The phrase “back in my day” used to be almost exclusively said by a grandmother to their grandchild, with 60 or so years separating their birthdays. However, in 2019, cultural norms are shifting so rapidly that someone born 10 years after you could be experiencing an entirely different social landscape than you did. Some daily activities, like “walking 10 miles to school each way in the snow…uphill” have perhaps been simplified or done away with. However, something as simple as addressing the people in your classroom has gotten a little trickier. Of course, one could argue that life has never been easy. Every generation, every nation, and every individual has their battles to fight and their crosses to bear. Still, young people today, known also as Generation Z, are wading through some uniquely difficult waters. There are many defining characteristics of Gen Z, but this blog will be primarily addressing how to teach young men about masculinity in the midst of the fluidity ideologies of their generation.
The Confusion of Masculinity in Culture
There is a rising tide of thought that the culture we live in is just an oppressive patriarchy, and further, that the notion that there are differences (biological and otherwise) between men and women is being perpetuated for the sole purpose of treating men and women differently and unequally.
First, I will state the obvious that our society has patriarchal tendencies, some of which are certainly oppressive. We could dive into that, but it would be another article altogether. Still, if our society is merely an oppressive patriarchy and nothing else, then masculinity itself could be seen by some as oppressive. If the fact that you’re a biological male makes you complicit in the suppression of women, then some men will understandably want to neutralize how much they express their gender. Should we take a closer look at how society operates and how people are treated based on gender? Of course. However, if the end result is not an increase in holy, masculine virtues, but rather a whitewashing of the genders altogether that serves to neutralize any gender differences or pretend they don’t exist, then there will not be any strong male role models left for the next generation to follow.
Young men may feel the need to hide away their more ‘masculine’ traits because they’re afraid they’ll be partaking in what has been termed toxic masculinity. They want to be respectful to women, and they don’t want to be part of a corrupt system where men are elevated and women are passed over, and therefore they may intentionally stifle their masculinity.
Young men may also feel the need to hide away their more ‘feminine’ traits like being nurturing, being sensitive, enjoying the occasional romantic comedy, etc, because they feel that those qualities make them less of a man or that they might be confusing themselves or others as to what their gender is, what gender they’re expressing, etc. If exhibiting some typically feminine qualities, which the world needs just as much as masculine qualities, is going to be seen as a negative, then young men may try to squash those aspects of their personality.
The Antidote: Authentic Masculinity
We need to encourage young men to be good men. They are growing up in a confusing time, where they may be told there are no differences between them and their female counterparts, that it’s all a matter of how they feel, how they identify, and how they express it, or that their masculinity is toxic. Clearly, the solution is not to promote doubling down on toxic masculinity, or trying to be both genders simultaneously, but rather to offer them something more, authentic masculinity.
It is my opinion that the Catholic Church, despite the flaws of the shepherds and the flock, is still the best place on Earth to see holy manhood personified. If nothing else, because of Jesus Christ and St. Joseph, one perfect and the other a sinner, who both modeled heroic virtue and selfless love so beautifully. Much like the Holy Family or the communion of saints, the Church is a big, beautiful, messy family. She offers young men a place for formation through bible studies, youth group, and other parish and diocesan programs. She offers belonging through fellowship opportunities. She offers grace through the Sacraments. I can’t think of a better place to be.
Most of my male role models entered my life through the Church. A youth minister, a Core Member, a priest, the peers and friends I journeyed with throughout high school. The list goes on and on. What I found most admirable among their qualities was the selflessness with which they served and the wisdom they possessed. Those were two traits I was pretty short on in high school. I learned how to treat people with respect, whether or not I felt they deserved it. I learned to pray before making decisions. I learned what it meant to walk in friendship with God and with others. Mostly, I learned that my life was not ultimately about me, that I was made for greatness, and that “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
It was through their honest witnesses that I learned our masculinity is something to be celebrated, and yet, because of our fallen nature, not every tendency we have as men should be carried out to fulfillment. I came to believe that “blessed are the meek”, or those who have great power but choose peace over violence. I came to believe that chastity, embracing God’s plan for sexuality rather than my own impulses, would ultimately lead to true joy and satisfaction. I came to believe, by way of seeing it lived out in the lives of my role models, that if we were ever to have power or influence, we should use it to help those less fortunate and looked over.
Your sons, brothers, nephews, etc. are trying to live out their masculinity in a culture that has made formerly clear gender lines blurry, and they are trying to be holy in a society that has almost entirely written off God.
I would encourage you to help the young men in your life find good role models. It could be a coach, a pastor, and youth minister, etc. I’m not a perfect man and none of my role models are perfect men. However, they responded to God’s call on their lives to be men of humility, peace, service, virtue, honesty, compassion, and courage. They modeled authentic masculinity in a way that attracted me to it and showed me the service that it can be to the world.
I’d also suggest that you encourage them to find good friends. The journey of “becoming,” as Thomas Merton taught, is a lifelong one. God created us and said it was “very good”. True friends see that in us, and they call us to be the best we can be. They believe in us and walk with us. Saints are not made in isolation.
Finally, I’d recommend that you challenge them where they’ve grown comfortable, and comfort them where they’ve met challenges. It’s a tough road, and they’ll need the help. Don’t baby them, but don’t make them afraid to show their weaknesses. Instill in them a sense of belonging in God’s family, a sense of wonder at how vast His love for them is, and a sense of courage to rise above mediocrity and strive for greatness.
That is, after all, what they were made for.