Okay confession time: when I was a wee lad, certainly before I started kindergarten and juuust about the time I started having faint memories, I wanted to be just like my older sister. So much so that if you were to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I might even have said, “A girl.” And this led me to occasionally dress like one. No joke.
Once upon a time, I was dressed in a pink leotard and tutu combo outfit while my mom ran an errand or two. We happened to cross paths with my uncle, and he lost. his. sh!t. He let my mom (and me) know, in no uncertain terms, that what I was doing — dressing like a girl — was unacceptable. Whether my mom henceforth banned it or I was just scared straight by Uncle Rocco, I never dressed like a girl again.
These days, I can’t help but think of the Uncle Rocco story when I hear folks talk about toxic masculinity. Many of the conversations of masculinity in the newspapers and on social media seem quick to point out how men seem to be malformed these days. And let’s be honest, those typically concerned about toxic masculinity would likely frown on my uncle’s behavior, especially because of the negative effect it could potentially have had on me.
But there doesn’t seem to be as much conversation on authentic masculinity, and how men ought to cultivate it in their own lives.
It’s no wonder, then, that I was drawn to a man who became one of the great heroes and mentors of my life. Father Bill Baer had great insights into men and masculinity, and he had a gift for helping young men mature into who they were created to be. He wasn’t perfect, himself, by any means, and never put himself out to be any sort of model of masculinity. But that was part of what made him compelling: it wasn’t about him — he was dedicated to helping other men realize their potential.
Father Baer offered three ideals that every man should strive for to direct their masculine energy in a healthy way. All three ideals are directed outward toward others: protect, provide, and establish.
By and large, men are bigger and stronger than women (though not without exception), and it’s from these physical differences that we get many of the ubiquitous masculine stereotypes.
There’s no particular virtue, however, in physical strength, unless it’s directed toward something good. And that’s why men should strive to be protectors — to use their physical strength and stature to protect people and even things that otherwise are more vulnerable.
If you’re a football player or even a fan, you know there’s a funny little relationship — charming, even — between the offensive line and their quarterback whom they’re sworn to protect. Hit that quarterback a little after the whistle and whooooeeee you better be prepared to get lit up by one of those linemen.
In dating, for instance: On my good days, I try to show a woman I care with some good, old-fashioned chivalry. In addition to the usual trappings of opening doors and picking up the tab, I’ll go out of my way to keep her out of harm’s way, particularly on city streets — which can be as simple as walking between her and the street on the sidewalk.
Relationships work best when individuals deny themselves for the sake of the other, and protecting others in large ways and small is one of the most natural ways for a man to give of himself.
We all know the classic ideal of a man providing a living for his wife and family. I was raised in a home where my mother was able to stay at home and raise me and my siblings. I always considered it a great gift, and have long wanted to provide the same if and when I have a family of my own.
I’ve noticed this desire coming up in my life even now as a single man. I find myself buying people drinks at the bar — and then wondering why my bank account is so much smaller the next day. But I realize that there’s something about buying a round of beers that’s more than just, well, buying people alcohol. Deeper down, I simply want to help others have a good time, especially if I know that I’m better off financially than they are.
Ultimately, this instinct of wanting to provide for others is a reflection of an understanding that my good fortune is not meant to be used solely for myself. But it’s not limited to providing financially. I’ve long understood — thanks in large part to my mother, actually — that when you can help someone, you do it. That can mean anything from talking someone through a tough time, giving someone a ride who doesn’t have wheels, helping someone move large furniture, or even offering to pray for someone in need.
Growing up, we played all the sports we could, even if it was just my lil’ brother and me. That made Wiffle Ball the perfect game for us: enough like the real thing (baseball) but easier to play with a smaller group.
I brought this fondness of Wiffle Ball with me to college. Eventually, random pickup games became a formal tournament that’s now an annual tradition at my alma mater years later. I take great satisfaction from the tournament, because I know how much fun the guys have when they play and also the bonds we developed and the lasting memories we created.
Establishing traditions is great, but when you help establish people, that is work that can change the world — as Father Baer knew.
My first job out of college was teaching in a high school. I soon learned, however, that the relationships I developed as Mr. Huss in the classroom were nothing compared to those I developed as Coach Huss on the basketball court. One player even asked me, out of the blue, to be his Confirmation sponsor — even though I’m not sure we had a conversation about faith beyond normal classroom interactions. To this day we stay in touch and I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to help establish him in his life of faith as well as his career as a basketball executive.
It’s like the “give a man a fish vs. teaching him how to fish” proverb. Providing for someone is plenty good and important, but the next level is a certain proactiveness and intentionality: What’s truly best for this person? And then it takes a certain investment — of time and talent and maybe even blood, sweat, and tears — to accompany someone through the process of helping them fulfill his or her potential. Establishing others means desiring their good, then backing that up with sustained action to see it through, together.
No, you don’t have to look very far to see ways in which men and their expressions of masculinity have harmed others — some of which can be explained by the concept of toxic masculinity. But as much as it’s important to recognize how and why masculinity goes wrong, it’s even more important to understand what men ought to strive toward instead.
Father Baer was a great teacher for me in this way. It’s helpful to identify contemporaries in our lives who can model (however imperfectly) for us the kind of men we want to be. Beyond policing my childhood wardrobe, my Uncle Rocco has shown me how to lay down your life in the service of others, as he does, seemingly tirelessly, for his wife and children (and nieces and nephews).
Now, perhaps more than ever, the world needs good men. A wise man once said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” To my generation of men, then, I say: Do something. Namely, protect, provide, and establish.