There is a great temptation in all of us to reduce all of our lives to a checklist. All I need is to get this or that set of things done, and then my life is complete. I will be a millionaire by the time I am 30. I am going to get married (or not get married) until my late twenties. I will retire by 55. I know a whole lot of people that live by this check-list. And we can see it even in the culture of the “bucket list”. I want to climb every major mountain before I die, or visit every baseball stadium in the U.S. I will see all the Land before Time movies without feeling immense regret. And having goals is clearly not a bad thing in and of itself; we need checklists, we need tangible goals that help push us towards what we need next, or that pulls us out of our houses and away from stagnation. The problem, however, is that very often this sums up the entirety of our lives: Get a good job, find a woman, build a house, etc. etc. Have I completed these objectives? Good, now I am happy, my life is what it is supposed to be.
You’ve completed the checklist, you are successful. Congratulations. And once we complete these goals, there is a brief moment of satisfaction, followed closely by an Okay…what next?
The problem is that the checklist can never stand up to the complexities of reality, and there is no openness in this view of life to the possibility that maybe my life is meant for more for that. Maybe the Lord has other plans for me, much greater than I anticipated and more beautiful than I ever thought possible. Humanity was made for more than check-lists, and no matter how many countries I see or bacon+strange food variations I eat, it will not satisfy that eternal longing for more. There is no one-size-fits-all for life because life is too mysterious and beautiful for that. It would certainly be easier if we all started with a checklist, but the fact is that no mold or bucket list will suffice. It is not enough.
This can be seen even more so in the resurgence of the “man culture”, where too often manliness is reduced to a series of criteria. Follow this check-list, dress this way, know these skills, read these books, and then you are a man. Congratulations fellow man, wear your well-waxed mustache and fancy lumberjack shirt with pride .
Now none of these proposals that these movements offer are bad in and of themselves, and in fact much of this information has been much needed in our emasculated world. The problem however, is that we have reduced all of masculinity to an entirely external mold, and anyone that does not fit into this well defined mold is less than a man. It is an easy temptation to believe that authentic masculinity comes from a constant self-consciousness that is always focused upon doing masculine things or presenting what is thought to be a masculine image. And this has even seeped into the Church, where Catholic men are very often expected to follow a specific criteria that makes them both Catholic and a man: Read Chesterton? Check. Smoke a cigar and drink scotch? Check. Member of (insert local Men’s fraternity)? Check. Congratulations, you are a Catholic Man.
The problem is our constant tendency to reduce. A Catholic man may do these things or have these hobbies, but they do not define him. These things are a help (Personally, I could read Chesterton all day…), but they do not sum up Catholicism nor masculinity, and to treat them as such is dangerous. We so often get trapped by our own criteria, our own mold of who we think we are instead of letting the Lord do His thing, which is always better than we ever anticipated.
My dad never read Chesterton in his life. He doesn’t smoke a pipe or dress like he lives in the1930’s. He often wears jean shorts (sorry to sell you out Dad), and he doesn’t have a fancy beard. He appears as just another guy.
But my dad works hard, is good at his work, is faithful to his wife, and lovingly raised five kids with no complaints. Very often he would get the raw deal in birthdays and celebrations, but he never seemed to mind. I never, ever, heard him fight with my mom, because whenever they had a disagreement, they would go behind closed doors to rationally figure out what to do next. He goes to Church every Sunday and he prays daily for his family. He is an amazing cook and is funnier than I give him credit.
He’s stubborn and often drives me crazy.
But he is a real man, and he taught all of us kids that to be a man means humility and faithfulness, holy steadfastness to one’s state of life, whatever that is. He is a man, and a great father. At the end of the day, the externals matter a whole lot less than we think they do. They are flashy, but they don’t endure.
And the saints, in all their wild diversity that forcibly breaks any mold, show that what characterizes them in their masculinity is not the externals, but their steadfastness in response to the call of Jesus Christ. For Saint Joseph, it was to the quiet obscurity of the carpenter shop and to loving and protecting this woman and this child in all of their mystery. We never read one of Joseph’s words, and yet his holy example can still move us today. For Fr. Damien of Molokai it meant caring for the exiled lepers, the dying and despairing who had no one to care for them, while he himself suffered from the same disease. The rest of the world spread horrible rumors about him, while he quietly continued to love the sick and the dying. Blessed Herman the Cripple (look him up) would never walk or run or dead lift, but his love of knowledge, his deep devotion to Mary, and his joy despite the pain of his disfigured body has taught us more than he ever would have anticipated. These are men.
The Roman rhetorician Marius Victorinus said, “When I encountered Christ, I discovered myself a man.” Our manhood is not found in any mold or series of criteria that anyone can offer, but in following Christ within His Church with all of our humanity. It is He that shows us the way, and in following Him with courage and trust, He molds us into the men we are called to be, if we are open to it. If anything that these man-culture movements offer is helpful in being faithful to our call to holiness, then use it. If not, then discard it. As Fr. Julián Carrón says, “Our only loyalty is help towards holiness.” We have to take all of our humanity seriously, but this is not done through comparison, but in a steady willingness to follow Christ wherever He wants us to go, and to grow in whatever way will make us be more like Him.