(for Luka, a bit later in his life)
I woke this morning thinking about Barack Obama, and how perfectly he fits the model of manhood proposed by Rudyard Kipling in his unjustly maligned and frequently parodied poem “If.” In case you don’t remember it, here’s how it starts out:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…
Doesn’t that sound like Obama?
First, though, Boyhood, which provoked these thoughts. We finally got to see this beautiful and profoundly moving film last night. I loved the twelve-year journey of these skillful and committed actors, playing out the emotional development of fictional characters engaged in a fictional narrative as they themselves physically aged. I loved the “truth” of the story itself, of a family struggling with the realities of life—the failed and failing marriages, the financial woes, the abuse of alcohol and drugs, sibling love and feuding, school and the relationships with classmates, the pain of the teenage years, and so on. All along, start to finish, the story had the convincing “feel” of life as most of us experience it.
And the film is true to its title. It is about boyhood. Even at the end, the young boy, Mason, whose life we have been following from elementary school to college has not yet emerged fully into manhood. The last shot shows him, literally high in the beautiful natural surroundings of the mountains, and high on the mushroom fed him by his brand new college roommate. With a lovely young woman at his side—they sit still shyly side by side and not in some false, premature embrace—he gazes out in ecstasy into the landscape as though into a future filled with allure. But it is abundantly clear that he is still a boy. Boyhood still glows in his face; he’s all promise, no completion.
Which should not surprise us. He had no models of real manhood as he was growing up. Mason’s biological father is a charming rogue in his early years, unable to accept the responsibilities of marriage, job, and family. The subsequent relationships his mother forms are with men whose manhood is as questionable as his father’s: a smooth academic whose insecurities lead him to drunken tyranny; a former military man whose immaturity is revealed in his insensitivity and inflexibility. With one notable exception—a photography teacher who attempts to move our Mason beyond his obstinate, lethargic adolescence—the strong, mature figures who surround the growing boy are women. The men are simply grown-up little boys.
Which leads me to reflect, beyond the parameters of the movie, upon this question: what are the qualities of manhood? We find what I think of as a real man all too infrequently in our contemporary world. We are surrounded everywhere by ungrown men: the drunks, the abusers, the workaholics; priests and teachers who take advantage of their positions of trust and exploit the vulnerabilities of children; lovers who take what they need and reject responsibility; politicians who lack the spine to govern and capitulate too easily to those who would manipulate them; gun-toting idiots who insist so stridently on their “rights” and are quick to spurn the rights of others; sports heroes pumped up with illicit drugs and phony testosterone; spoiled cultural idols, many of them scarcely more than teenagers.
Too often, the models of manhood we are offered are characterized by a false notion of strength. To return to the President and his current predicament, surrounded as he is by well-meaning progressives to the left and fanatics blinded by their own rectitude on the right, all nipping at his heels and demanding displays of strength. They fail to understand that the qualities of true strength are not intellectual inflexibility and rash, foolhardy action (the former President and his enablers come inevitably to mind) but the maturity to step back and take the longer view, the wisdom to listen and, when necessary, to change. Even to bend. That too is strength. They have not learned the ancient lesson of the oak tree and the reed.
The qualities of manhood, in my view, are these: integrity, a sense of mission, a devotion to service. We know how to teach these qualities. We do it with our military men in boot camp (women, too, these days, of course, but I’m concerned here with men.) While I’m not a fan of militarism in any form, I’ll concede that in most cases even this crass form of initiation can produce admirable men—men who have not only strength and skills, but a sense of purpose greater than themselves. Our armed forces are worthy of the respect that they receive. What turns boys to men is this kind of ritualized initiation—a process that’s significantly lacking in the development of the youngster who’s portrayed in “Boyhood,” as it is to the majority of us today. Of myself, if I’m to be honest, I must acknowledge that I reached some measure of manhood only in my fifties. For genuine initiation in our culture we have substituted such tepid rituals as Christian confirmations and bar mitvahs.
They don’t do the trick. In traditional cultures, the transition was a far more dangerous journey, involving genuine threat to life and limb as boys were sent out into wilderness or jungle to temper the vulnerability and fearfulness of boyhood into the steel they would need to function as a man. We in the modern Western world have no wild animals to deal with, unless we count those within. We forget that these are powerful enough to rule our lives if we don’t learn to acknowledge and confront them. The early myth of initiation for us is the ordeal of the knight apprentice, who rides out into the forest to test his mettle against the dark knight—or the dragon—and returns prepared to serve his queen.
What is integrity? In simple terms, it is the fortitude to say fearlessly exactly what I mean, and do exactly what I say. Which implies, of course, a clear vision about who I am and what I am given to do. If I’m in doubt or confusion, I lack resolve. I dither. The answer lies not in denying doubt and confusion—they are a part of being human. No one escapes them. In denying them I risk precipitous and futile action, when what I need first is to consult the inner wisdom that I’ve wrestled with myself to find, and rediscover the clarity before I act. A man of integrity is a man who “has his act together,” in the sense that his actions are in full congruence with his words. He has “integrated” the four mainstays of his being: mind and body, feeling and spirit, and they are properly in balance. Action that is not backed by all four of these in unison–action that lacks thought, or heart, or energy, or purpose–is as ineffectual as the failure to act at all.
Inseparable from a man’s integrity, then, is the understanding that he has left behind the innocence of boyhood, along with the freedom that accompanied it. He lives in a world of accountability to others and acknowledges his duty (yes, sorry, a quaint, old-fashioned concept!) to serve others than himself. Sadly, it’s true that most of us fail to live up to this ideal. We look around us, searching vainly for the most part for our Mahatma Gandhis, our Nelson Mandelas, our Martin Luther Kings—men who were certainly not lacking in the failings that made them human, but who managed to be magnificently greater than their weaknesses, and of spectacular, historical service to their fellow human beings.
We cannot all be men like these, but we can be men. Without the challenge of traditional initiation rites, we are required to find, or invent, our own journey from boyhood into manhood. It is no easy task to face the darkness and the inner demons that, without our awareness, can control our destinies. All of us need some form of support as we make that journey: a church, perhaps, a spiritual guide, a trained therapist… And the journey, for most of us, is never ending. Who can sit back on his laurels and say with certainty: I have reached the fullness of my manhood? Even in, at best, my last quarter here among the living, I still struggle with my own.
So we leave our young protagonist, in “Boyhood,” with the journey into manhood still ahead of him. He may already have been initiated into sex and drugs, into the drudgery of work and now, finally, the college dormitory, but none of these has opened the door to the real, deep, inner work he will have to do if he is to become the man he needs to be if he is to fulfill his life’s destiny. And that is yet to come…