In the wake of the heartbreaking tragedy that occurred just a few days ago in Parkland, Florida, our initial reaction is to try and find the rationale behind why someone would commit such a heinous crime. Sadly, this catastrophe is a continuation of the shootings that occurred just last year. While there are innumerable reasons behind these horrendous mass shootings, whether it be mental illness, lack of enforced gun laws, lack of parental love, or a downright psychotic episode, the majority of them have one thing in common: they’ve been committed by men. I don’t want to dive into any debates in regard to gun laws or the second amendment, but I am deeply concerned about the running motif of violent men. Why is it that these men are turning to violence? What is it that caused them to turn away from their innate desire for heroism to become a villain? And, most importantly, how can we heal, curb, or steer that deviousness to a desire for virtue?
Some point to the idea of toxic masculinity, others to their race, and still others to some sort of social construction. But interestingly enough, in almost every single tragedy we also hear of the heroic courage of some other male, such as the coach in Parkland who shielded students from gunshot, or the several young men who saved their girlfriends’ lives in the theatre shooting a few years ago. We certainly cannot blame the idea of “toxic masculinity” when, during these very tragedies, it was men who stepped up to sacrifice their lives. We also can’t blame race when many times the sacrificial hero was the same race as the villain. I fear that, in the wake of such tragedies, we are so quick to find a rational reason for an irrational act that we play the scapegoating game which hinders our ability to plunge into the depths of the actual problem.
If we take a look at the basic pillars of masculinity, we find three things that ring true regardless of ethnicity, social construct, religion, or time period: men are called to protect, provide, and lead. We see this from the tribes of the Sahara, to the Hebrew warriors of the Old Testament, to the Mayans, to the modern-day soldier. When a young man comes to embrace the responsibilities of manhood, these three roles of his life are often implicitly understood. Think of the numerous stories of the American revolution, where the father steps into the fray to fight for his country and the young son left at home becomes the “man of the house.” That young man is expected to keep the farm going (provide), stand up against any potential dangers that spill over from the war (protect), and, should the worst happen, take his family to a place of safety (lead). This isn’t to say that the wife and mother is not capable of these things, and of course they often were. But that innate quality in the young man to accept the challenge presented by his father is something that has been part of mankind since the Fall and has been lauded in epics throughout the ages.
Manhood is not something that boys come into naturally. Age means diddly-squat in regard to whether a boy becomes a man. Rather, manhood is something that must be trained. It must be passed down from one generation to the next, not through a training in violence, but rather a training in calculated guidance of the testosterone they contain.
Sadly, the approach that has been taken in the last several generations has been to either shame the young boy or push him toward a violent reaction against the softer side of who they are. We see this in a very real way in regard to rampant pornography. Young men are often shamed into thinking that their sexual desires are some devious aspect of their personality if they happen to see porn, or, on the other end of the spectrum, are introduced to porn at extremely young ages in order to “make them a man.” I once heard a testimony of a man whose father bought him a prostitute at the young age of fourteen so that his son could “become a man.” I also just recently heard the witness of a man whose grandmother would dress him up in purple dresses and high-heels in order to imbue his feminine side. In the wake of the postmodern, sterile environment that young boys are being raised in, the continued motif of existential crisis finds boys leaning to the extremes of violent outrage or a soft de-masculinity.
However, just as it is with virtue, the place we should really be aiming for is the mean. We want to discourage overt, senseless violence, yet we also don’t want to say that all violence is bad. We don’t want to stifle the emotional honesty and openness of a young boy, but we also don’t want to overextend its importance.
Jungian psychologist Robert Moore and mythologist Douglas Gillette wrote a book about the archetypes of masculinity: King, Magician, Warrior, Lover. With each archetype, the aim is to find the mean between two extremes. So, for example, the mature King archetype is found between the extremes of the tyrant and the weakling. The job of the mentor and the surrounding tribe of the young man is to help him find that place of balance, oftentimes through some sort of initiation ceremony. A young boy is put through a series of tests and proves his worth as a leader, protector, and provider of the community around him. In other words, the young boy learns what it meant to be a man by learning that his life was valuable insofar as he was selfless. Sadly, this aspect of manhood has all but disappeared in the postmodern West. There no longer exists a place for a young boy to come to the knowledge that he is in fact a man now, and what exactly that entails. Instead we throw seductive images at him, give him car keys just because he’s old enough, and expect him to “follow his dreams” and make lots of money. This isn’t communicative of sacrifice; rather, it is a message of pleasure and use.
In his book Why Gender Matters, Leonard Sax quotes an experienced school counselor, stating: “You can’t change a bully into a flower child, but you can change him into a knight.” It seems to me that what we have on our hands is not solely a mental illness problem and not solely a problem with gun regulation. What we have is a lack of a communicated purpose of life given to young men. Where’s the challenge that they get to surmount? Where are the open-hearted discussions between a boy and his male elders? Where’s the height they are supposed to reach? If we offer them nothing more than the extremes of tyrant and weakling, then we will only continue to see the onslaught of these terrible tragedies.
The secularist in all of us wants to attribute motive to an easy scapegoat, when the real need for change is actually within the hearts and minds of every single one of us. These men, many of them relatively young, are seeking answers to the questions they hold in their hearts. We ought not ignore them; rather, we should face them head on with the great traditions of numerous cultures of the past. We should not coddle them into submission and we should not feed them to the wolves; rather, we should teach them about heroism, encouraging their innate desire for sacrifice and allowing them to shed tears when needed. Every man wants a cause, something that is going to drive their daily life. And if we don’t give that to them in the image of Christ’s masculinity, something more sinister surely will.