Thoughts on ‘toxic masculinity’

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David Epps

I’ve been reading and listening and it seems that there are some folks out there that are concerned about the concept of “toxic masculinity.” It’s defined in different ways by different people or groups, depending on the agenda of said persons/groups.

I understand why the makers of Gillette razors want men to shave off their beards. For them, it’s a financial consideration disguised as the raising of social consciousness. The more men shave, the more razors are sold, the happier the Gillette stockholders. I’m not so sure about the motives of others.

Now, if the idea is that men cease to be bullies, thugs, and overly aggressive jerks, I concur. If it’s that men can be kind, compassionate, caring, polite, sensitive to the needs of others, spiritually minded, appreciative of music, the arts, good food and good drink then, again, I’m on board.

However, there’s a darker side to the trumpeting against toxic masculinity. It’s the idea that masculinity, in itself, is a bad thing. One definition of masculinity is: “qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men, ‘handsome, muscled, and driven. Synonyms include virility, manliness, maleness, vigor, strength, muscularity, ruggedness, toughness, robustness.’“

Certainly none of these attributes rules out the man being kind, compassionate, caring, polite, sensitive to the needs of others, spiritually minded, appreciative of music, the arts, and so forth.

Is it that some are trying to do away with the traditional role of masculinity altogether? If so, it would not be a surprise to me. My father was what was called a “man’s man.” He grew up the eldest of eight children in a place called “Poor Valley” in rural Hawkins County, Tenn., in the Appalachian mountain range. At 17, he left school and home to serve in the Navy during World War II.

When he returned, he obtained his high school diploma, got married and had two sons. He worked at many jobs trying to provide for his family. He, over the early years, was a shoe salesman, an insurance salesman, a small grocery store owner, an antiques dealer, all of which were inadequate to pay the bills. He finally took a job in a plant.

He was eventually laid off. For three years he did whatever it took to earn a little money. He dug ditches, installed septic tanks and field lines, put up fences, and, though a proud man, he was never too proud to take a menial job if it meant his family had groceries.

He finally got hired as a general laborer and, though he was deemed “too old” for an apprenticeship program, he doggedly persisted and was finally admitted. He became an electrician at Bays Mountain Construction Company and then at the Tennessee Eastman Corporation, a chemical plant employing 15,000 people.

He went to our athletic events, took me on road trips to gun shows (where he earned some money for special projects), built a car port, painted his own house, and did all the work around the house himself, including masonry, carpentry, carpet laying, sheetrock installation, roofing, paneling, repairing windows and plumbing, and built onto our house a dining room and a bedroom. All by himself. He was a jack of all trades and master of most of them. He also knew how to do taxidermy and load ammunition. He even made a flintlock rifle.

When I was a young teenager, he paid off the small house — telling me I would never have to leave home until I was ready — and became debt free. He loved one woman, was faithful to her until the day he died, and was married almost 50 years.

When my mother had health issues, he retired in his early sixties, feeling he needed to be there for her. He took up painting as a hobby. He enrolled in art classes and, when he learned he had terminal cancer, he retreated to the basement and, over the months, painted landscapes that could be given to relatives.

Since we were all banished from the basement, none of us knew what he had done until after he died. We then found all the paintings with notes on them designating who received what. Although he never made a lot of money, he left enough that mother would live comfortably for the rest of her life.

Dad was not a big man, perhaps, 5-foot-7, maybe 5-foot-8, and weighed around 145 pounds. He was muscular and, when the need arose, could be tough. We never had a doubt that he would defend us to the death, if trouble arose. He did not suffer fools gladly and had little patience with “layabouts and lazy bums.”

When my children came along, I saw this tough old man turn into a veritable teddy bear. Some of the favorite photographs I have are of him gently holding the kids and reading stories to them. He cried when I left for the Marine Corps and, remembering the carnage faced by World War II Marines and fearing I would be in harm’s way, begged me not to volunteer for “stupid, dangerous things.”

When I returned from boot camp he shook my hand — the way a man shakes another man’s hand. When he got older and I would conclude my visits, before I would get in the car, he would shake my hand and say, “Son, when you’re not here, there’s so much I want to say. But, then when you’re here …” as his voice faded away. I would just nod and say, “I know, Dad. I know.” Then he would hug me like he’d never see me again.

Dad wanted me to be an electrical engineer so that I would make good money, wear a shirt and tie, and have the things he could never give his kids. He never did really want me to be a pastor. He believed that I would always be poor and under the thumb of powerful people in the church who would neither like nor respect me. Yet, later on, he asked for cassette tapes of my sermons and mom told me he listened to them every night before going to sleep.

He died on a Thursday in 1996. Some weeks later, I went to the cemetery alone and, looking at his grave, said, “Dad, when you were here, there was so much I wanted to say …” And then I said it.

Afterwards, I said, “Lord, I don’t know if my dad knew all that stuff, but if, somehow, you could let him know, I’d be grateful.”

I’m not certain that Dad would fit easily into this world now. He would never understand the “safe spaces” that universities offer to students who are offended. He’d never get the wearing of safety pins to announce that one is a “safe person” if one was needed. The thought that some would advocate having “cry rooms” at college or in the workplace would baffle him and the “time out” cards used by some military services during basic training would depress him. He would never comprehend the turmoil and angst that some people go through because their candidate lost an election or their team lost a ballgame.

He didn’t get Beatle haircuts and would certainly never understand man buns. He would be aghast at the thought that some men would want to be women and that some women would self-identify as a man. The idea that some people proclaim that there are 100 genders — well, he would just think that those people didn’t understand basic biology. He believed that a man should be more than just a male. He believed that a man should be a man.

Throughout my life, Dad tried to define to me what “makes a man.” While his definitions always fell short, his example did not. Of all the men I have met in my life, the one I admire most is William E. “Bill” Epps, Jr. He was a protector and a provider. He did his part in war and in peace. He built a home, a life, and a family. He was honorable, trustworthy, and was a man of his word. He was a man of principle, a man of conviction, and a man who gave his all to the things he believed important. If that type of man is today defined as an example of “toxic masculinity,” then sign me up.

Like a great many youngsters, when I was 16 to 18, I looked down on my father. I felt I knew better about life than he did. I wanted to be more than my father. Now I just hope than in some small way I can be like him.

One definition of toxic masculinity is to “Be aggressive. Be stoic. Be strong. Be dominant. Be competitive. Don’t be weak. Don’t be a sissy. Don’t be all mushy. Don’t reveal emotions that are not masculine, conditioned by both natural and nurturing forces.” Sounds a bit like the Marines. Sounds like the S.E.A.L.s or Airborne, or the firefighters and police officers who face dangers daily. Sounds a bit like my Dad. Sounds like what we now call “the Greatest Generation.”

There have always been men who are jerks. That’s not because they are male or masculine. It’s because they are jerks. True masculinity is not toxic. True masculinity abounds in “every clime and place,” as the Marines say. In a world of participation trophies, of males masquerading as women in order to win wrestling matches, of safe spaces and cry rooms, of offended whiners, and professional complainers, there are millions of men who protect, provide, and persist in building families and leaving the world better than they found it.

These men are masculine. But they are not toxic.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctk.life). He is the bishop of the Charismatic Episcopal Diocese of the Mid-South which consists of Georgia and Tennessee and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]