In my boyhood as a Navy brat, I moved to a new school for 5th grade and was excited to see the other boys playing marbles during recess.
A history lesson for younger men: marbles were round colored glass balls about the size of a dime. To play, you set a white string in a circle and each player would put an agreed-upon number of his marbles in the circle. Then each would take turns firing your “shooter” marble at the pack, hoping to knock another guy’s marble outside the string—which entitled you to pocket it.
“Can I play?” I asked, walking up to several boys as they knelt preparing their circle.
“Sure,” one of the kids said. “Put your marbles in.”
“Uh, well, I don’t have any marbles,” I stammered.
“Then you can’t play,” the kid said matter-of-factly, and the others proceeded to shoot.
Quickly, I turned away as a hot flush of shame seared my heart. Later at home, I went straight to my father. “I need some marbles, so I can play with the other boys,” I told him. After dinner, he took me out to the “Five & Ten” store—younger men can read WalMart—and bought me a bag of marbles. The next day, I couldn’t wait for recess—when I happily tossed my marbles into the circle and shot away, certified as one of the boys.
Today, a generation of men—both young and old—have not been given the marbles by Dad to play the game of life. We don’t have the stuff of manhood, and we know it. Worse, we fear that other men will know it—and we’ll be kicked off the team, cast into outer darkness forever. A hot flush of shame has swept over manhood in our culture, and we’ve become desperate for any means of deliverance to prove we measure up.
We turn first, of course, to women, because we learned as boys to turn to Mom when Dad wasn’t there. But in spite of our “modern gender sensibilities” dulled by denial, no woman can make you into a man. The woman can confirm manhood when she sees it, and that’s great. But she can’t make it happen. That’s men’s work.
And so, fearing men and even our own manhood as we feared Dad, often we chase woman after woman, seeking the elusive manhood that she can’t give us. Sadly, women have also suffered a destructive father-wound, which draws and traps them into this familiar girlhood pattern of abandonment (see “Fathers and Daughters” in Healing the Masculine Soul).
Meanwhile, dancing to the tune of billions of dollars, the pornographic woman beckons the saving grace—albeit counterfeit–which unfathered men long for. Whether from magazine or website, she accepts you just as you are and never leaves you. She doesn’t care how you smell, where you leave your dirty clothes, how you spend your money–makes no demands, appears whenever you want, and gives whatever you want of her.
When sooner or later a man realizes that no woman can overcome his shame—when Mom can no longer save him from Dad’s wounding–he faces several choices.
First and most often, he can mask his shame with pride, trying to cover it up with performance-based achievement, from sports to overwork to politically- or religiously-correct thinking, which both emphasize right belief over authentic relationship. If only when he gets too old to run with the younger guys, however, the truth of his shame intrudes–and the man burns out.
At this point, he may turn to substance abuse—such as alcohol or drugs–or let his “mid-life crisis” draw him into sexual indulgence.
When eventually he discovers that no activity or substance, no matter how compulsive or deadening, can kill his shame, the man may kill himself. In over 30 years as a clergy, I have encountered numerous male suicides, and in virtually every case the overwhelming sense of no exit from his shame lay at the root. The awful statistics are gender-specific: women attempt suicide twice as often as men, but men succeed five times as often as women.
But there’s another choice, as terrifying as it is promising. The man can make the courageous, manly choice at last to get real and face his shame. He can confess his inadequacies and shortcomings to himself, and then, to “the Father from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth receives its true name” (Ephes. 3:15NIV). On his face before God, he can declare, “I don’t want another woman, more money, another drink, more work, another A on my political or moral report card. I want a father. I want to feel like a real man.”
At last, he can get so real before a small group of trusted, like-minded brothers (see “The Wolf Loves the Lone Sheep” in Sons of the Father: Healing the Father-Wound in Men Today).
To men, that is, wounds feel shameful, and none can match the father-wound in its power to cripple and destroy. In my 25 years of speaking to men’s conferences around the world, I’ve found that as few as 1% of men have been taught about sex or about fathering by their dads. But once we get real together, we discover that we’re all wounded, that we’re all in this together—and the roaring lion of shame begins to lose its teeth.
Out of this freedom to see ourselves as we really are, we can turn our energies away from hiding toward stepping out after our giftings and destiny. We can begin to see Dad as he really is/was, in all his human faults and strengths, his fears and hopes, his wounding and accomplishments—and forgive and honor him. And here’s the best part: we can see our children as they really are, and become the fathers we want to be.
A real man, after all, is a man who’s real. He’s tired of wasting energy living a lie, playing an endless game that just saps his good energies and leaves him not only losing, but lost.
For too long, like our fathers and generations before us, we men have been letting our shame define us. In sending Jesus, Father God has removed our shame and revealed the avenue to His definition:
Getting real is not the end of your manhood.
It’s the beginning.
(see “From Shame to Sonship” in Fight like a Man)