The man that I am today is not the man that I hoped to be. As a child and teenager, I dreamed of the days when I would be less self-conscious and could go through life unreflectively, focused on nothing more than achieving my next goal. This is how every male in my life seemed to approach life and so my penchant for self-reflection seemed to be a defect. I certainly did not expect to be sitting in a coffee shop on the verge of my 30th birthday writing down all the ways in which my experience and understanding of manhood have changed. But here we are.
Masculinity and manhood, or the lack thereof, have been recurring concerns in my life since childhood. I was raised by a young, single mother and her parents. For many years, the only recurring male presence in my life was my loving, but distant, grandfather. He had served many years in the Navy and stoicism and discipline defined our relationship, so I naturally associated these characteristics with manhood. Years later, my mother would meet the man who would adopt me as his son. My father fit most stereotypes of hyper-masculinity and was disappointed when I did not adopt his interests as my own. To me, hunting and fishing were unbearably boring when compared with the immersive worlds I found in books and video games. Confusing me even further, my father did not share the stoicism and discipline of my grandfather. The only trait they seemed to have in common was an affinity for simplicity, and so also a disdain for complexity. They both appreciated straightforward ideas and found so-called experts (or anybody who claimed to have more knowledge than them) contemptible. Since this was the only common quality of the two men in my life, I further reduced my understanding of masculinity to this singular concept. The only problem, though, was that this worldview had become antithetical to how I approached life. At my young age, I excelled in school and cultivated a love for learning. I fell behind my peers in many traditionally masculine pursuits, such as sports and outdoorsmanship, but I was without peer in the classroom. I was in a seemingly irreconcilable situation. If I embraced my natural talents, I would be contradicting what it means to be a man. If I neglected those pursuits and instead sought to imitate my father and grandfather, I would be a categorically worse man than my peers.
I continued in this state of existential angst until the middle of high school. My family was only nominally Catholic, but I became involved with my local parish at the behest of some of my friends. I quickly discovered that the realm of religion allowed me to occupy a traditionally masculine space while still allowing, and even celebrating, my intelligence and curiosity. An empathetic pastor encouraged my desire to delve deep into philosophical and theological questions. It seemed I had finally found a way to reconcile my natural interests and talents with the expectations of what I understood to be social manhood. Unable to see an alternative that would accomplish the same, I resolved to enter seminary after high school to study to be a Catholic priest.
During my first year, seminary seemed to be everything that I had hoped. I was able to throw myself into my studies of liberal arts without fear of ridicule. I excelled academically and socially, and held leadership positions within the seminary and at the associated university. As time progressed, though, certain improprieties began to make me question whether the seminary was the godsend that I had imagined. Seminary culture celebrated those who fit neatly into its understanding of masculinity, but ostracized those who did not. Seminarians who did not present in a traditionally masculine way had difficulty making friends in the community and the seminary staff periodically engaged in “witch hunts” for seminarians who experienced same-sex attraction. Those who held unpopular, but not heretical, opinions on theological questions faced similar challenges. Although I am ashamed at how long it took me, I began to realize that the seminary environment was not so different from the environment in which I grew up. The standards had changed slightly, but the social expectations of conformity and penalty of ostracism were basically the same. These observations, coupled with the blatant sexism displayed by my peers and superiors, made me wonder if, here too, I had found a distorted version of manhood.
This realization was made concrete in a startling way at the end of my first year. I had made efforts to befriend those who did not fit easily into the seminary community, but I mostly thought of it as a magnanimous step on my part. After all, I wasn’t having those difficulties. At the very end of the academic year, though, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was to begin chemotherapy immediately, but my outlook was not good. I found out later that my doctor had closed his office for a few days after my diagnosis to give him and his staff a chance to process the likelihood that they would never see me again. Thankfully, though, the cancer responded well to the chemotherapy, although not without consequence. I returned to seminary the next year with half my treatment regimen remaining. I made it through the semester, barely, but I was not able to keep my leadership positions and many of my social relationships suffered. During this difficult time, it was those very same people that the seminary community had largely rejected who were the greatest help. They not only brought me meals and homework when I couldn’t leave my room, but also had no problem staying in and watching movies or playing cards when I didn’t have the energy to leave the building. This experience confirmed that, if anything, they were doing me a service with their friendship, not the other way around. I took many things from that terrible ordeal, but certainly the most valuable was the true manhood in my friends’ care for me contrasted with the artificiality of those who rejected me when I was no longer successful.
After achieving remission, I continued in seminary for another year in Rome, where I experienced that toxic enforcement of conforming to the norm tenfold, before finally leaving. The understanding of manhood as self-gift, though, has never left me. I am currently in a loving, supportive relationship and I work for a non-profit agency that provides services to victims of intimate partner violence and sexual violence. I have also realized that any system which encourages the exclusion of others should not be understood as truly masculine. That means that, for me, religiosity is not a way in which I can be a healthy man. This is certainly not the case for everybody, nor should it be, but my experience has been that rigid systems and structures of belief can easily inhibit true masculinity’s impulse toward self-gift on behalf of another. And so, I am not the man I hoped to be, for which I am eternally grateful.
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