What does it mean to be a real man?

by Mr. Sheehy

Riding High

I have this radio program I really like that I heard in Chicago and occasionally listen to on-line: the Nick Digilio Show. The host is really funny without being too dirty or overly cutting, and I got addicted to him while driving to Chicago from New Hampshire and listening to his overnight program. I was able to hear it beginning in Cleveland, which, if I recall correctly, was a good five hours of my trip.

I say all that to mention that a year or so ago I picked up a podcast of his show and he was sharing an article that listed things men should be able to do. He was reading through the list and seeing which things he and listeners could do, and he was taking suggestions about what should be added to the list. I found the list interesting and thought at the time that dads could keep such a list around as a kind of curriculum check. It included things like tying a tie, changing a tire, fixing a toilet, hooking up a stereo (and nowadays I’d add running all the components that are connected to your TV to that), and grilling a dinner. One favorite of mine from the list, but one that is becoming increasingly difficult to teach due to scarcity, is how to drive a stick shift.

I admit I carry the perception that something feels particularly manly about driving a stick shift. Part of it might be the control element—you’re controlling part of the operation of the vehicle and have the ultimate say in how hard the engine is going to run—but mostly I like it because it is how the big rigs operate. I learned to drive a stick in a little Ford Escort station wagon, a definitively unmanly car, (but one that proved tough enough when I strapped a canoe to the top of it—I ran the straps through the open doors and ratcheted it so tight the roof rack almost collapsed under the pressure). The next stick I drove also existed in an unmanly place—a purple Subaru Impreza that I bought while in college. Yet when I worked at a furniture store and was asked to drive the big trucks, I jumped right in there and made them go. Suddenly my manly skill had a fitting setting. Suddenly, too, I had fulfilled one of the measures of manliness I’d developed when I was my son’s age: I could drive a big truck.

I know such things sound ridiculous, but I had my wife take a picture of me while driving one of those trucks, and I still cherish it. I didn’t like that job, but I sure liked driving a truck.

Yet despite the resonance I obviously experienced with this list of necessary man-skills, I knew I was not talking about the most important elements of being a man. I was not taking notes and thinking that I’d finally discovered the key things I needed to teach my son. Each of these things were skills, not manhood. They were things that will take a few hours for my boy to learn, and then he’ll know them, and that will be that.

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Once a year, in July, I become completely obsessed with bicycle racing. I started this when I was little, when I was somehow aware of men named Greg LeMond and Miguel Indurain, and though I haven’t always had time to follow the Tour closely (it takes up most of the month), I have splurged the last couple years and watched it carefully. So carefully, in fact, that my children know the names of many racers and last year on one occasion at Gramma and Grampa’s house E was driving her tricycle around the driveway “leading the peloton.” (The peloton is the big cluster of riders that takes up most of the road.)

When the tour was over, my passion was not satiated, and I found an audio version of Lance Armstrong’s book, It’s Not About the Bike at the library. Lance’s story is fundamentally interesting. Though a world-class athlete, he developed cancer at the age of 25. He was late in identifying it, which meant that it had spread so badly he should have died; yet he somehow survived. After his survival he got back on the bike and his new body type (he was a good 15 pounds lighter than he’d been before all the chemotherapy) set him up perfectly for a run at the overall win in the Tour de France. He won it for the first time after surviving cancer, and then for good measure he won it six more times.

In listening to the book I detected something in Lance’s personality that I have heard described in other top athlete’s lives. He took any slight, any obstacle, and transmuted it into a type of bitter drive. Disgust over his birth father, his first step-father, his former teams, and any doubters in the media: though feelings about such things were left as undercurrents, they were clearly a kind of motivation. He took anger from such incidents and converted it to energy.

I can’t argue against the effectiveness of such an approach. Last year someone asked Kobe Bryant what winning another NBA title would mean and he said it would mean he had one more than Shaq. It seems to me to be the same mentality as Lance, and with five NBA title rings on his fingers, it obviously works for Kobe too.

Yet I admit that as I read It’s Not About the Bike, I was repulsed by this part of Lance Armstrong. He had to be the best, and if anyone dared deny him that status of being the best, he was going to show them how wrong they were. I admit that part of my conclusion is a built on other articles I’ve read about him, articles where he was clearly revealed as driven mostly by his single-minded desire to win the Tour de France; yet it all is consistent. He wants to be the best, and so he became the best, and he’ll do whatever he can to stay the best.

I left that book feeling a bit empty and disappointed. I saw bitterness in his heart, and I understood the bitterness, having felt such things myself; yet as a disciple of Christ I couldn’t see how this jived with turning the other cheek or giving a man your cloak as well as your tunic. Instead of trying not to be bitter, Lance essentially embraced the bitterness. In response, I set off on a search for a better approach to athletic competition. I needed to know whether someone had to be like Lance and Kobe to be the best.

I turned to Tony Dungy and his book Quiet Strength.  Tony, you may know, is an out-and-out Christian who made his faith in Jesus clear throughout his coaching career. After he left Tampa Bay, for example, his former team continued to pray before games, because for the previous six seasons it had become what they did, and the players insisted on continuing it even though their new coach was not a Christian.

Just like any coach at that level, Tony Dungy wanted to win, yet in this book Tony made a clear distinction which I have latched onto and which begins to reveal why there is a difference between Tony and Lance. He said that he never wanted to let his goals interfere with his purpose. His goal, he observed, was to win the Super Bowl; his purpose, however, was to glorify God.

Lance Armstrong achieved a goal, but as far as I could tell in listening to his book, he had no discernable purpose beyond that goal. I therefore left his book feeling empty.

