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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“Our greatest cross is the fear of crosses.” Curé d’Ars
Wise and insightful words.
This is by no means a criticism of what you wrote, but in an overall sense, what is tragic or at least very sad, is that you had to write it in the first place. What you write about is very much the present case and for that, what you express you have done so exceedingly well. But only two generations ago and all the time before that, there would have been no need for such an essay. In fact I’d guess if read by the men of those generations it would be met by “huh, what is it your are talking about?” along with a quizzical look.
As an example, I was blessed to have had a father, two grandfathers and a father-in-law who didn’t have to ask themselves if they were in the right role or were worried if they might have been doing it wrong, or were they fearful in their roles. Fear may have only played a role about external things such as wondering if the world would impede their abilities to provide for their families (but even that was in a sense put in its place because as real men, they knew they would do whatever needed to be done). This implies no arrogance on their part, but rather a subconscious and intuitive sense of what it meant to be a man, a husband and a father (and grandfather!). It was just who they were and who they were was echoed or repeated by the vast majority of other men of their generations. Your article is not about women, but different identity traits were obviously also shared with their own characteristics by all women.
My goodness, how far we have fallen. A clue is that the above description of manhood was totally supported by the societal mores and culture present when these men were growing up and while they lived as adults, whereas the culture mongers of today since at least the 1960’s, have been all about the total destruction of such types. The fallout is frightening in that men (and I’d submit women) no longer have a clue what it means to be a man or a woman.
Thank you for this, Bob. You rightly point to the dramatic cultural changes in the last couple of generations. I very much concur with you that better cultural custom makes a dramatic difference in the formation, self-understanding, and goals of men. I would only add that in any age there was or is still always a real challenge for men to discover and enact more fully the richness of their vocation. For this we can work together, and pray together.
I have a black and white photograph of about a dozen men, including my two grandfathers, standing on a dock in front of a boat. It must have been a late winter or early spring day as they all had on overcoats beneath which every one of them wore a jacket and tie. Each man held his hat in his hands and I might guess they were there for a blessing of that boat.
These men would never go out in public without wearing such a hat and more often than not they would also have on a tie. One of the things that has always struck me is how men from the 1950’s and all the time before when captured on film looked so different from men who are exactly the same age look today. All you have to do is observe at how Cary Grant (or Gary Cooper – all of them!) looked in his movies when he was in his early 50’s or younger and compare him to men you see at that same age today. The difference is remarkable. Mr. Grant and the others just looked so much older or more mature.
Perhaps all of this is a bunch of insignificant stuff. But I wonder. While for example my father-in-law was truly a man’s man and the kind of guy you’d be thrilled to share a drink with, there was something very much different in the way he handled a drink compared to the let’s get drunk and stupid approach of many of today’s crowd. Or am I imagining something that isn’t real? I think in large part we lost the meaning of maturity.
No question as you point out that in any age there was and is room for improvement. The most important tool however in terms of efficacy, is modeling good behaviors. Even those boys of prior times who grew up without a decent role model as a father or who didn’t even have one, did though have society at large modeling or showcasing what good behavior was. Society is failing miserably in that regard today, making the direct father/son role even that much more important. God help those boys of today who don’t even have that. So I applaud you in your initiative to help in this regard.
We so enjoyed this reflection, Dr. Cuddeback. It reminds us of the way Joseph is depicted so beautifully in Fr. Don Calloway’s Consecration to St. Joseph book. Joseph’s manliness is only seen by Mary and Jesus most of the time. We don’t even have any of his words. But, he is the man who Jesus learned manliness from, who God chose to teach his Son how to be a man. And, to your point here, Christ’s hidden decades with Joseph were the springboard for his public ministry.
For men who did not have this kind of father, God the Father can seem so elusive and unapproachable. I hope reflections like this and the example of St. Joseph can become a guide for men young and old as they try to figure out what being a man (especially a man of God) looks like.
God bless you!
Thank you, Abigail! To your ‘hope’ here, I add my prayer, and I say, Amen.