I was in the Apple store in a Grand Rapids mall. This man entered and all eyes turned to regard his black skin, dreadlock hair, bright and bold smile, and buff body.
I noticed two other things that, in my mind, were his most manly features. One, he was pushing a stroller. Second, his tight T-shirt bore the phrase “Iron Sharpens Iron — Proverbs 27:17.”
Let me first address the stroller thing. I was impressed because in our day so many men think taking care of the kids is women’s work. Or worse, they don’t even have a relationship with their kids.
I don’t have a problem with single parents. I definitely do have a problem when a woman is a single parent because the father abandons the woman, child and his responsibility. So, when I saw the stroller, I smiled. I was also impressed with how well he gently but firmly kept the reigns on his small son in a crowded and chaotic retail store.
Then there was the T-shirt. At first glance, and to someone without a deep familiarity with the Bible, “iron sharpens iron” may seem to be about weight-lifting prowess. That would especially be true on the guy I saw, whose biceps were something to envy. But that full verse says “even as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Other versions say men instead of person, but the principle is the same — we need others to help us grow and change to be our best. It’s really a statement of spiritual humility, not physical vanity.
And that’s what really made this buff guy with a Bible T-shirt and a stroller such a striking sight in an Apple store on a random day earlier this summer. He stood in bold defiance to society’s standard of manhood.
Our culture drills us with notions of what it means to be a man. In everything from advertisements to TV comedies to feature films, there is a set of characteristics that define what it means to “be a man!” They are all wrong.
Even in conversations among men, you pick up the social norms of manhood. If I were to condense them into a series of single words, they would be as follows.
Drink! So many ads and scenes in popular culture appeal to a man partying, or being the life of the party. It is the ultimate aspiration. It also is the first source of refuge for men when things don’t go well. How’s this working out for our society? Alcoholism and the resulting abuse, neglect and recklessness are hardly manly.
Win! Men, apparently, are expected to compete. I like sports, too, and I cheer for my favorite teams. But this competitive aspect blends into work, family, material possessions and more. I’ve heard countless stories of men who put career or possessions first and noticed too late they had a weak relationship with their wife, kids, friends and others. If men have a win-at-all-costs mentality, they will find the cost is they lose what’s most important.
Command! It’s a hip expression to say a man is “livin’ large and in charge.” Men in our society are expected to seek and maintain control. What this often means, however, is not leadership. It’s arrogance, and often abusive. I’ve observed more than a few men who lived this way and wondered if they realized how boyish they looked, and that the silence of others was not admiration but disgust.
Satisfy! Our society compels men to get what they want. We are urged to indulge our urges, in everything from sex to money to possessions to recreation. I’ve lived long enough to know that such an animal response to urges does not lead to lasting human satisfaction.
What’s the alternative? That guy again, that guy in the Apple store. I don’t know him, and I didn’t talk to him, but I got a sense he was living by a higher standard of manhood. It boils down to three simple words in contrast to the words listed above: sacrifice, serve, lead.
If you want to see something manly, look for a man who gives up his own desires to meet the needs of others — his wife, kids, employees, neighbors and so on. In the same way, look for a man who doesn’t try to take command and control for his own gain but is seeking ways to be of service to others. And finally, look for a man who is not lazy or vain, but steps up to lead with selfless vision — his family, his community, his workplace, his country.
There’s an expression in our culture uttered with faux bravado by men: “Be the man!” Yes, all of us men should be the man. But we should know what a real man is, and then sharpen each other to be that man.
— A collection of columns by Tim Penning, Ph.D., is in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman.