An Open Letter to Men: The Truth about Masculinity

I would like to tell you a general truth about men.*

As a pastor, I’ve noticed this in myself and in other men.

Here it is. Men are needy. As I’ve experienced it, men are generally much needier than women. We have what René Girard calls a “lack of being.”* Deep down we have an emptiness, a nothingness, inside of ourselves. And typically nobody ever teaches us how to manage the emptiness.

In many ways, our culture tells us to ignore the emptiness. Men certainly should never admit to our emptiness. A “needy” man in our culture isn’t manly. He’s weak. So, you should “Man up” … whatever that means.

But in other ways, our culture tells us to fill the emptiness with things that will never last. Sex. Drugs. Fast cars. Bigger electronics. The desire for more power and wealth. Like morphine, they give us a hit of fulfillment, but after it wears off, we sink deeper into the emptiness.

We see others in our culture who don’t seem to have this emptiness. They are the successful politicians, movie stars, athletes, and social media influencers. We compare our lives to theirs, and they seem so much more fulfilled. But we’ve witnessed in the last few months that they experience the emptiness just like the rest of us do.

We live in a hyper-sexualized culture of consumerism that cannot deliver on its promises of fulfillment. But I don’t want to blame our culture for any of this. Rather, I want to help men take responsibility for the emptiness that plagues us.

Because if we don’t we are likely to act out in unhealthy and destructive ways, especially when it comes to sexuality. For example, we risk acting out by sexually harassing, assaulting, or attempting to dominate women. This might give us a temporary sense of power, but it never fulfills the emptiness. Unless men learn to manage the void, we’re in jeopardy of becoming addicted to a brief sense of power over and against women. And like a drug, we will likely go back for more. It’s toxic and destructive. Tragically, we are seeing the results of that toxicity before our very eyes.

So here’s my message to men: the emptiness isn’t going away. That may sound pessimistic, but the sooner you realize this, the better off you will be. You can have all the success in the world and you will still experience this emptiness. Read the ancient wisdom found in the book of Ecclesiastes. You won’t find meaning in buying new stuff or gaining worldly success. That leads to deeper emptiness because it’s all vanity. It’s all emptiness.

Not even God promises to fill the void. Jesus, God incarnate, experienced this emptiness on the cross when he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus took on the fullness of humanity, which means he took on the fullness of our emptiness. Part of the Good News is that Jesus, God incarnate, is with us in our emptiness.

But what do we do about the emptiness? The most helpful thing for me has been to name it. Only when we name it can we begin to manage it and our masculinity in healthy ways. The healthiest thing we can do is to be honest with ourselves and with others about our emptiness. In a culture that glorifies hyper-masculinity, this requires an appropriate sense of vulnerability. By appropriate, I mean you don’t have to be on a megaphone announcing your emptiness. Making our emptiness primarily about us in an overly public way isn’t healthy. That’s because nobody else is responsible for our emptiness. We are responsible for it.

At the same time, you are not alone in your emptiness. God is with you. There are other men on the journey, too. Men who have learned to manage the emptiness in healthy ways. Authors like Richard Rohr and Peter Rollins are two of the best models I know. But there are many other kind and gentle souls who have stared the emptiness in the face and have come out the other side. Maybe the most important thing we can do is find one whom we can trust.


*For another discussion about desire and “lack of being,” join my colleague Suzanne Ross and me for a live Facebook Chat this Thursday at 5:00 CT!

**See Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred, 146. He says that we don’t know what to desire, and “The reason is that he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess.”

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6 replies
  1. John Golden
    John Golden says:

    This is not a man thing, it’s a human thing, just as Girard was talking about people, not males. The cultural remedies for the emptiness may differ by gender, but the pain and cause is the same, as is the consequence of those remedies. This could have been an effective message for all, but thinking men have this problem more just creates more division. Nothing against Rohr and Rollins, but my spouse’s recommendation of Brené Brown is spot on.

    Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Hi John,

      Yes. Brene Brown is great. Thanks for the recommendation. I apologize for creating more divisions. I may be wrong, but I do think that men are generally more needy. It may be because of cultural messages that men need to go it alone. Or I could just be wrong. Girard was once asked why it was the women who followed Jesus to the cross. He said it might be because they were less inclinded to mimesis, by which I think he meant negative mimesis. Anyway, my larger point is that men need to stare our emptiness in the face and learn how to manage it. I think men have a deeper sense of emptiness and are more needy, but I could be wrong, and you may be right that the effectiveness of the message was undercut by making that statement. I appreciate you calling me out on it and giving me more to think about.

      Grace and peace,
      Adam

      Reply
      • George
        George says:

        It’s very unfashionable these days to assert that there are real difference between men and women, as opposed to them being simple cultural constructs, so I applaud your willingness to take the risk of speculating on the possibility that men are more metaphysically empty than women. Of course, since for Girard (and his great predecessor, Augustine), that sense of lack is the mark of our humanity, inasmuch as non-human animals don’t suffer metaphysical desire in the way we do, to claim that women are less prone to such desire could be interpreted as a claim that women are less human. That fits with a long tradition of viewing women as closer to nature, while men are the creatures whose aspirations transcend the merely natural. Quite apart from being offensive to many or most woman, such a way of construing gender difference strikes me as false. Yet the fact remains that men are, among other things, more violent than women. One would hope that mimetic theory might have something to contribute to our understanding of this difference. Both men and women are deeply mimetic, since both men and women are fully human, which means that the metaphysical lack that Girard describes is something common to both sexes. But there may be a difference in the sort of objects that we tend to covet. For various reason that evolutionary psychology can help us to understand, men are more preoccupied with reputation and status, thus more likely to be drawn into conflicts that can only have a zero-sum outcome. That’s not to say that women never share that preoccupation, but they don’t seem to be as biologically driven in that direction and certainly less prone to use violence to secure their status.

        Reply
        • Adam Ericksen
          Adam Ericksen says:

          Thanks for this, George. I regret that I added that sentence. Although I believe it is true, it wasn’t critical for my point and has in many ways proven to be a distraction.

          I may be wrong, and I mostly have anecdotal evidence for the claim that while men and women both experience a lack of being, men experience it at a deeper level, which leads men to be needier. The cultural messages that men should be on their own and should “man up” leads to more difficulty and an inability to manage our lack of being. I think women have more social outlets and support. And without the ability to manage the emptiness, men are more likely to act out their emptiness with violence. I think this is one reason why, as you point out, men tend to be more violent/conflictual than women.

          Reply
          • George
            George says:

            How do you respond to the criticism that men’s allegedly deeper experience of lack makes them more human, since experiencing that lack is (according to Girard and Augustine) the defining feature of our humanity? You associate that deeper experience of lack with that fact that men strive for greater independence (or at least that seems to be what you’re saying) and that indeed does seem to be an aspect of male psycho-social development. It’s true that men tend to be more competitive and status-driven, which strikes me as the place to look for the cause of male violence. But it’s not obvious to me how a deeper sense of metaphysical lack will in itself lead to either a greater desire for independence or a greater propensity to violence. Couldn’t a deep sense of lack just as easily lead one to abandon the aspiration to independence and choose to identify more strongly with others? One could then argue that women are the ones who experience metaphysical lack most deeply and that their greater sociability reflects their way of coping with that lack. However, the truth is that there is probably no difference between the genders in this respect. We are all equal in our emptiness and thus in our humanness. If I’m wrong (and I invite you to show me that I am), then we may have to rethink a lot of what we’ve come to believe about being human.

            Reply

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