Manliness between the Extremes
There is a powerful scene in the 1999 movie Fight Club in which the passive, nameless narrator (played by Edward Norton) realizes he and Tyler Durden, a tough, aggressive character (played by
Brad Pitt), are the same people. It’s a stunning moment of realization and one of the reasons so many men in our culture resonated with the film. I was twenty four at the time and remember all of my male friends talking about it—and one had only to watch the news to see stories about “fight clubs” breaking out across the country.
The effect of the film still lingers as a sad reminder men are struggling to find their bearing between being too passive and too aggressive.
The Passive Man
John was a successful businessman with a wife and three kids and volunteered as a lay leader at his church. He came across as confident and in control. But after meeting him, he reminded me of a lot of men I work with—well-liked by others but almost impossible to get to know.
Underneath the “together” exterior he was reeling because his life and relationships were coming apart at the seams. He and his wife had drifted apart and she was increasingly impatient with his inability to connect emotionally with the family. When I explored that with him, he sat across from me, listless, almost in a daze. He couldn’t describe what he was feeling except to say he was frustrated and didn’t know what to do. “If she would just give me a list of what she wants, then I could do it. I could fix this.”
I was amazed at how someone so outwardly successful was unable to be a life- giver to his family—that is, be their biggest cheerleader, bring out their natural strengths, allow them to be who God created them to be, and help them overcome obstacles. When a family enjoys a life-giving husband and father, they’re at their best.
I probed more. “John, imagine it’s a month from now. Changes have happened in your life and relationships . . . changes that signal you’re headed in the right direction . . . What would those look like?”
He looked at me for a little while and said, “I don’t know.”
No matter how many questions I asked, how many ways I tried to engage him, or how many times I encouraged him to experiment with changes, he seemed stuck and directionless.
John was a passive man.
If we’re like him we’re unable to create change and offer life-giving relationships to those around us. Our ability to see that is often obscured by statements like “I work hard, I make a good living
. . . I’m a good Christian guy, I go to church . . . my wife and kids have all they need and want . . . I don’t beat them and I don’t cheat on my wife . . . what else do they want!?” In other words, we believe what we’re doing is all that’s necessary—and if we realize change is needed we don’t know how to bring it about.
The Aggressive Man
Chris owned and operated a successful advertising firm, was married with two kids, and volunteered much of his time in the men’s ministry at church. His “go get ‘em” attitude made it seem everything was going his way—which made a lot of men want to spend time with him.
Yet rage lurked just under his confident exterior. For Chris, manhood meant being tough and intimidating and it made some people uneasy . . . especially his family.
Ironically, an argument with his wife led him to start counseling with me. That said, he wasn’t happy to be in my office and did everything he could to make me feel small (a common tactic). Aggression was the only emotion he knew how to express.
The Two Extremes
While there is a lot of room to live between the two extremes, many of us choose to live at one end or the other. In fact, if you listen closely to our wives, children and friends, we’re often described like this:
“He just sits there and says nothing when I talk to him or ask him a question.”
“My dad comes home from work, eats dinner, and just retreats to the TV for the rest of the night. He doesn’t engage us at all.”
“He has no patience for our kids. As soon as he walks in the door he is angry if they aren’t on their best behavior.”
I don’t think he’s going to hit me, but it seems as if he’s always about to lose it . . . like he has no patience for my presence.”
“We are all always walking on egg shells around him. It’s so uncomfortable when he’s around. We can’t wait till he goes away on a business trip. When he’s gone, then the house is calm and peaceful.”
It doesn’t help that movies and TV draw attention to both extremes, from the passive sitcom dad who is little more than the family joke to the aggressive, big screen tough guy who destroys everyone in his path.
I’ve seen both played out more than I’d like to admit. Unfortunately, the church hasn’t always been a place to see a balance between the two. The passive Christian guy doesn’t seem to feel anything and can’t affect change in his own life, let alone the lives of others.
The aggressive Christian guy is tough and uses power and strength to broker relationships.
Though at opposite extremes, these men have a lot more in common than we think. They are stuck in one ideal of what it means to be a man and fail to give life to themselves and others.
If we’re passive, we withdraw and fail to encourage those we love in their pursuits. We don’t model the confidence they need to feel secure. If we’re aggressive, our anger sucks the life out the people around us, often causing them to walk on egg shells or withdraw completely.
The good news is we don’t have to live at either extreme. God calls us to live our faith between these two unhealthy places. We don’t have to terrorize or withdraw. We can learn to be life-givers, encouraging those around us, confident in our approach to life, and supportive of those we care about. When life frustrates us, we can handle things skillfully, knowing we’ve developed healthy ways to cope.
This excerpt is adapted from Rhett’s book What It Means to Be a Man
Flickr photo (cc) by @Doug88888