Can’t Find Ten Good Men? Try to Be One.

Boys turn into men. The source material for men is easy to see playing outside in the sandbox. If a boy does not become a good man, is he not a man? Does he remain a boy? Boys are younger, men are older; younger people are inexperienced, older people are more experienced. Experience comes through time; time and experience turn boys into men. There is the saying that wisdom comes with age but sometimes age comes alone, so clearly not all men are good men. There are plenty of old fools, but are they boys or foolish men?

When I read Christian materials on being a man, writers talk about immature men as boys who refuse to grow up. Apt as the metaphor is, at some point a boy becomes a man because he ceases to be a child. If childhood ends and adult responsibilities begin with maturity and not with age, then the proverbial forty-year-old man living in his mother’s basement should go to juvenile hall and not to prison for murder. If you let him remain a boy, then perhaps he will write off manhood and go play with full freedom of conscience in places that accept him as over eighteen. Why not? Boys cannot control the fact of their boyhood: it is what they are!

Boys transform physically, morally, and spiritually into men through processes that they cannot control. Although they cannot control the processes that change them, they can control themselves as they change. In that they show manly maturity. Some societies have rites of passage to mark that boys have completely become men, and a great deal of manhood is built in society with men. Biology does not determine everything. Even so, boys who fail to become men cease to be accepted as boys. Whether societal rot or radical feminism or bad parenting or a host of other things are to blame, we have to call men either good or bad, not boys.

Men can be good or bad by morality or by maturity. If Dr. Frankenstein combined Mr. Darcy and Adolph Hitler for us in one body, we would have a gentlemanly and socially mature but thoroughly evil man. Conversely, a boy coddled by his parents well into his twenties may shudder at the thought of murder but know nothing of how to initiate a proper relationship with a woman. Both kinds of men are bad, whether evil or immature; both kinds of men cause real pain in real life. Speaking for myself, I will concede my own immaturity, but I will rend you limb from limb if you call me a boy.

I am not myself a good man, but I am nonetheless a man; my identity as a man increases the gravity of my own evil or immaturity. That said, repentance will not come with a truckload of sniveling apologies, though I may have to make many manful ones. I repent as a man by becoming the better man that I can be, not fighting as a boy to become the man I am not. Boys don’t have to grow up right away, so why should man-boys try to do the same? As for a man, if he offends a woman, he might let her slap him; a good slap might help a bad man become a good man. Though he might stand humiliation, even a repentant man will not stand to be insulted.

This is not about laughably fragile self-esteem: it is about quiet and palpable truth. Men want respect even if they do not deserve it, perhaps especially when they do not deserve it. Magnanimity is the province of the victor, taken from the vanquished. Christ as the Second Adam (or the Second First Man) condescended in the Incarnation to respect the fragile state of bad men and speak to us as we are, where we are. The crucifixion is from the greatest victor’s proudest magnanimity; though humbly sacrificing himself, Christ expected to receive back all that he gave, and then some: us. He denounced the teachers of the law as men and greeted tax collectors as men. Let us follow his example: if we have to denounce men as dogs, at least do not call them puppies. Let’s call men good or bad and leave the boys in the sandbox.

Image via Flickr.

  • Matthew Green

    “Men want respect even if they do not deserve it, perhaps especially when they do not deserve it. ” 
    Often, what we want is not what is good for us. While love should never be removed from our interactions with one another, it seems folly to hide from the truth. Sometimes men are immature, and we need to call a spade a spade.

  • Nathan Bennett

    Could you consider it, after a fashion, respect for a man if you directly tell him where he is failing? As I said, if you must denounce men as dogs, at least do not call them puppies. In my own life, I have been rebuked at various times, one more recent time that I remember pretty strongly. Either the guy letting me have it was right or wrong, but he didn’t pat my hand and say I wasn’t cut out for this adult stuff. He didn’t give me noogies and tell me to come back in ten years when I was all grown up. He respected where my maturity ought to be and he gave it to me straight.

  • Joshua D Charles

    Couldn’t respectively one argue that the category of “man,” loosely defined however deep the cultural conviction, is itself a stifling and hard confining shell, while boyishness provides maybe something to be reclaimed, something about embracing humility, awkwardness, impishness, failure? 

    Reminds me of the second-wave feminist impetus to oust calling all females 18 and up “girls.” Which is like fine. Linguistically/culturally true and all. But likewise many women are quite comfortable being called “girl,” recognizing full well the problematics (eroticization of underage peeps, trivializing, reducing women to adolescence, etc) precisely because of the problematics of embracing an essential “woman.” Yes it’s sad to reduce all women to “girls” (especially when it’s a girls/guys binary) but likewise let’s not pretend there aren’t problems with “woman” (who is and counts as a woman? who is succeeding and who is failing?).

    Boys and girls cry and fail and complain and get back up, are very rarely in denial to themselves, try and try, and generally unashamedly try to get what they want (until men and women come along and make them pretty guilty about everything). They are very willing and versatile. There’s something serious and capable about “innocence” and something repressed and stifled about “experience.” Blake taught me that. 

    Not that I really care mind you. Call me whatever you want and I’ll call you whatever you want, man. All I know is I’d rather be a Peter than a Captain Hook.

  • Anonymous

    On your last comment: I’ve always thought it was best to be Wendy. Experience the fun of childhood in a free way (beyond the nursery) but then choose to stay and grow up. She seems like she has the best ending, at least, as opposed to Peter.