Tony Dungy also achieved a goal, but more dominant in his life was the fulfillment of his purpose. Admittedly this purpose was so primary that the achievement of his goal appeared almost incidental—I think his book would have been just as interesting had he not won a Super Bowl—but such is the case when humility is present. Tony’s goals were subject to God’s purpose, because Tony had made God’s purpose his own.

Not surprisingly, the undercurrent of bitterness I detected in Lance’s book is inversed in Tony’s book. Tony consistently refused to harbor ill-will against those who had done him harm, including the owners who fired him one year before the team he built in Tampa won the Super Bowl. He talked a lot about God’s purpose in each of those events and how trusting God helped him not to focus on the ways he may have been wronged. Again, here, it seemed that Tony’s humility was the thing that allowed him to see God’s purpose as more important than his goals. Thus this humility seems to be the fundamental difference between Lance Armstrong and Tony Dungy.

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Humility and reasons for it run amok in the Bible. Paul explains most simply that we should adopt it as a trustworthy saying that “I’m the worst of sinners.” In the Sermon on the Mount, while teaching about prayer, Jesus slips in a clear measure of our state when he says, “you, then, who are evil” (Matt. 7:11). If we remember we are evil and thus the worst of sinners, it’s hard to move too far from humility.

Yet I constantly forget these points. I have always found it amusing—in hindsight, of course—how thoroughly God uses circumstances in my life to bring me back to my place. One day I am able to see myself as an amateur scholar, reading and writing about great books all while balancing a career properly to protect my time at home. I’m exercising. I’m reading to my children every night. I’m basically batting above the .400 mark.

But a few days later I’m an overtired, grumpy cloud in my family’s life, snapping commands and wishing everyone was in bed at 5:30 in the evening. It doesn’t help that the faucet for the tub that I repaired not long ago has leaked all over the bathroom floor again, and that I’ve managed to overdraft my checking account, costing the family obscene amounts of money and leaving me helpless as I watch transactions from the week’s grocery trips roll through the bank’s records.

I use slightly light moments to tease the story but the contrast is real and serious. I had read the same storyline in Tony Dungy’s book. One moment he’s guiding the Colts towards an undefeated season, keeping a journal because the team is so good, and the next month his 18-year old son has committed suicide.

The Bible is full of similar versions of this story. Consider Moses and what he went through. Time and again the Israelites questioned his leadership and finally God completely put his foot down in Moses’ favor. He had leaders from the 12 tribes each lay a staff in the tent of testimony to see which one was chosen. Then the next morning when they checked the staffs, Aaron’s had grown buds. In fact, not only had it grown buds, it sprouted flowers and grew a few almonds. God then told Moses to put the staff back in front of the testimony “to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings” (Num 17:10). If I were Moses I would have been tempted to hang out on a bench outside the tabernacle lying back munching on almonds, just to make sure everybody remembered how clear the signs were. Or maybe whenever there was a meeting for leaders of the 12 tribes I would have supplied a little snack of almonds, just for munchies and for keeping the peace.

Yet the next thing you know Moses ends up at Meribah getting ticked and going too far. God commands him to grab the staff from before him and take it with him to the rock at Meribah, which means that God basically told him to serve almonds at the meeting. It meant that when Moses showed up to command the water to come forth from the rock, he’d be holding the very symbol of his authority as a reminder to the people. That’s powerful imagery, but it’s not enough for Moses and he loses his cool, calling the people rebels and striking the rock twice. That’s not what God said to do, and you may know the rest—no more promised land for Moses and Aaron (Num 20:2-13).

Peter is another great example of God’s bringing us to humility when we are so bold as to forget it. He’s declaring, “Jesus, I will lay down my life for you!” and less than 24 hours later, he’s denied knowing him for the third time (John 13:37; 18:15-18; 18:25-27).

Then there’s David the great hero over the Philistines falling into murder and adultery, and Solomon, the wisest man in the world becoming husband to an army of idol-worshiping foreigners. The list goes on with men like Sampson, but I’ll cease to rattle them off since the plot line I’m emphasizing is clear.

Thinking of these men and the recurring patterns in my own life, I realize that if I lack humility God has a knack for removing any reasons I might have for entertaining its opposite. But if I’m honest in the first place, and if Moses, Peter, and the others were honest with themselves at those moments of pride, I might remember that I am one “who is evil” and “the worst of sinners” and I might even avoid the fall, as such knowledge would keep me from positioning myself on such precarious heights.

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Manhood involves lots of things, including tying ties and setting up television systems. Yet one thing Tony Dungy made clear to me is that on the way to manhood one has goals and one has a purpose. My goal might be to drive a large truck, but that’s not my purpose. Our purpose, or our chief end as the catechism says, is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Said another way, our purpose is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength. To move towards this purpose requires humility, as only an attitude of humility will put God’s glory first, above our own. No wonder it follows that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves—another concrete and obvious challenge fundamentally built on humility.

Whichever way we say it—glorifying God or loving God—fulfilling my purpose as a man is not possible without humility. Whatever happens, I am not The Man, I am a man, which means I should be saying that I am the worst of sinners, desperately in need of God’s spirit and grace.

Going forward from here, I won’t be a humble man because I think humility is an important characteristic to have. I’ll be a humble man if I realize who I am and who God is, and that without God I am nothing.

Of course if I rise too high in my estimation of myself, climbing to the proud heights, God will throw me back down in a hurry.

To that end I pray that God will keep me humble without having to take from me something as wonderful as the promised land.

Grace and peace to you. Thanks for reading.

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