If men could be contented to be what they are, there were no fear in marriage.
Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well
There is often fear in marriage, and it can be of several kinds. I think Shakespeare’s object here is perhaps the primary fear attending marriage, even those going ‘well.’ Will this marriage be what it really can and should be?
Men, feeling a special responsibility in marriage, experience this fear in a particular way. And it is bound up with other deep fears.
Many if not most men who marry have a sense that something of unique seriousness is undertaken, this even given the corroding power of popular culture. Their fear might not be in the forefront of their minds, but it is nonetheless real. Some men, grasping better the nature of marriage, experience this fear more intensely, precisely because they perceive more clearly what is at stake and that it connects with their very identity as men.
Shakespeare often brings us to the central issues of life. In the mouth of his clowns are found words of wisdom—even if taken differently from how the speaker intends.
“If men could be contented to be what they are.” What a monumental ‘if!’ And yet also one so open to—and even pointing to—abuses and misunderstandings! The very man mouthing these words does so in context of expressing an outrageous view of marriage. How many of us men, like this clown, are contented to be what in fact is not truly ‘what we are.’
So Shakespeare has raised the great question: what are men? And more specifically, with what should we be contented in marriage? And with what not contented? It is often the case in human life that we set our sights, and thus settle, on something lesser than we should.
At risk of overstepping what can reasonably be raised in a short reflection, I want to suggest how we men today often fail to be “content with what we are.”
Many of us struggle mightily and at length to prove ourselves to be men. This is understandable. Why? Because manhood is an astoundingly beautiful and powerful reality that is necessarily the fruit of much effort. And we naturally have a sense that achieving it—whatever exactly it is—is the only way we will be satisfied, and others be satisfied with us. This makes us afraid.
We see this all around us. That which masquerades and passes for manliness is paraded before us and peddled to us; and we men, in part out of fear, often take the bait. It is ironic and tragic. At one and the same time most everyone—men and women—can intuit that THIS is not the real thing, and yet it is so engrained and so appealing that we men keep falling into it, in varying degrees.
Of this much we feel confident: I have got to be, or in any case appear to be, strong and in control. So we cultivate ways of seeming to be strong and in control, hopeful that in these we will be respected and accepted as men. We settle for things which in reality are faint shadows if not outright perversions of what it really is to be a man.
And everyone suffers. Especially if we are married. We are not content to be what we really are. Probably, we have not discovered it. We have missed what it is to be ourselves. So neither I nor my loved ones experience the peace, security, and joy of me simply being me. As a man.
I for one am on a search to discover the true lines of manliness. But something has started to become clear to me. While we have to be strong to build, grow, and defend various things ‘out there,’ our strength and work are always most about real human happiness, not its flashy counterfeits. So while sometimes manly deeds are very visible or even lend to epic retelling, most manly deeds—and perhaps even the most manly deeds—remain quite hidden. Hidden with and in the people these deeds are about.
For most men this means that our manliness will be fashioned and exercised primarily by what we do for and with the persons of our household. Starting with our wife. This does not minimize our profession and work outside the home; rather, it gives it proper direction and focus.
Circumstances might demand us to step up and out, and possibly even give the last measure to others beyond our home. If so, the manly disposition we have honed in the home will have prepared us, and it will then shine forth for many to see.
Yet this manliness might remain largely hidden. Even to the very end of our days. And it will have been none the lesser for it. Nay, for then maybe we will have learned to be ‘content’ with what it is to be a man. And thank God, there need then be no fear in marriage. For one man at least has found himself. And he knows he has nothing to prove; just something extraordinary to be. For his wife and all his loved ones. And who knows who else.
And the word ‘content’ hardly expresses the joy he has found, and can share with others.
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