On Manhood

In the summer of 2020, when the pandemic still had an air of novelty and our interest in redefining ourselves was at its peak, I bought a new razor. I dumped the old plastic Mach 3 with its overpriced cartridge blades and ordered a solid, wood-handled safety razor; the kind where you unscrew the head and put in a single, terrifying, double-edged knife capable of slicing through your thumb if you merely touch it the wrong way. I got a brush, a bowl, and proper shaving cream: add water and stir to make lather. And I learned how to shave again.

I remember being taught the first time, how one day the guy from church who cut my hair took me to his bathroom sink and showed me each step and technique, miming it because I didn’t yet have my first razor.

There are things we expect a dad to teach us. Shaving. Tying a tie. Asking out a girl. I was raised by a single mother, so it always had to be someone else teaching me these things; my grandpa, an adult friend from church, a youth pastor. I still need to watch the YouTube video whenever the need for a Windsor knot arises, pausing at each step, figuring out how it works on my neck. Getting up the nerve to suggest a coffee date still takes ages, an epic saga of heartrending anxiety, and I still feel like I stammer and stumble when the moment comes.

There are basic things about “being a man” that we expect our dads to teach us, and most of them have been a problem for me. There are things even about my own body that I ought to have been told earlier, but didn’t find out until years later. I stumble on as best I can, a lot of the time with a certain level of background anxiety about whether or not I measure up to…some vague standard of what it means to be a man.

A girl once asked if I was gay because I noticed she got a haircut. Another girl once admitted that when she first met me she wondered the same thing. I’m straight but was classed as something else because my natural instincts aren’t how straight guys are expected to behave. I have a reputation as a “nice guy”—which to some people can mean that you’re barely a guy. Not only am I not the strongest or the bravest or the best looking, but there is an almost incessant voice inside that tells me I can’t even compete with that dark-haired idol of traditional masculinity who passes me on the sidewalk, three days of stubble on his chin and his biceps toned from that morning’s workout; he could have any woman he wanted. 

Would that background noise (sometimes not so background) still be there if I’d had a more present father? I don’t know. It would be a simple explanation, which also makes me distrust it. I suspect there would still be plenty of problems in my head, especially since I would still be surrounded by a culture of masculinity in which strength counts for more than wisdom, adventurousness is tougher than learning how to love yourself—and a beard is sexier than shaving.

I shave every day. One recent morning I skipped it, mostly due to time and laziness, but I also skipped the next day because I started getting curious about how it would look; and would other people notice? I came to recognize that my masculine insecurity was more in control of that stubble than my sense of identity. So on the third morning I cleaned up my face, and a shave has never felt so good.

I never wanted to be a man in that way, never liked the swagger or the crassness or the drive to compete for dominance (not always prevalent, but usually there to some degree). And yet I find myself struggling under the weight of wanting to be accepted on those terms, wanting to be seen and known as a man. Insecurity underlines more of my days than I’d care to admit, but I have some relief in knowing that it could have taken a much darker path. I see the misogynistic subculture of incels, their violence and hate a compensation for a perceived lack of validation of their manhood, and I think: there but for the grace of God go I.

Being raised by a single mother, I know what a woman is capable of. And being raised in the Church, I was somehow able to cut through the noise of false masculine ideals that pervades even among some Christians, and hear a voice very different from the one inside my head that the world amplifies.

It’s the voice of a man, of the Man.

The Man who didn’t compete for admiration, but was content with having nothing in His appearance to make us desire Him.

The Man who told us not to worry about how we looked or what we wore, only about how much we loved.

The Man whose hands were no doubt calloused from building and crafting, but didn’t boast about strength, telling us instead that the meek would inherit the earth.

The Man who did not regard women as goals to be pursued or as sources of validation, but who spoke to them as if they were people with inherent dignity of their own.

The Man who let one of His friends lean on His chest because He wasn’t afraid to touch other men.

The Man who sobbed in public because He wasn’t afraid to show His pain and vulnerability to grief.

The Man who let Himself feel an agony of fear instead of pretending to “face it like a man”, and who went quietly to His execution not with the stiff upper lip of a Stoic, but with the determination of a lover.

The Man who showed His scars and again invited His friends to touch Him not because He needed to display His accomplishments, but to show them that He truly was alive and with them.

And yes, He almost certainly had a beard. But in four Gospels and an entire collection of letters and teachings carrying His good news, that fact does not define either His Godhood or His Manhood.

It isn’t the most accurate or egalitarian translation of the line, but at this moment one familiar phrase rings out louder than all the other things we say about Him: Behold the Man. The Man who made all other men in His image.

It is so easy for me to forget this Man and His masculinity, to lose hold of this anchor. But there are moments when His voice breaks through the noise. In the storm of my insecurity, as I cling to the leaky boat of my coping mechanisms, He comes walking nimbly out on the water. He asks if I’ll step out with Him. Not being the strongest or the bravest, and struggling under this weight of anxiety, it’s hard to see how I could even swim let alone stand. But His voice is insistent, and His hand is still outstretched. To Him, I need prove nothing.

I step up to the mirror and get ready to shave.

One thought on “On Manhood

  1. Steven, this is excellently written. An honest account of a struggle many of us face every day – though somehow it’s more normal and expected in society for women to be plagued with insecurity… Great to hear a man’s perspective on the subject, however, sorry you had these words to write.

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