Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Symbols of Masculinity.

I found myself deep in a jungle of some very masculine things. There was no war paint, or deep drum tribal dances happening, but it was getting pretty close. The tools, weapons, and camo in my garage was proof I was either about to start my own cult compound with some friends, or I was moving into some new and unusual territory for me that I still was confused about.

My emblems of my past were from a pretty boy lifestyle of occasional pink ties, and pink polo shirts with hair in my gel, and occasionally tanning. Looking around, it was very obvious that I had run clear in the other direction to more mountain man apparel with camo and wal-mart button up flannel shirts.

I could see my friends of old, from down south, laughing at me clad in this gear. I looked like David in Saul’s armor. And I felt like a Halloween costume on a grown man. There was something that felt so unnatural about it. It took me to thoughts of my high school friend, Sam Hotchkiss, grinning and blurting out, “Hood, what the heck are you doing!”

Even one of my buddies who learned I was hunting said, “what’s next, Graham (the most masculine dude in our fraternity) wearing pink?” It felt that extreme. And it was. I had pegged the needle to the other side. But whatever was going on, it was much deeper than a reaction, and the gear and clothes themselves. I felt that shifting deep in me. There was something I was discovering that I still had few real answers for, but it was real. As odd as it sounded, it was very spiritual.

I could not deny there was a process God had me on. God was in this. These objects representing deeply masculine and spiritual symbols that I had never found on my own, or as a growing boy.
You see, I was a late blooming teenager, which meant while most guys were hitting puberty and finding their voice, and shaving—I was handed the card that said, “not yet.” I had to wait it out, and my turn in the hormone line. I hated that. I wanted God to give me a zap of a chiseled face, with stubble to fill me in, and get me up to speed with the rest of the crowd.

The body was a symbol for something. I knew it instinctively—although not exactly what. God had designed it that way. A friend, Sam Jolman, says that the changing of our bodies during adolescence is God’s natural sign and announcement to the world, and our parents, and ourselves, that we are becoming a man. God made those as representations of something deep happening in our heart. We are changing in that time. Our voice, our hair, our bodies. We are not a boy anymore. The symbolism of this was very much God’s plan and process.

But those symbols went beyond our bodies. The next object of my desire to put around me was cigarettes, beer, and girls. The trinity of male bravado for a high school guy. The world’s form of initiation. They were really the only symbols of manhood, I saw at the time. There was certainly something about holding any of those in your hands, that brought a feeling, and sense of identity as a man.

When I turned 16, although my body was still holding out, I was given a car. And I immediately started putting bass subwoofer speakers in the back. As a teenager with a vehicle, and a small lawn mowing business, I poured it all into my system. 10 inch bass speakers, became 12 inch, then eventually 18 inch that filled up the entire back. It was loud enough to annoy parents. And turn most people’s heads. I tested the sound pressure at a shop to be as loud as a jet engine. It could be heard a good ½ mile down the road when on full volume, with amps burning juice. The bass was so deep and strong, it could shake screws lose from my vehicle.

Richard Rohr says that when a man does not feel power internally, does not carry it in him, and on him, then he begins to attach to things that have it. External things. You name it. A gun. A sport. Money. A vehicle. Success. A girl. Even a country. We look for things that contain power, because we do not feel that ourselves. We find the next best thing, and we cling to it.
It happens in sports all the time. I saw it last week at an NFL football game. My father and I sat in the crowd of Tennessee Titans while most fans had on their favorite players jersey. Screaming and shouting, not like they were just spectators, but as the players themselves. It was the same idea. The association of the strength. I am this player. Even with his short figure, pot belly stuck to high heaven, and a smell of cigarette and cheap beer. Do not tell him that, for these next few hours, he is Vince Young.
As a boy, I was looking for something deep, and male, and loud to attach myself to because I did not feel that inside of me. I knew about Jesus, and the Lord, but not in a way that I saw spoke to these deep places of my heart to be affirmed as a man. I did not see him as offering that to me. Salvation, yes. Male affirmation, not really.

I wanted, in some symbolicy and metaphorical way to feel the depth of that bass inside me, because I knew it was not there. The bass lasted a year, along with working out, playing football, and so many other things that came and went in these attempts to possess the masculine inside me. Then came college which promised the fraternity, a community of men, and initiation and brotherhood. Even the parties and beer had this sense I would find myself through it. It was symbolic of something much deeper going on inside my heart. I just had no idea at the time. Again, I thought I just liked that stuff.