    Between Peter and Hook, though, I’d choose Peter, any day.

    Interesting thoughts on the use of the term ‘girl.’ I’d mostly heard it said that we should avoid using it, if we want to recognize that the women in our lives are, well, just that: women. At the same time, I never had a problem with it, mostly because I was just as quick to let the term “boy” come out of my mouth, and I was never offended if someone referred to me in that way, even if I consider myself a mature and adult man.

  • Matthew Green

    What if giving it to you straight is to say, “By [insert failing action], you’re acting like an immature, little boy”? Yet that’s the very thing you say you can’t tolerate. It doesn’t strike me that calling someone immature is necessarily disrespectful. It can be, but these aren’t equivalent.

    Perhaps I’m failing to understand the intent of your post, but what mostly comes across to me is frustration with being treated with “kid gloves”. But that’s not an issue of maturity to me; it’s more a matter of love, respect, and tact, all of while are not dependent on development biological, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, or otherwise.

  • Joshua D Charles

    I’d rather be a Wendy too but of course it’s unlikely I’ll ever be able to have birth children. She’s sorta a stand in ideal mother type, right, and thus kinda outside that whole boy/man binary thing. Although I still agree. Wendy’s super great. 

    And I generally think it’s good to call people who identify as a woman “woman” and people who identify as a girl “girl” etc. Just seems nice. When running into an adult female who self-identifies as “girl” I feel very uncomfortable correcting her. Seems very backwards for me as a man to start telling her how to identify in order to be a proper (feminist) woman. 

    But so too I feel with “boy” or “boi.” And I think we’re all pretty aware of valid criticisms against certain portrayals of masculinity and the violences it’s enacted on peeps such as women. Perhaps there’s something to rejecting “man” and embracing “boy” in that way. Perhaps not. Regardless, feels nice to respect people’s labels and names they have rather than reclassify them to fit my categories. 

    Just a thought.

  • Nathan Bennett

    Let’s see . . . I suppose my point then is to not give men a rhetorical refuge to justify remaining as boys. There is indeed a distinction between insulting and rebuking. If you want to rebuke me and try to mark me permanently as a boy though I am in my twenties, then I will take that as an insult rather than loving correction. I could then say it more generally this way: even if you have to rebuke someone strongly, don’t insult them. In the heated upper reaches of rebuke, the lines between rebuke and insult get blurred because calling someone evil when they ARE evil is telling the truth and not character assassination.

    I think at this stage I will readily concede your point. Thank you for helping me become more clear in my own thinking and expression.

  • Nathan Bennett

    Whatever semantic labels you prefer, the fact is that people gain responsibilities as they age and sometimes they shirk those. I hope that in talking to people who turn away from responsibility we can show them that they do not have any semantic hiding places that will save them from what they are doing. Does that clarity things at all?

    You have a good point on the virtues of children. Another literary example of someone who took on responsibility while retaining childlikeness is Dumbledore. He’s awesome.

    I would give Dumbledore’s personal character to Captain Hook. Then I would prefer Captain Hook over EVERYBODY.

  • Nathan Bennett


  • Joshua D Charles

    Yeah. I’m pretty sure I get the broader point about responsibility. And I agree about semantic cubbies and hiding places. But also semantics shapes the cubbies. It’s the mountains to the valley–complete with snowy peaks and potential landslides. It’s important to periodically stroll through and maybe close down an unsafe road or two. 

    It’s this correlation between being adult, masculine, strong, and virile with responsibility that I guess I was trying to push back against. Of course we give children responsibilities and we should be forgiving towards adults. If it’s a question of responsibility, all fine and dandy, but children have taught me a lot about responsibility and adults have at times been disappointingly repressed, irresponsible, and narcissistic. It’s not so much how to balance these two (adult/responsible with child/irresponsible) but more unlearning the ways we’ve been taught to privilege adults and trivialize children. It seems like the source of frustration for you was this category “boy” and how it was implying you weren’t fit for or outside of certain responsibilities. I agree with you–it’s trivializing and dismissive. Yet it’s not just trivializing and dismissive to you, but to boys and children in general, while also assuming adults are way more secure and essential than they are. Just as the male who dismisses someone as a “boy” positions himself as a firm and solid “man,” so too joining in with calling all boys irresponsible positions you and I and all males into a comfortable category of “man.” It becomes this very sort of semantic hiding place–a means of coping by bullying those we’d like to think weaker and smaller than ourselves. It buttresses our own insecurities with a safe semantic and social shell, shirking responsibility of ourselves while scapegoating others. So I guess my problem is a binary that’s so neat it pretends boys, and children in general, are irresponsible and men/adults are responsible. Like childhood is some bit of ash we must pass through to really, truly, finally be born. But children were born and are people and no less real. We give children responsibilities according to what they can and can’t do just like we do for adults. We expect them to follow through just as much. They have voices and stories worth telling and it’s nothing shy of narcissism to think ourselves to have come much farther then they. After all, the kingdom belongs to such as these–a kingdom where there is no “man” or “woman.” I’d like to think St. Paul wasn’t just thinking about gender or birth-sex but birth, growth, maturity, aging, and dying. The City of God might be a little less “mature” and “civil” than we think, and just a bit more like Neverland. 

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