Mark Mathias believes that men should have manners.
I’m still in high school when my father leaves to begin a new life with a different woman, and I suddenly find myself in a house with a hurt, angry mother, an older sister who sympathizes with her, and a younger sister who understands as little about this whole mess as I do. My home life in 1970 becomes the world of women, where baseball gloves collect dust on closet shelves and grounded male energies simply do not exist. Dad passes away nine years later from a heart issue just as our reconciliation is getting underway, and I take to wandering my existence without a map or a guidebook, in search of what to do with my fatherless life.
Twelve years pass. I’ve become a SNAG – a “Sensitive New Age Guy” – a soulful, health-conscious musician who feels things deeply and is oh-so-much-more comfortable in the presence of women. I know nothing about home ownership, hard work, or planning for the future; I know quite a lot about backpacking, writing in journals, and making the best of whatever life happens to be serving up on any given day.
There is no adult male in my life I feel admiration for.
Then, near the end of 1982, along comes The Man From Snowy River, a movie about a young man, Jim, learning to find his way in the world after the accidental death of his excellent father. Raised in the mountainous Snowy River range of Australia in the late 1800’s, his skill set and abilities come from having lived and worked close to the earth. He comes down from the mountains in search of a job, and his efforts to prove himself to be a dependable hard-working lad on a cattle rancher’s farm sets him on a character-building path where he must address issues of manhood and masculinity, keeping one’s word, standing up to bullies, doing what’s right, and not giving up in the face of hardship or discomfort. I don’t know it at the time, but this will become the most-watched movie in my life.
It took several viewings of this movie before it dawned on me just how little time I’d spent in the company of adult males since the loss of my own father, that I too had abilities and talents in need of recognition, cultivation, and a direction to point them. I too wanted my worth and mettle witnessed and blessed by not just older men but men of strength and character, men I could admire and look up to. But I was to never meet such men in the vacuum of the self-isolating life I’d created — a life of journal writing, quiet hikes in nature and part-time jobs working alongside pretty girls. With nothing hard to push against and no one asking more of me than I was comfortable giving, why should it surprise me that I became a passive, sensitive man, feeling distrust and unease in the company of strong-willed, confident men?
With every viewing of this movie I became more intrigued with the depiction of solid, earthy, uncomplicated men working together and relating to one another, especially the way young Jim conducts himself as he goes about his new duties at his new job. Everything asked of him is done well, done thoroughly, and without complaint. He knows his place; he knows to show respect to the men in leadership positions because those men are tough but fair, communicating with such unambiguous clarity they could not possibly be misunderstood.
I was the same age as Jim– twenty-seven – when I first saw this movie. Yeah, yeah, he gets the girl in the end but that’s not what got my attention. What interested me was young Jim’s masculine etiquette: doing what was asked of him with dignity, determination, and accountability. In time he earns the respect of the older men by having respect for himself, speaking his truth and standing firm in his beliefs when push comes to shove. In my own life I gradually became aware of how often I took the least-restrictive, least-confrontational path at every opportunity, choosing cruise control over self-control, accepting the life I had instead of making an effort to create the life I might want.
My VHS copy of the movie was good and worn before my attention turned to noticing Jim’s level of comfort and self-confidence in the presence of harder, older men; by the time a DVD version was in my hands I’d already attended my first-ever all-day men’s event, led by some poet guy named Robert Bly and his mythologist friend Michael Meade, whose yearly men’s retreats would change my life forever. The unexamined father wound I carried for so many years turns out to have been exactly the right kind of irritating grit that helped form the pearl-like quality of my adult life. I did not enjoy putting an end to my toxic, dysfunctional marriage, but I’m certainly enjoying the loving reconciliation taking place between myself and my twenty-two-year-old daughter who is soon to graduate college.
The Man From Snowy River introduced me to “masculine etiquette”, depicting too many small moments of honor, respect and character-building to name. To this day, with every viewing, I feel nourished in some way. The excellent life I now lead arose from the ashes of difficult-but-necessary life changes I feared to make for many years, but once I aligned myself with fictional and non-fictional men of good character, the best of what I saw in them called up the best in me.
Photo Credit: Crew/Unsplash
This post was originally featured on The Acorn Chronicles.