Please, can I have a do-over? Yesterday morning I published a post entitled, “What it Really Means to be a Real Man.” Now I need to retract what I wrote and try again because I made a major error in journalistic judgment.
One of my lifelong heroes is Dave Busby, who died almost twenty years ago. Yesterday morning, part of my post included a story that he told, which I had heard on audio tape many years ago. He told this story during a public sermon, and it was about watching something on television in a hotel room, which he later deeply regretted. When I wrote the post yesterday, I didn’t know what he had watched. I assumed it was pornography. But now I know that it was an R rated movie seen by most of the American public. I did not get my facts straight nor did I provide the kind of context that was necessary to share that story well.
Though it was my intention to highlight the kind of brave honesty that characterized Dave for his whole life, upon re-reading the essay, I realize that my writing made it seem like he was addicted to pornography. He wasn’t. Like most men, including me, he had been tripped up in the sexual arena. Dave Busby lived in sexual purity and gave his life to help others pursue holiness.
I was trying to highlight the importance of doing the very things that Dave actually did when real men make mistakes: he immediately recognized his mis-deed, and he called his wife, then he called his pastor and best friend. Then, years later, in context and with the right audience, he shared this very sensitive illustration. Dave did not live some sort of secret or hidden life. In fact, he was living out the example of what a real man is and does.
Please forgive me for demeaning a person whom I so greatly admire. It makes me very sad that in any way I may have instead called into question his reputation and impact as a man who deeply loved God, and lived vulnerably with his community and with the public. In light of that, I have pulled the post.
Below is my edited version of the post I wrote yesterday. Thanks, everybody.
What it Really Means to be a Real Man
Men are getting a lot of shallow advice about how to be men, and a lot of it is coming from the church.
Take charge! Bring your family to church! Bring your wife flowers! Just do it! Do active things followed by lots of exclamation points!!!
Does anybody else feel like Brick Tamland might be behind this whole thing?
What’s empty about all the “just do it” challenges that men are receiving is that they’re all about trying harder to control what is spinning out of control. Control your temptations! Control your anger! The problem is that control is rooted in fear, and fear will not lead us into freedom.
We fear failure.
We fear getting it wrong and being wrong.
We fear that we’re defective.
We fear appearing soft and weak.
We fear being afraid!
We fear criticism, especially from our wives.
We fear that our version of what it means to be a man is not the version of what it really means to be a man.
So we flail around, trying to control whatever we can, only to panic when we still fail, still get criticized, and still get it wrong.
The truth is that most of us need to release the grip on control, so that we can get at the root of our fear, which is shame.
What we need are flawed men who begin to tell their raw stories of losing control. We need to hear about how they’re naming and moving through their pain and loss (death), and how they’re embracing a radical grace that is setting them free (life). This kind of courage will slowly eradicate the culture of shame in men.
I’ll never forget the time when Dave Busby (a pastor who died of cystic fibrosis almost twenty years ago) told a huge room full of men and women that he had watched something in his hotel room that he later deeply regretted.
He talked about the process of feeling empty, then bored. He talked about making the decision to turn it on, then watch it. He talked about the pit of deep shame into which he tumbled afterwards. Then he talked about the phone call he made to his best friend in the middle of the night, to whom he laid it all out. He talked about the process of losing control and what he did about it. He talked about what happened when he named it out loud to someone else. He talked about the grace that he received from his wife that night. He chose to share that story publicly only after he had worked through a thorough repentance process with his wife. I’m staggered by Dave’s heart.
Men need to hear that they will feel empty, and that they shouldn’t try hard to avoid feeling empty. The question is: What you will do when you inevitably do feel empty? How you will respond when you’ve done something stupid because you felt so empty? Can we hear some more stories of normal men like Dave Busby who get empty and then run to relocate themselves in Christ?
So maybe you’ve been feeling empty as well. Real men do, often. Who do you need to talk to? When can you reach out to them?
We are afraid of telling the truth about what’s really happening in our lives because we have a long history of hiding what’s really happening, and talking about what really isn’t happening.
“So how many girls have you guys slept with?”
This was the question that the tall, good-looking senior guy threw out in the locker room during the winter of my sophomore year of high school.
We all shifted uneasily and a few of us mumbled some very tentative responses. One of us finally asked him how many girls he had slept with. He thought hard about it, obviously working out some really advanced mathematics.
“About a hundred,” he finally answered.
We all sat there, stunned. It didn’t occur to me until years later that he might have been lying. Isn’t it interesting that of the millions of things that happened to me in high school, I have a vivid memory of this very short, seemingly insignificant scene?
Fast forward to every pastor’s conference I’ve ever attended. The same question gets asked, every time: “So how many people come to your church?”
We need to see that this question is actually the same question that tall, good-looking senior asked in that locker room.
So what are men supposed to talk about, and what can we quit talking about?
Can we start with some baseline assumptions?
You’re going to feel empty. You’re going to be attracted to people who are not your spouse sometimes, and it doesn’t mean you’re a terrible husband. You’re going to be bored with your life, and you’re going to be angry about it. You’re going to feel like a failure at work. You’re going to find yourself on the edge of doing stupid things. You’re going to do some stupid things. You’re going to be a bad listener (sometimes) and feel defective about it.
Men who are walking towards maturity are finding ways to talk about those things so that they return to who they are. These men are releasing control and becoming expansive. They are creating wide spaces for others to become who they actually are.
We can quit comparing ourselves to each other, endlessly berating each other, and acting like there is one kind of ideal man. I have a friend who loves to hunt and smoke cigars, and he’s a great man. I also have a friend who loves musicals and baking, and he’s a great man. There are so many ways to be a great man.
Now, a word about men who crash and burn.
Over the past several months, I have heard stories of four pastors who have had affairs, lost their jobs, and wrecked their marriages. Each one of them doubtlessly knew that they were supposed to avoid passivity and remain accountable.
They needed something more. We need something more. These men are not monsters. They are good men who just stayed hidden for way too long. They are men who are losing the battle with fear and shame.
Dallas Willard once explained the five-step process that he saw men walk through on their way to destroying their lives. He said that it didn’t matter if it was drugs, alcohol, sex, overworking, or something else; it was always the same journey.
First, they got really busy. Then they get unsettled and restless. Then, they got angry. Then they felt entitled. Then they acted out.
Where are you on that journey?
Can you take the courageous step to tell someone about where you actually are? Then, try to be still long enough to ask this dangerous question: What do you want? When you dig underneath the anger and the entitlement, what do you really want? Who might be able to help you move towards that?
It might take a while to cut through the shame and the fear. It is slow work. But this is the work of becoming a real man. And it is worth it.
I want to be a real man. A flawed, growing, honest, expansive man with an easy smile, who is learning to create wide spaces for the people in my life to become who they actually are.