Men grow up emulating their fathers, whether consciously or not. And for many, that emulation (adulation?) can be a trap, if the father’s role model was dysfunctional. Even if the emulation begins in a benign way, with a perception that ‘how Dad was with Mom’ is the way men are ‘supposed’ to be with their partners, for a considerable period in the young man’s life may be limited, if not outright debilitating.
Lots of stories abound about young men believing they cannot ever please their fathers, and they flounder with excessive compensation, usually self-sabotaging, trying too hard to attract and to warrant their father’s approval. Even if our father’s limitations were, for him, debilitating, (example alcohol or drug addiction) some young men nevertheless grow up holding their father in deep respect. Often career choices by young men amount to a “paint-by-number” re-do of their father’s career, profession or business venture. On the positive side, stories also abound about professional athletes whose fathers paved the way as professional athletes in the same sport.
Whatever the situation, young men’s experience of masculinity comes first from the father figure in their life. This father-imprint seems to go deep into the fibre of the young man’s self-perception, attitudes, behaviours and even expectations. Such a deep imprint apparently impacted the life of a reporter, then for Esquire, who wrote a profile on Mr. Rogers, and whose relationship with the children’s television host forms the basis of the recently released movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. Tom Junod writes about the relationship with the ordained Presbyterian minister (Rogers) in the recent edition of The Atlantic.
Growing up with an alcoholic narcissistic father, Junod (Lloyd Vogel in the movie) nevertheless admired his father.
My father, Lou Junod, was a boozy philanderer, to be sure. But he was also a fetishist of his own fragrant masculinity…I had never rejected him or his message, which was that nothing is more important about a man than the way he looks, the way he carries himself, and the mystery of what my father called his ‘allure’.
I hadn’t become a hard-bitten investigative journalist consumed by anger, but rather an ebullient charmer concerned by my capacity for silken cruelties committed in the name of revelation.
I idolized my father, despite my mother’s warnings. I was seduced by him, and once I attained a degree of success I worried that I had no choice but to follow in the Bally-loafered footsteps of the man who had caused me-and my serially betrayed mother—such pain.
Following the original piece Junod wrote on Mr. Rogers in 1998, the two became friends until Rogers died in 2002. Roger’s deliberate and determined effort to get Junod to appreciate himself started with the perception, belief and constant reminder of Junod’s value, goodness and that he too was “once a child”. The latter phrase was one Rogers deployed in his portrayal of all others. He utters a line in the movie, Won’t you be my Neighbour?: “the real job we have..was to make goodness attractive in the so-called next millennium”.
Junod writes about that movie: (It) became so popular because it makes people cry unashamedly, because it shows what radical kindness actually looks like because it depicts a man who gave his life to what turned out to be a hopeless cause—the curse of sacralising mass media. He was a genius; he had superpowers; he might as well have been a friendly alien, thrown upon the rocks of our planet to help us find our way to the impossible possibility that we are loved.
The key point, for Junod, and for many millions of other males, is that Mr. Rogers offered him a choice about how to be a man, even though that choice was based on a perception of value for which Junod could not appreciate.
Male role modelling, whatever the source, is a vibrant and traditional archetype for young men, so important in some cultures that rituals of passage are conducted by the elders of the community with their young men, in hopes of imprinting their definition of what it means to be a man. Military cadets, cubs and scouts, athletic teams, music ensembles, uncles and grandfathers who make themselves available to their young nephews and grandsons…all of these experiences help to shape a young man’s “choices” about his incarnation of his own masculinity.
For many young men, like Junod, the existence and variety of role models, those who really “get” us, is limited by our own perception of our adequacy. Young men facing exposure (not in the physical, but rather in the skill, knowledge and attitude senses) fear judgement, especially by men whom they admire. Rarely, however, does this fear reach the larynx, blocked by another even deeper fear that a peer will find us “weak”…
And weakness is defined by however and whatever benchmark and trait a peer chooses. Physical stature, body shape, athleticism, mechanical dexterity, problem solving, risk-taking (or aversity), even thickness of glasses, wardrobe, race and ethnicity, religion and for some teacher’s favourite….these are just some of the hooks that catch the attention of a peer who is himself trying to find out both who he is and who his friend is. Dissing, then, has to be discerned from outright abuse, given the paradoxical nature of acceptance and friendship atoned by a kind of derisive teasing.
It is the “strong” young men versus the “weakling” that defines much of early boys’ social interactions with peers, and too often with parents who, themselves have fully cloked their definition of masculinity in stereotypes that abound in contemporary culture. Crying, for example, is too often ridiculed, or curtailed by mothers who do not want their young boys to be “cry-babies”…And that message, of minimizing or even denying physical pain or illness, follows millions of men to their grave. I once asked a family physician if her male patients follow her “orders”. Her response was typical: “They are usually so ill by the time they get here that they really have no choice.”