It seemed these symbols were everywhere. Every man was chasing down some form of this. Money or success, or in sports. Just walking down the magazine rack. There is the gear section. Guitar. Technology. Fishing. Cars. Outdoors. Motorcycles. Model trains. Hunting. Wrestling. Cigars.

They were all saying the same thing… this is the way. These are the things that usher you into manhood.

It seemed the easy thing to do is write them off as just idols, and false and foolish forms of true strength in God. At times they were such elevated laughable stereotypes of masculinity. Steroided out forms of manhood. But there was something much more universal going on, I could not write off, nor escape in my own heart. If you looked at my garage, or over my life, I secretly wanted these masculine things.

I was your good suburban Christian guy, who grew up around malls, and strip malls. I was more domesticated, than rugged. Never spent much time in the woods, or had any desire to at the time. Never saw an interest in hunting.

But like those things as a boy, there was something deeply connected to my heart, the longing, and searching to feel and experience that strength, which these objects and men were representing. The symbols telling me something deep about all of our own hearts, and the design God made in us.

For as much as there were these masculine objects out there, there was much of the opposite. Symbols of the feminine. Associations of colors like pink, and fusia blue, or tight jeans, and rolled up jeans, perfumes, and gentleness, and love. They were generalized stereotypes, yes. But it seemed some men had been more representing those symbols, than the others.

A friend in Nebraska was telling me a story of how an old classmate he met had completely changed. He used to be the toughest guy in school, even picking on people in his grade for looking feminine. He was now wearing tight jeans, designer shirts, and people were wondering if he was gay? What had happened to the guy?

It seemed that just as we wore things to represent what we wanted to be seen as, how we want people to think of us, we also wore things that represented our shame, and insecurities. Denying
the evidence of any of it. There was the other side of masculinity.

I don’t know that guy, but he was a walking billboard with a sign that said “I am an un-initiated boy. I don’t feel masculine.” It was a denial of all male symbols, and although he was trying to act as if it didn’t matter, he was almost proving there was a case for something deeper, by how he went to the extreme to do it.

In all of them we were “wearing our hearts on our sleeves,” so to speak. Regardless of the true answer to that friend, he is telling the world how he feels about himself. Letting us know by his clothes. And his choice was rejecting some sense of masculine in him. He is searching. But not through finding a male identity. Instead of putting in on, he is trying to run from it.

I attended a men’s conference a few years back with a worship leader who wore a black shirt, with pink letters. He also had blond spiky hair with a few streaks in them. At some degree, it was no big deal, just a shirt, just some funky hair. No swat. But I was thinking, here we are in a room of men, and that was quite a selection of a shirt to pick. I wondered what it symbolized, what he was trying to say through it. As he sang and played worship for the room full of men, he seemed hesitant leading us. Something in him that felt afraid, and unqualified.

As I watched, I thought about all those pink and funky color shirts and designer things I wore, and got away with saying, “real men feel comfortable in pink. Or dressing styling, or what not” And maybe that was true, but much of my colors were telling the world was how I saw myself, and how I was running from my masculinity.

“Don’t take me to seriously.”

“Please just see me as a pretty boy, but don’t expect me to fulfill a real mans role.”

“Don’t expect to find strength here.”

I wore the question of my masculinity to the world, just as I felt the internal conflict inside. My outside, matched the world inside in my heart. I wore what I felt to be true. It was code, an outward sign, and symbol. And yet, somehow I was so clueless to it all. Never thinking twice about it. Still denying that was the truth of these colors, and things I associated myself with.

I tried the male things, and they just never seemed to fit me as a boy. They did not work. I was not athletic enough. Not confident enough. Not ultra macho enough. So I just stopped trying. And started moving to the places, and around the people where I did not have to contend with the feelings of insecurity. I almost denied the need all together, and assumed it was not there. Slowly finding myself in clothing stores like Gap, and Banana Republic. Heading to get my hair cut at a salon with a stylist. Putting in gel. Tanning my body. I was becoming a metrosexual man, not out of design, but I had just kinda ran out of options. None seemed to fit.

I think that is why stepping back into the symbols was such a good, and hard thing. I was reclaiming something I never believed was true of me. I was trying again, and wondering if they actually might be me.


Lindsay Mizell said...

I really liked designer jeans Xan. But new Xan is my hero. you're brave and bold, dude. And, just to rub it in-I called it years ago when I said that all girls want a Joshua.

Jojo Struys said...

funnily enough, your blog entry touches on what I JUST blogged about called "can you keep a secret?" different yet similar in some ways.

good luck with finding your balance between enjoying masculine symbols without an outright desperate need for them, Jojo from KL :)