What does it mean to be a man? Like a real man — a manly man doing manly things in a manly way?
What if I’m a man living in a world that has questions about the meaning of gender and so many examples of toxic masculinity?
The concept of manhood seems nebulous and fraught today in the 21st century, but even 2,000 years ago, St. Paul described male and female roles as a “great mystery.” As hard as it can be to try to define authentic masculinity, I feel like I know it when I see it. And one surprising place I’ve seen it is in the character of Jack Pearson on the hit NBC show “This Is Us.” Far from toxic, Jack’s virtuous masculinity radiates to help the people around him thrive. Here are three ways I think Jack is a man all men can aspire to.
But first! A few disclaimers:
- SPOILER ALERT! I will be discussing some plot points from seasons 1-4.
- Discussions of gender and sex are always sensitive. I am not passing judgment on the manliness of any individual person. Also, claims below regarding men are not implying anything about women or femininity or those with a different understanding of gender or sexuality.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s go:
Jack grows from challenges
Jack has had a rough life. He grew up with an abusive, alcoholic dad. He fought in Vietnam where he lost his brother (kind of, you’ll have to watch). He lost his son, Kyle, in childbirth. He’s worked hard his whole life with few positive role models to guide him.
Yet, Jack chooses consistently to learn and grow from these challenges. Rather than become an abuser like his own father, Jack chose to become an emotionally intelligent and sensitive father and husband who can empathize and communicate humbly and compassionately with his children and wife. He encourages his children and wife when they struggle and he turns to them for support when he struggles.
Jack apologizes and goes the extra mile for his wife when he makes a mistake (like jealously punching her band mate). After losing Kyle, he and Rebecca adopt Randall, who was abandoned by his biological father. When Randall struggles with being a Black son in a white family, Jack humbly invests their family’s time in relationships with Black families at a local dojo and also Randall’s favorite teacher.
While Jack is heroic in many respects, he is far from a saint and makes many mistakes. Yet Jack finds ways to grow even from challenges of his own making. Even though he made mistakes in his relationship with his own brother, he spends time teaching his sons, Kevin and Randall, to care for each other and have each others’ backs. When his family and work life get stressful, he struggles with alcoholism and becomes jealous with his wife Rebecca in her new career. But Jack seeks reconciliation for his wrongs, gets the help he needs at AA, and builds healthy habits (like joining the boxing gym) to help him deal with stress in the future.
Watching these aspects of Jack’s character make me wonder: How can I grow from the challenges in my life? How can I turn my mistakes into opportunities for growth? How can I reconcile and make amends with those I’ve hurt?
Jack finds purpose through sacrificial love
St. Pope John Paul II once wrote, “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.”
This is 100 percent Jack Pearson. As a boy and young man, Jack finds purpose in his abusive household by caring for and protecting his little brother, Nicky. After the “loss” of Nicky, we find Jack fairly aimless, on the brink of embarking on a life of crime, ripping off gamblers and planning to rob a restaurant. Then he meets Rebecca and his life suddenly has a meaning again. His energies turn to focus on loving and serving her.
Throughout the show, Jack’s choices contrast with those of his peers. Other men in the show prioritize career over family, but Jack chooses a boring desk job over pursuing his professional dream of owning his own architecture firm in order to provide stability for his family. He doesn’t see his family as getting in the way of his dreams — his family is his dream.
Jack’s example makes me ask life-defining questions: Who and what do I sacrifice for? Does it give my life purpose and meaning? How do I show sacrificial love for those I most cherish?
Jack forges strong relationships through meaningful rituals
According to relationship expert John Gottman, one of the best ways to build healthy relationships is by creating shared meaning through tradition and rituals. Jack and Rebecca manage to form a stronger and more close-knit family than either of them had growing up. One of the ways Jack contributed to this was his keen sense of the importance of rituals to strong relationships. He and Rebecca have a certain intimate birthday tradition. He makes sure the family makes a big deal out of annual events like the Super Bowl and Thanksgiving. He even gives the kids a special name (“The Big Three”) and a cheer to go with it. Most of these traditions persist long after Jack’s untimely death (I warned you there’d be spoilers).
He also establishes less formal rituals within his family. He spends intentional time with each of his three children doing things they love: throwing the football with Kevin, going to the dojo with Randall, listening to music with Kate. He also routinely has heart-to-heart conversations with his children, encouraging each of them in their insecurities.
These conversations with each child are some of the most touching moments in the series. Kate struggles with her body image and confidence. Randall struggles with anxiety and feeling out of place as a Black boy in a white family. Kevin struggles with rebelliousness and a HUGE chip on his shoulder. Jack finds ways to connect with each of them, coax them out from behind their emotional walls, and encourage them. These intentional times spent with Jack form some of the Big Three’s most formative experiences and teaches them how to have hard, intimate, meaningful conversations with each other, their spouses, and their children.
Seeing Jack lead his family like this makes me ask: What meaningful rituals and traditions can I create to strengthen my relationships? What existing rituals and traditions can I strengthen? Do I engage in honest, vulnerable conversations with those closest to me?
In an age of Axe body spray, Jack Pearson gives us a vision of radiant masculinity. It’s not a one-size-fits-all rulebook for how to be manly. But Jack shows us a man who grows from adversity and failures; who uses his energy and strength for the service of others; and who intentionally forges strong, meaningful relationships. This helps him be a good friend, father, son, soldier, employee, and husband.
He’s not perfect by any means, but his legacy of sacrificial love outweighs his flaws. And for me, seeing his character on screen raises important questions that help me reflect on my own journey — in Jack, I find the concrete and realistic inspiration for how to be a great man.