Michael Rhodes discusses a soulful masculinity and the misstep of defining masculinity against femininity.
“Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance.” So goes the old Celtic motto quoted by Robert Bly in the book Iron John. Often and unfortunately, masculinity and femininity are defined against each other, resulting in little to no overlap and forcing masculinity and femininity to be opposites instead of being freely defined. Hence, certain characteristics when seen in men are degraded as being “like a girl,” simultaneously degrading the characteristic and women together in one assertion as less valuable.
Simplistically, masculinity has often been narrowly defined in terms of a “man’s man” who shows little emotion except anger, denies his wounds as admitting them would be weak, displays athleticism, mechanical skills, and sexual prowess. This is where we begin to divide men into two categories. Either they are a man as defined above, seen as the true masculinity, or they are a “soft man.” The soft man is defined as passive, physically inept, fearful, and easily wounded. He is seen as dominated by the feminine.
Men are split into lovers or fighters with both sides void of the characteristics of the other.
This narrow macho definition of masculinity along with its maligning of certain characteristics as soft has resulted in many men being “life-preserving but not exactly life-giving”(Bly, Iron John). They are the fathers who pay the bills and mow the lawn, admirable, boring tasks, but fail to be receptive and lack any depth in intimacy. They are the husbands and boyfriends who “do not see women’s souls well, but appreciate their bodies”(Bly, Iron John).
And so we search for a deeper masculinity that is not defined against the feminine, but instead messily overlaps, pulling together the necessary traits to be drawn from the soul at the right time to become one who is both life preserving and life giving.
The lover and the fighter—the one who can brandish a sword while simultaneously doing so as a soulful man who knows the intricacies of beauty. At, times we need the masculine “on that fence,” handling the ugly truth and inherent danger of life, but we must understand that we need the deeper masculine and not a bifurcated macho or nurturer masculinity.
Interior work is needed and it never ends. For some men, this interior work can be the hardest of all. A few years ago, I wrestled with unemployment, failure, unproductiveness, and my own mental health. I would have much rather battled a physical danger at the risk of death. I wanted a physical battle against an opponent whose eyes I could look into instead of the more complicated emotional and mental battle. My interior warrior was weak and it would have been easier to throw blows than to wade through my soul. Many of us carry ourselves and drive our cars looking for a fight, while all along our own psyche, mood, and even our hearts are calling us out, but we pretend not to hear them because we are afraid of that struggle.
One of the most poignant scenes in the Hurt Locker captures this perfectly. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), the one who is either brave, reckless, or both, returns home from a tour and finds himself in a grocery store staring at a long aisle of cereal choices. The juxtaposition between the riskiness and dark exhilaration of warfare from previous scenes and mundane sterility of home life is blaring at that moment. The one can leave men wounded and traumatized, making everyday life almost impossible. The other can leave men empty and lifeless, incapable of any form of battle. For the majority of us, the fight is internal unless we regularly create situations in which we can physically push our limits.
And so we need a masculinity of a lover and a fighter—this masculine strength to provide security, overcome one’s mood, exercise restraint, preserve life, and give life. This marriage of love and fight is found in grinding it out at work, making your kids lunch, being present, engaging your partner, safeguarding, being an ally to your children as they encounter pain in life, wiping tears, touching a face, not being controlled and yet avoiding carelessness.
“Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance.” This loving and fighting is where masculinity flourishes. One without the other, again, will produce one who preserves life but does not give it.