From a speech to the student League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Father Charlie Gordon, C.S.C., co-director of the University’s Garaventa Center.
I don’t have any jokes for you this evening. What I have to say is serious, and I hope you will give it a serious hearing.
Our identity as males begins with an inconsolable grief. In our infancy, at the first moment that it occurs to us that we are male, we are hammered with the psychological consequences of the terrible realization that in becoming male, we must become something that our mother is not. Oscar Wilde: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” I don’t presume to say whether Wilde is right about women, but he’s right about men. Whether you are straight or, like Wilde, gay, your masculine identity began with a tragedy. It began with a profound feeling of alienation from the one who first loved and nurtured you. This necessary alienation from our mothers is felt psychologically as a rejection, even as a betrayal, and the experience shapes the persons we become.
If you ever have the experience of being loved unreservedly by a woman, you will come to realize that her love for you has a different quality than the love you have to offer in return. There is an awe-inspiring, almost frightening, depth and richness to a woman’s love. Even if you love her whole-heartedly, even if you are eager to pledge your future to her, even if you would willingly lay down your life for her, you will come to be aware that your love is a shadow of her love for you. That’s why St. Paul urges men to love their wives. Obeying them comes relatively easily to us. As men, we understand obedience. We can do obedience. But to love a woman with a love that is remotely analogous to the love she bears for us — that’s hard. It’s hard because in the depths of our being there is a feeling that we’ve been betrayed before. The origin story of our masculinity teaches us that love can’t be trusted. It isn’t what it purports to be. Anger is perhaps the emotion most associated with masculinity. Male anger is a powerful, terrifying thing. But male anger is a symptom of something deeper. It’s caused by a primal grief for intimacy lost and betrayed. In our heart of hearts, we weep.
Our deep-seated suspicion of the trustworthiness of intimacy has other consequences for us. We feel in-built reservations toward truth claims of any kind. We tend to hold at arms-length any all-embracing system that purports to invest life with meaning, purpose, and value. At some level we shy away from religions and ideologies, even those we profess. However avidly we declare our allegiance to God or country, something in us says, Okay, fine, but remember, we’ve been burned before. This ambivalence toward anything that claims our unqualified adherence may undergird our masculine passion for individual freedom. It may be behind the “commitment issues” so often associated with our gender.
Men are meaning-makers. We decide what will have meaning for to us, and make it matter by force of will. This can be seen even in the way we spend our leisure time. Some of us become incredibly invested in hobbies. The masculine love of sports is the quintessential example. Perplexed women ask, “How can you possibly care so much about sports? They’re only games. They just don’t matter!” The unspoken male response is, “And how exactly does that make them different from anything else?”
In light of all of this, how can you be a good man? Let’s begin with what you shouldn’t do. First, don’t pride yourself on noticing that truth claims aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. A sense of smug superiority at seeing through pretense is about as admirable as being proud of your sideburns. Both are simply part of being male. Your real distinction will be based on
what you manage to affirm in the face of your reservations. Second, don’t punish others for the ache in your heart. Don’t let alienation be an excuse for fecklessness. Don’t inflict real world abandonment and betrayal on others as a consequence of a feeling that is a psychological artifact of a necessary pre-rational stage of development. Don’t use the suspicion that nothing really matters as a justification to use others to gratify your baser instincts. Don’t exploit vulnerability, trust, or innocence in others to try to make yourself feel better. In the end, to do so will only make you despise yourself — with reason.
That’s enough “don’ts.” Now what should you do? First, acknowledge that the feeling that the world is meaningless and that love is untrustworthy doesn’t mean that either is. Your mother didn’t mean to hurt you. She loves you, with a love that has an intensity and richness that you can’t begin to understand. Her love for you is the most real, the most dependable, thing in your world. Treasure her, whether in life or in memory.
Second, employ your innate tendency to question the claims of authority, in the cause of justice. By all means, criticize pompous, self-serving rhetoric, and question baseless assertions. But do so not as an expression of fashionable cynicism, but as a means of bringing about real change for the better.
Finally, dare to love. Make your pain a wellspring of empathy and a spur to virtue. Suffering has been part of the fabric of your being from the beginning. Choose to suffer for others. In this you may take Christ as your model, or, if you’ve been fortunate, your father. My father suffered from a painful, debilitating illness during the last decades of his life. Nevertheless, he had a wife to love and a large family to support. So early every morning, he got out of bed, put on a business suit, and trooped downstairs and out the front door to work. He was a man — a meaning-maker. He had decided what mattered to him, and he accomplished it by force of will. He suffered manfully, and in the process created a space for us in which we could be safe and grow and learn what love is. I pray that you and I will do the same for those entrusted to us.
I can only tell you what I believe to be true. But even if I’m wrong about its origins, the pain and alienation are unquestionably real. What will you do with yours?