Last week at karate class my instructor said he had “something different” for me. Then, he put on some sparing gloves and punched me in the face. Well, that was different.
The punch was nowhere as damaging as it could have been. A punch to the face from a black belt with lots of practice can wreak a lot of destruction. Good thing we were only sparing. Because he was going easy, the contact was more surprising than painful. I was able to shake it off.
It was partly my fault anyway. The goal was for me to practice blocking. He said he wanted to see how good my blocks are. Apparently, at least at that moment, they weren’t quite good enough.
After his fist made contact with my nose, he asked me if I wanted to stop. Part of me did, but there was no way I was going to let myself quit. First, because when you find that you are able to block sixty percent of strikes thrown your way by a black belt half your age, it’s fun to keep going. Second, if I had quit, I would have been surrendering my right to respect, both my instructor’s and my own.
So, I said we should keep going, and he kept hitting me with a few wheel kicks thrown in for good measure.
The incident brought to mind another from long ago.
In my twenties, I was friends with a mountain man, or whatever the Midwestern equivalent of a mountain man is. He once showed up to my apartment in a beautiful leather coat that I complimented.
“Thanks, “ he said without a trace of self-consciousness, “I made it out of a deer.”
That’s the kind of guy he was.
We used to go canoeing a lot.
Because neither of us wanted to be on the river at the same time as the summer revelers we would go at less popular times. This meant we usually went in winter.
One February we were out on a particularly drab day floating with the current. I sat in the front, he was in the back steering. For some reason, we decided to get out of the canoe.
When we got to the bank, I tried to step out of the canoe onto a thick root that had grown over the water. My boot slipped and I plunged into the river almost up to my waist. The temperature of the water was probably just above the freezing point.
Fortunately, I’d had the presence of mind to bring a second pair of pants, anticipating something like this could happen. I hobbled off to find a tree to lean against to change. When I came back and was once again seated in the canoe, my mountain man friend said to me, “So, do you want to go home now?”
I refused, and we floated on for a few more hours. Near the end of the trip, he said to me, “Well, Dean, I have to hand it to you. There aren’t a lot of people I bring out here who could fall in the freezing river and keep going.”
Both these incidents illustrate an important point. In both instances, life presented a challenge to me and I met it. Now, I am certain there have been times when I have failed similar tests, but I am at an age where those have been mercifully expunged from my memory.
That’s ok, because the point I want to make is not about me. I want to make a point about men. There was no way I was going to give up on blocking my teacher’s punches, and there was no way I was going to start crying and demand to cancel the canoe trip just because my legs were cold. My self-respect was on the line in both situations, but more importantly, I wanted to earn the respect of the men I was with.
Men do this. We face challenges in order to feel that men we respect hold us in the same esteem. It happens wordlessly. The sense of what is expected of us in these situations, and of what our choices mean arises naturally in our hearts. So many men who struggle with shame do so because they know they have failed these tests more often than they have passed them.
This dynamic is lost on most people. Feminists and the culture they have influenced generally portray this aspect of masculine nature as pure foolishness, the stupid attempt of overgrown boys to “out-macho” one another. The male need to face challenges and to feel the acceptance of a band of brothers who have also faced them valiantly is derided in popular culture, in schools and in pop psychology.
Even many young boys have been confused by these messages. They suffer needlessly because their inner desires for honor conflict with their social conditioning. The heart of a boy inclines toward bravery, but his teachers praise weakness and call cowardice good.
The result is young men who either shrink from every challenge and seek to disappear from life behind a wall of video games, junk food and porn, or who act out their natural inclinations through all manner of dissipation and base self indulgence. We end up a society where men are divided into cowering, compliant sheep or callous, untutored cretins driven by high quantities of testosterone and beer.
Without a culture of mature masculinity to train boys’ inner instincts, things fall apart. This is just another way that fatherlessness drags civilization toward its destruction.
A society with a chance of survival supports, rather than targets for destruction, organizations like the Boy Scouts. Such groups train boys’ desires for honor by placing them under the watchful eye of mature men who keep them from undue danger, give them a model toward which to aspire, and a troop of brothers.
Those groups are practically gone now. In their place, we have daytime TV, a million Snapchat stories and gender -neutral bathrooms. We have decided the trade off was worth it.
We are left with the illusion of freedom and a pervasive sense of impending catastrophe. We all tremble to behold the boys we have made, boys confused about their natures, anxious about belonging, and unable to join that company of valiant men upon whom the future so desperately depends.
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