Hear, O sons, a father's instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching.
When I was a son with my father, tender, the only one in the sight of my mother,he taught me and said to me, “Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live.”
- Proverbs 4:1-4
Have you read or heard about how awful masculinity is? It’s just plain terrible! The phrase I hear bandied about most often is “toxic masculinity.” So, I got to thinking about all that toxicity in the masculine half of the human race, and I began to make a list of those toxic attitudes and delusions I learned from my father. The dictionary defines toxic as poisonous, and we hear (our children frequently hear) that toxic masculinity is deadly. I admit my father was not the easiest man to grow up under, but I haven’t died yet from all that masculinity he exposed us to over the years. Maybe it’s my rose-colored glasses, but all this intellectual, emotional, and mental toxicity that is killing us is apparently acting so slowly that I’ll probably be dead before I ever figure out what those toxins are. Based on my parents and grandparents, I’m feeling pretty confident I have two or three more decades to think on it, though. Speaking of which, my father is still alive, which (in contrast to some loud but small percentage of people) I consider a blessing, but I do need to be careful about revealing all that toxicity from my childhood.
Still, I have to be honest here, too. That man who raised me was not a perfect kind of guy. He had some serious failings, not the least of which was his temper. When he got angry at one of us – and there were three – he could yell loudly enough to just about wake the dead. I know, because I saw my brother levitate from a near-comatose state on the couch to perfect attention in under one second on more than one occasion. Truth be told, my brother probably saw that same thing happen with me, as well, although my adult accounting of all my childhood foibles is, “My brother made me do it.” My favorite supporting argument is, “It was his idea!”
For a while now, I haven’t seen my dad’s temper as it was when I was young. Before he retired, he used to get up at 4:45 in the morning and read the Bible, study, and pray – something he does at a later hour these days. He kept up the habit long enough that, over the years, that temper became less and less, and I haven’t seen it in all its terrible glory in many years. My personal experience, however, suggests that there is nothing quite like a teenager to bring out temper in the best of us. I certainly discovered a previously unknown capacity for “hurt you” rage while my son was a teen. I never did hurt him, but the thought – and frankly, the desire – came up frequently during those years. But I digress… We’re talking about toxic masculinity because we all know the same quality in a woman isn’t nearly as bad as it is in a man.
As I thought about all that I learned from my father and began to make a list, I thought Father’s Day would be a good time to tell any and all readers about what I learned from all that toxic masculinity in my childhood home.
My dad expected excellence, all the time, in everything we did, without excuse. He did not believe in mediocrity, nor did he appreciate or accept mediocre performances in any area, regardless of what everyone else might be doing. Closely related to excellence, my dad demanded we do our best in everything we did, whether mowing the lawn or learning trigonometry. “Your best – not good enough – but your best is all it takes for me to be satisfied with the grade you receive.” There were no participation trophies in our home.
My father believed we were born owing something worthwhile to the world around us. God gave us talents and abilities, and God expected us to use those for the betterment of our little corners of the world and every person in our sphere. He also believed respect was earned by both respecting others and being a respectable person, someone worthy of respect. He wasn’t much for self-esteem, but he certainly believed in being respectful and respectable.
The nightmare of every teenager, honesty wasn’t enough for my dad, although it was a good start. He wanted the truth – the whole truth, not just the parts where someone else was at fault. Punishment for lying exceeded punishment for wrongdoing, and lying about wrongdoing, well, that involved long stretches of time at home – mostly spent in the bedroom, without transportation, and without company.
My father taught us that the key to succeeding in every endeavor we tried was… not talent, not even smarts, no… Hard work is the key to succeeding. He owned a construction company where crews often dug ditches. After listening to how difficult was some task we faced, he would say, “That sure is hard, but standing here whining about it won’t get it done. Get your head down and your bottom up, and work harder,” an analogy taken from ditch digging that was frequently heard in our home and usually more colorfully phrased.
Going through a drawer recently, I found school pictures of my siblings and myself. As I looked at my chubby nine-year-old self, with long, stringy hair, front teeth too big, and back teeth missing entirely, I heard my daddy tell me I was beautiful, and he meant it. My dad never doubted that his girls were princesses, but he also never doubted God gave us brains to think for ourselves and to reach for our dreams. He told my sister and me that we could be or do anything for which we were willing to work hard enough. One time, when I was about fourteen years old and thought I was going to die of a broken heart, my dad told me he ‘was sorry the boy didn’t realize I was a princess, but I shouldn’t forget that he was just a frog anyway.’
As couples are wont to do, my parents disagreed and argued, but my father respected my mother. He treated her as the single, most important person in the world because she was, and still is, to him. He used to tell us that we were “just passing through, but she’s staying.” He chose her side, every time, and refused to tolerate disrespect toward her. We learned a lot about how a woman ought to be treated by a man, even when they’re both so mad they can hardly stand to be in the same room.
What makes masculinity so toxic today is that, exercised rightly, it calls out the best in us and reveals the worst in us. Life would have been so much easier if my parents were satisfied with my mediocrity and commiserated with my whining. Life would have been so much more pleasant, for me anyway, if I had not been required to be honest about myself and to tell the truth about my activities. If my parents had just put more effort in projects that were too hard for me, I probably would have made better grades in high school. Memorizing the Periodic Table in chemistry was hard, and so was plane geometry. Have mercy, all those vocabulary words we had to learn in senior English, while reading all those classics…? Surely a “C” would have been good enough, don’t you think? Isn’t a “C” average?
My mother once commented that, when we talk about our upbringing, my siblings and I always talk about our dad, as if she wasn’t even there for it. I told her that, ‘to the extent that any of us is normal – if, in fact, we are at all – it was due entirely to her influence.’ My father was not an easy man to grow up under. But our society needs fathers like mine, second only to the Lord Himself. All those high expectations, those demands to give our best and to give back to the world, to be respectful of others, to be respectable ourselves, and all the rest, forced us into productive adulthood, even through our own missteps and failures.
Feminists would have us believe that boys ought to be more like girls, but the only thing that idea has done is confuse people. Our children and grandchildren are paying a high price for confusing the difference between the male and female brain, as well as the physicality of male and female. As the new idealogues for diversity tell us – require us in many circumstances – to conform to a single identity and prescribed thought, our nation is collapsing under the weight of those who do not understand self-discipline, responsibility, hard work, or self-respect. No feminist mantra of empowerment ever came close to matching my father’s belief in his daughters and his constant reinforcement that we could accomplish whatever we desired, if we were willing to work for it. One thing is certain: girls are not lifted up by making boys lower, and women are not more by diminishing men.
I know there have been some awful fathers out there, and I am truly saddened by that. But because one man was bad doesn’t mean all men are bad, and because one father failed completely, does not mean all fathers are failures. The measure of fatherhood is not my dad. The measure of fatherhood is the God and Father of us all. No mere mortal meets that standard, but to the extent that a man seeks his true Father, that man will be a better father than a worse one.
The toxicity of authentic masculinity is the poison of seeing your own faults and weaknesses. It is the pain of hearing, “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt, but you’ve still got a job to do and you need to get after doing it.” Of course, that is also what makes it hard to be Christian, to draw near to the Light and Life of the world. When we come into the Light of God, the darkness of our souls is revealed. Such knowledge is poison to vaunted self-esteem. We are not nearly as wonderful as we think we are, and we are given a glimpse of all that we could be if we only have the courage to risk following Christ – to give our all, our best, and never to quit.
I have in some ways lived up to my father’s expectations, and I’ve even had moments when I lived up to my Father’s expectations, though not that many. But my heart still holds fast to the words and commands, because they lead to life.