I am Polish, a father, husband, teacher, psychologist and ruminator. “Identity” questions always seem to be in vogue. The theory goes, that one’s identity is formed early in life, and for the most part this is true. Early themes written in a young mind rarely change, just show up in different ways. Having an identity, a sense of yourself, is critical for a happy life.
Robert Bly, the poet and enumerator of a new mythology for men, in his book Iron John, opens a door for men on the quest for who they are. The “Iron John” myth does not answer these questions, only hints at them. Men form their identities by being with men.
Themes etched in the consciousness of young boys come from watching. It is not what is done, as how it is done. The shade tree mechanic approaches an oil change on the old Chevy with “Here’s a job to do,” or cusses a blue streak when the crescent wrench slips off the drain plug. Decisions made about spending come from the top down or are a result of setting priorities and family discussion. Discipline is administered to teach rather than punish, and being responsible means acting because it is right rather than seeing what you can get away with.
A wealth of information comes from those who have lived before us. The hope is that the task of being oneself becomes a little easier. Rules and guidelines for men are a lot more fluid than what used to be – we must draw from many places now for a clear sense of ourselves.
The earliest maps laid out for us come from our own fathers. Unfortunately in our society fathers are absent in many ways. Nurturing men figures are absent in the lives of many young men. This absence can be outright abandonment to emotional distance caused by the demands of work and travel. To the extent a father is present, how he does things is important.
If the models for manhood are inadequate or incomplete, then being with men who can give us a sense of what it might be like to be a man, can fill a void. The teachers I had over the years were good men. Many of them also happened to be living a celibate existence as religious men. They were men of feeling, who allowed access to the world of emotion, demonstrating how to listen and to care. They were men of intellect, pushing beyond the ready-made answers and cookbook recipes of church and society for what was right and wrong, probing and asking, “If so, why so? If not why not?”
Themes etched at an earlier age echo to the present day. What is done counts little, since so frequently it is changed or distorted by the receiver. How it is done, and living that, is the clearest message we can send to boys becoming men today.