It took the death of two mentors to give me a tiny glimpse into what men are good for.
The question has baffled me for years, and I've found precious few resources to hint at the answer. My inner, genderfluid self is little help, since it skews toward qualities often ascribed to women: a passion for connection over competition, mercy over judgment, feelings and relationships, pretty nail polish.
The spirit of our age, at least the U.S. version, is even less useful. Think of the paradigms and stereotypes of maleness presented to us. The alpha male. The strong silent type. The provider and protector of the family. The prolific stud who helps create the family. The hapless oaf who can't clean up after himself, run a dishwasher, hold a job, or grow up.
While these stereotypes, like many others, hold grains of truth, they fail to provide useful insight about a gender that, in the eyes of many, may soon be obsolete. Male brawn is less important in the workforce than it was 75 years ago. Women are providing and protecting as much as men. Organizations are prioritizing the "female skills" of collaboration, transparency, and interdependence. In vitro fertilization changes the reproductive equation.
Even my faith's sacred text doesn't help much. I suppose I could extrapolate ideas about maleness from Elijah, David, Jesus, or other heroes of the Bible. I might look at the admonitions for husbands ascribed to St. Paul (Ephesians 5:25-33). But a definition of maleness? It's nowhere to be found.
Into this vast blank slate came two men who were dearer to me than I knew.
Ron, a Benedictine monk with an unforgettable laugh, was my spiritual director for 10 years. My inner life leans toward the mystical, so I would bring innumerable new callings and flights of fancy to our sessions. Nearly every time, he would gently affirm the God I was hearing and the movement I was seeing in my own life. He didn't blink as I worked through my call to write and then to become a spiritual director myself.
Yet he always made sure I had my feet on solid ground. So often he would ask, "What does your wife think of this?" As I pondered training programs for spiritual direction, his big question was "Are you sure you can afford the tuition?"
We didn't meet as often as we should have, so I didn't expect his passing to affect me much. But the news knocked me sideways. I had depended on his feedback and barely realized it.
The same could be said of Larry, my father-in-law. There was little to commend me as a son-in-law when I entered the family 35 years ago. I resembled our hapless oaf from a few paragraphs back. And I was joining a clan that did not suffer in-laws gladly, let alone foolish in-laws.
Of all the judgments I endured in those first years, Larry proved my unexpected ally and life coach. He welcomed me to the family at a lakeside picnic by handing me a spatula and saying, "Here. You're cooking the hamburgers." He knew I knew nothing about grilling. That was the point. But he stayed close to my side, adding a word of guidance here and there. No one died of food poisoning that day.
Over the years, our friendship grew deeper. We shared an insatiable curiosity that led to many long talks about the world, God, and human stupidity. We didn't often disclose raw emotions or intimate details, but sometimes they came out anyway: together we pondered the premature death of his son years ago, his attitude toward his hard-earned wealth, his worries about the family. He lent his wisdom to our choice of investments, his money to our foray into homeownership, his ideas to my worldview.
I expected his passing to hit me hard, but not this hard. I had depended on his wisdom, his presence, his support in the family, and his camaraderie, and I had barely realized it.
Now, lo and behold, I look back at these two men and see something that, to me, looks like a starting point for a newer, more holistic concept of maleness. At its core is a calm, a center, a gentle steady consistency that can peer through the drama of the moment to the ultimate goodness on the other side.
Yes, of course, anyone can possess this same calmness and consistency, regardless of gender. But maybe, just maybe, this centeredness can give men the seed of an identity to latch onto and grow into. In any event, no matter who expresses it, the world could use more calmness and gentle consistency to go with the other traits of strength and beauty that make us human.