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Monday, November 29, 2010

When a Man Decides to Leave Emotional Boyhood Behind.

When does a man mature emotionally?

What does that look like?

What keeps him from maturing such that he remains a boy emotionally?

I've been a counselor and spiritual director since the late 80's. I have worked with hundreds of men individually and in groups. I'm well acquainted with the emotional lives of men because I'm of that peculiar tribe, and have done the kind of work which put me right in the thick of how men feel and think. My work has centered on healing the wounds of the heart. With men, such wounds directly affect how robust their  masculinity is manifest in a real world, particularly matters of character.

You need to know I also went though a year of intense inner healing.

Let me begin by defining two key terms: emotional masculinity and character:

Emotional masculinity is manhood infused by character. Masculinity is more than being born male. Masculinity is an attitude of the heart and mind cultivated through struggle and consistent effort. It grows from core values which pervade a man's chosen way of living in this world. Character in a man is expressed through spiritually-informed qualities such as integrity, authenticity, courage, industry, generosity of heart, humility and compassion, especially for the weak, oppressed and powerless. Faith, hope and love (especially love), inform his deepest motivations and guide his most prized enterprises. He is fully human with sin, blindspots, prejudices, errors, weaknesses, failures and the persistent need for others to help complete him, especially elders in the way of living from wisdom and magnanimity.

He is neither Atlas nor Solomon. He is flesh and blood, but his heart has been turned gradually toward spending life not in hot pursuit of "treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal," but on "laying up for himself treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal." (Mt. 16:19-20). Those treasures are gained by giving away his life in the service of God and others, no matter his business or stated profession. He has decided in his broken humanity way to live for the good, the true and the worthy. Like Jesus (but as a mere man), such a man has "set his face to go to Jerusalem" (Lk. 9:51), to "deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow [Christ]" (Lk. 9:23). He has given away his rights to personal empire to the One who will ennoble him at the finish line for doing so.

To put it bluntly, at some point, he's voluntarily surrendered all to become a doulos Christou (slave of Christ) even if he's not really sure what it will require of him at the time. For most, it turns out to be lifelong metamorphosis to be sure, and grace will have to pick him up or turn him around and put him back together more times than he'd like to admit, but this is the journey where emotional masculinity is forged and refined and spiritually crafted into Christ-likeness. It's the only way. Other men will look for shortcuts; many will settle for an agreeable niceness, and more than we might think will abandon the hard way of the Cross completely, but he will struggle quietly  to stay the course one step at a time over decades. It's because he's decided to leave emotional boyhood behind, although he probably would not think to call it that.

When a man chooses to stay in emotional boyhood he becomes cut off from his destiny. The promise God puts in him as potential to be activated by hard work of character building. Sometimes his choice is determined laziness (a character flaw), most often it comes from, sometimes profound, emotional wounding in his formative years. A key factor here is his ability to take initiative in the face of fear. Because of criticism, mocking, or abuse, he internalizes shame and thus has no platform of healthy self-acceptance and confidence to make a way in the world. So he hesitates, hides, buries himself in "wine, women and song," or worse, learns to manipulate or deceive others, including women, to get what he wants without revealing his deep-seated fear and shame.

He fiercely protects his emotional boyhood because the path to healing and freedom will force him to go into the pain and that's just too terrifying. He trusts no one and feels deeply alone because it. Boyhood is a cover and covering. The only way forward is gently, but persistently coaxing the boy toward the possibility of freedom. He needs to feel safe and supported in the process. He is much more fragile than he might look on the surface. Such a man needs to see that despite what was done to him, and sometimes it was horrific (it could be fairly termed rape or abuse whether it was done physically or emotionally),  Jesus has put the potential of masculinity into him, and will heal his "broken image" toward emotional masculinity if he opens to it. Every man is God's idea and has a place if he chooses to look for it. Inner healing is the first step forward.

So here's some of the more predominant characteristics I've noticed over 20 years of working with men who cultivate emotional manhood or preserve emotional boyhood. Remember this is a state of mind, and a way of coming at life.

  • Emotional boyishness lives for pleasure, especially of the body:  food, sex, comfort, getting high, physical strength, etc. Delaying gratification is anathema.
  • Emotional masculinity enjoys pleasure fully, but is not mastered by its pursuit in whatever form; it strives to avoid or bring into submission destructive pleasures
  • Emotional boyishness always shies away from facing its deepest fears. 
  • Emotional masculinity acknowledges deep fear and might hesitate for awhile or stumble under the weight of it, but it eventually turns and faces the "giants in the land."
  • Emotional boyishness looks after the interests of self first and will avoid doing the right thing unless it benefits its own interests or avoids punishment.
  • Emotional masculinity might hesitate doing the right thing because of selfishness or ignorance, but will eventually move toward the right thing because it is the right thing.
  • Emotional boyishness always blames others first; self-examination is not a strong suit.
  • Emotional masculinity, especially after self-examination, has learned to humbly accept blame where blame is warranted; it might not feel good, but character and righteousness demand it (core values).
  • Emotional boyishness places its rights above the rights of others always demanding, "What about me?"
  • Emotional masculinity sees the rights of others as equal to its own and will defend theirs as much as its, even at great personal cost occasionally.
  • Emotional boyishness stays committed to relationships, challenges, work responsibilities and life obligations as long as it feels good or benefits its interests.
  • Emotional masculinity stays committed to relationships, challenges, work responsibilities and life obligations because its word is its bond. Integrity matters.
  • Emotional boyishness is passive aggressive in order to stay in control when called to account.
  • Emotional masculinity tries to face the medicine honestly and accept blame for sinful motives, attitudes or behavior. It does not stonewall or shut down to stop the confrontation.
  • Emotional boyishness will finish what it starts if there is pleasure involved, the effort required is fairly easy, and someone else will shoulder the burden if it loses interest.
  • Emotional masculinity will strive to finish what it starts because it committed to doing so; stick-to-it-tiveness is a valued.
  • Emotional boyishness does not spend time examining or practicing virtues reflecting character; there is no immediate payoff
  • Emotional masculinity views a life of virtue as a high calling and a worthy lifetime goal of intrinsic value.

In sum, when a man decides to leave emotional boyhood behind he sets out on a rigorous journey into imperfect wellness and wholeness, but spiritual authenticity is the prize. He becomes a man defined by the Word of God. He's always is a work in progress, but he has "stepped over the line" (a critical act) in order to head toward holiness and righteousness. Such a man has a real shot at wisdom and Kingdom fruitfulness because he has embraced God's definition of masculinity. Jesus is the epitome, but all of his male followers are invited on the noble journey. Emotional boyhood might promise fleeting pleasures, comforts and safety, but a boy remains a boy, woefully dependent on others (even if he's unaware) to make life pleasant or successful for him. Emotional masculinity offers infinitely more, but it just requires the building of character by shouldering a cross one day at a time. Pain precedes the treasure and the treasure rewards the pain.

Helpful Reading:

The Silence of Adam: Larry Crabb
Wild At Heart: John Eldredge
Code of Conduct for Servants of the Most High God: Roger Van Der Werken
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