Crisis management, in one’s own life, about one’s personal health and well-being, is a model that has saturated western culture for centuries. And that model, given the highly influential male dominance in the culture, pervades many of the modalities of our culture. Medicine, for the most part, intervenes in crisis, and has for too long remained silent about preventive approaches. The justice system, too, intervenes in crisis, and remains silent and inactive, for the most part, with respect to prevention unless and until some crisis requires a strong political and preventive action. Social service agencies, too, rely on a crisis-management model, with meagre and inadequate resources dedicated to preventive education, training, and even the basic of classical conditioning, that only recently have some health care private companies (in the U.S.) begun to entertain.
And because crisis management is such a deeply revered, even sacralised modality throughout our culture, we face an existential crisis with respect to global warming and climate change. The masculinity of Mr. Rogers, so obviously and nefariously demeaned for decades, as pertaining exclusively to children, and clearly not appropriate for adults continues long after his death to be an example of what our culture considers quixotic, so tilting at windmills is it considered. And yet, given the massive budgetary commitments to militarizing our various states, (and now established yesterday by the U.S. House of Representatives a “Space Force” as another arm of the U.S. military!), add to which another massive national security behemoth and cyber capability, the ever-present magnet of a military uniform for hundreds of thousands of young men, with an overt resistance to community development, teaching social work, nursing and caring professions by millions of young men, Mr. Rogers is not only a hero to some but an anathema to others.
Choices of masculinity will only matter to those men for whom options have already become integrated to their lives. If the alpha-male model dominates a neighbourhood, a high school, and cadet corps, a football, basketball or hockey team and a workplace, it will be very difficult for many young men to break out of feeling a need to follow suit as another alpha male, if for no other reason that to be accepted by the men in the neighbourhood.
It is not only racist and physical abuse by coaches (in the National Hockey League) that needs to be examined, nor the kind of sexual abuse that attends many Olympic sport teams that needs to be put under the microscope. And that microscope, far from being restricted to a narrow legal definition of the “issue,” needs to reach into the child’s life, the kind of abuse and neglect, the kind of power dynamics in which s/he was raised.
There is a lasting prophetic diamond in the repeated phrase of Mr. Rogers: “He too was a child once!”
It was not until Tom Junod actually witnessed a screening of the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, that he heard Tom Hanks (Mr. Rogers) speak with Matthew Rhys ( Lloyd Vogel) that he actually discovered the mystery of what Mr. Rogers had seen in him:
“You love people like me,” Matthew Rhys tells Tom Hanks. And when Hanks asks,
“What are people like you? Rhys answers,
And displaying an intimacy and a courage rare in journalism, especially his kind of hard-hitting journalism, Junod reflects:
“And that broke me, though I had never uttered those words to Fred (Rogers) in my life. He saw something in me, yes. Did he also see through me? Was my brokenness so obvious to him back them. Was Fred’s offer of friendship also a form of judgement? …
In his reflective summation, Junod writes:
The last thing Fred Rogers ever said to me was, “How like you.” He gave so much to me, so much trust and friendship, without asking me to earn it. But still I wonder whether I have. Still I find myself asking for his blessing, and like the aged Private Ryan (played by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan) after he walks away from the grave of the officer who rescued him, I issue a plea that sounds a bit like a prayer:
Tell me I’m a good man. Tell me I’ve lived a good life, then tell me what to do now.
This prayer is now, has been, and will continue to be at the heart of every man’s search, no matter the object of the utterance. And, whether the plea goes to a mother who chanted, “You are no good and you never will be any good!” or a father who disdained his very existence as being unworthy of the family name, or a spouse who never really got to know her husband, or a daughter who preferred the silence of the tomb of sequestration and estrangement, or an aunt who charged a nephew with evil life decisions, or even a teacher who told a student “You will never pass this course or become what you dream of becoming!”…that plea/prayer will cascade onto the rocks, the beaches and the cliffs of the hearts, minds, spirits and souls of men until the “twelfth of never” (to borrow a phrase from Johnny Mathis’s hit).
And, whether it is or can be answered, depends more on the courageous pursuit of self-acceptance of every man based on a critical assessment of who he is, what he stands for, what he stands against and who he has become than on the extrinsic reward of acceptance by those who do not chose to get to know him fully and intimately.
And a theology that starts with a total and unconditional acceptance by God will and does go a long way to preparing a man’s psyche and soul for letting the mystery of his sacredness (not his perfectionism!) into his heart.