Men in the Muddle: Navigating the Confused State of Manhood
- Tuesday, July 31, 2007
"The concept of masculinity is in flux, leaving many confused about what it means to be a man.” (Tom Valeo, WebMD)
When I was 8 years old, I was in love. Her name was Sherry Collins. We met one morning at the air base daycare center and had our first “date” by week’s end. My parents drove us to a movie theater to watch who knows what—hey, I was in love.
To this day, I don’t know what Mom and Dad thought about our young courtship (I never asked them), but they used it as an opportunity to impart some important lessons of life. I clearly remember Mom telling me about my gentlemanly duties: “Regis, when in the company of a young lady, a gentleman opens the door for her, helps her into her chair, and escorts her on the traffic side of the sidewalk.”
That last item baffled me.
“Why’s that, Mom?”
“To protect her from a stray car or a rude comment.”
Even at my tender age, Mom’s instruction reinforced my notion that men are to be courteous and protective toward women.
At one of my high school reunions, I was talking to a lady from my graduating class. At some point in our conversation, the topic turned to the guys in our class and she remarked, “Regis, you were one of the nice ones.” The lady next to her nodded.
Make no mistake, I was no saint. Whatever these woman saw in me years ago, Mom and Dad get the credit. They instilled principles that became a standard of manhood throughout my early life. But during college something happened that rattled all I had been taught.
When I attended Georgia Tech, the male-to-female ratio was 50 to 1—a condition that was both blessing and curse. The lack of coeds meant one less distraction from the rigors of my engineering curriculum. But when the distraction could no longer be suppressed, it was exile on Testosterone Island.
For those of us without a car, an occasional four-mile hike to Emory—a cross-town university with a more balanced ratio—was in order. However, in spite of our Himalayan hopes, our off-campus adventures resulted in little more than gawking and wishful thinking.
On one such adventure I noticed two coeds walking toward the Emory student center. I should mention that this was during the late 60s when radical feminism and other anti-establishment ideals were challenging everything.
As they approached the door, a male student lurched ahead to open it for them. Instead of a mannerly “thank you,” one of the women rolled her eyes as she turned to her companion in a huff, “Oh my! That’s just what we need. Some ‘White Knight’ to help us frail creatures get about.” Her friend responded with an acknowledging smirk.
I remember the shell-shocked look on the poor fellow’s face. I shuddered knowing that had I been a moment quicker, I would have made the same “blunder.” Contrary to my upbringing, the modern woman had no desire for my protection, much less chivalry. Except for my reproductive value, I was superfluous to her.
My confidence in my role and responsibilities as a man wavered. Still wanting to be chivalrous but hesitating in the manly manners I’d been taught, I feared my actions would be seen as patronizing or chauvinistic. Worse, I feared public humiliation by a sharp-tongued female. I found myself in a growing muddle of men wandering an unfamiliar landscape with a map that was way out-of-date. Why hadn’t I seen this coming?
Rocking the Rolls
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, it had been generally accepted that purpose of a thing defined its nature and gave meaning to existence. But that long-held assumption was upended when Jean-Paul Sartre announced: “Existence precedes essence.”
Sartre’s simple jingle meant that there is no transcendent ideal that attaches meaning to life. Life is a brute fact for which each person is burdened to create meaning of his own. As to standards of truth, goodness, and beauty—they, too, are not universal ideals that have “dropped from the sky.” Rather, each person is responsible for crafting his own life-guiding principles.
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