, are put in our place and told what we are supposed to look like, smell like, and act like. If you watch tv, you would get the distinct impression that most males are beer swilling, sports obsessed, emotionally stunted, girl chasing, video-game addicted knuckleheads who cannot think beyond the next bow flex induced Just for Men, “Get Back in the Game,” truck commercial.

While the mass culture is selling us all a distorted view of who we are, Joe Ehrmann offers something of an antidote. He believes that manhood is about 2 things:

First, life is all about relationships. In the end, what is important is: “Whom did I care for? Was I a good son or good brother? Was I a good spouse, partner, or father?” The essence of who we are is our heart, our sense of compassion.

Second, we all need a cause. We need to know that we made some sort of difference, that somehow the world was a better place because we were in it. What we want most of all, what we yearn for is a transcendent cause, something that requires commitment. For instance, when we saw poverty, sexism, homophobia or any kind of wrongdoing, we demanded justice. We got involved. We stepped into the fray.

If you buy Ehrmann’s argument, and I do, that manhood is about relationships and a cause that is bigger than ourselves, then how should we lead lives that reflect this understanding?

This brings me back to last week’s fight.

I don’t want to berate those guys who fled the scene. I have been there in the circle myself, but I have to acknowledge that the boys made 2 mistakes. Initially, of course, someone should have intervened and prevented the conflict from escalating. And it goes without saying that no one, NO ONE should have run away when the teacher showed up. The Spartan in all of us shudders at the thought!

At the same time, I don’t want to condemn anyone because I know the fight or flight instinct from first hand experience. I am sure I’ve deserved to have my “man card” suspended if not permanently revoked because there have been too many instances when I myself have gone “Gumby.” (There is a reason I keep a picture of “The Cowardly Lion” on my office door!)

So my takeaway for today is for myself as well as for you, and it is this: if we recognize that life is about relationships and cause, then it means that each of us is required to follow Ehrmann’s advice. We need to show up, to stand up, and to speak up.


11 thoughts on “The 3 Scariest Words

  1. Hi Jim,
    I very much enjoyed your posting. I wish that all boys and girls could have the opportunity of attending a school like UCC, where the values and beliefs you speak of are as important as the subjects that are taught.
    Frann Harris

  2. I enjoyed your piece very much. In recent months, I have missed your excellent epistles!
    Having just attended my 40th HS reunion, your note reminded me of my own passages.

    The biggest takeaway for me in looking back over the years there is
    this: What an incredible gift I received in being able to attend a school such as that. The whole thing really never stops giving.

    I believe that those four years gave me just the right balance of challenge, instruction, and mentoring (no such a weenie thing as “nurturing” in those days), that at least for me it forged mind, spirit, conscience, and body in what were likely completely unconscious ways at the time.

    Now, my amazement at this stage is not because I want to claim any higher ground. Rather, it is because it is clear that my school’s culture and experiences kept me just far enough away from the really stupid things that some thought as rights of passage, or permissible excesses of youth, that I was delivered from enough lions’ mouths to reach college unscathed, with enough wisdom to avoid the next set of dangers that lurked during those years.

    Keep up your great work. I am confident your students, and your own will have similar reflections of appreciation, relief, and appreciation years hence!

  3. Jim – this was a really fine piece. You got to the heart of the issues. I remember at My boys school the most frequently heard phrase was, “Suck it up.”. Thanks for addressing this.

  4. Hi Jim,

    Wonderful as always.

    NOTE: When I was young I stepped in to stop a fight and I soon became a participant. The risk reward decision can be difficult, especially in today’s world when someone could be carrying a knife or a gun and I don’t have my Spartan shield with me.

  5. Really great stuff Jim…I like the way you linked this back to your previous talk about female images and messaging in the media – I think the message “be a man” is one that we are constantly receiving (from all types of sources) and it puts guys under a lot of pressure even though we don’t necessarily sense it…

  6. “Being a man”can relate to mental health and courage and openness, I am remembering an IB2 student last spring who spoke with about 20 some colleagues about his own very difficult earlier struggles, and how much his classmates praised him for telling his story so honestly, and were moved to share some of their own tough times. They also told him how much they wished he had let them know back then how much he was suffering. We and/or our loved ones all struggle at some point(s) in our lives, and it is when these challenges derail our lives to the point that one can’t function well, that a MH crisis occurs. Getting help is crucial.

  7. When I tell someone out loud or silently to “be a Man” or “man up”, what I am saying is “stand tall, pull yourself together, show some courage, take a position, do the right thing…” Guess I am not tuned in to the far less salutory pop culture associations.

    But I agree with your position entirely, the command from our parents or peers to man up (or “pull yourself together” as my parents commanded me) is a command (not an invitation by the way, or a request that you can refuse or debate…) to shove my emotions right down and behave in a way that showed no weakness. Poor boys – so much harder for them.

  8. Hi Jim,
    I really liked this message. I would have liked to have met your father. I bet he was a very special kind of guy.

    Looking back, I have a much better view of what my own father was all about. It’s very interesting to me that he undoubtedly scored high on Ehrmann’s 2 dimensions, although I didn’t recognize this until well into my adult life.

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