There is much lamenting these days about the fact that our culture keeps men in a state of prolonged adolescence. A recent version of that lament appeared in the Feb. 19 Wall Street Journal article “Where Have the Good Men Gone?” by Kay S. Hymowitz. The story she tells is of men who don’t seem to want to grow up; sports, video games and electronic gadgets seem enough to satisfy them.
Sexual encounters come easily, so marriage is not a pressing need. It is also an obstacle that the most desirable women are more accomplished than they are, not that they care much to be accomplished — as long as they have enough income to satisfy their whims. The fact that some of the most successful men in our time seem to love their success largely because they can wear T-shirts and jeans all the time speaks volumes.
It wasn’t always thus. Men used to wear hats and suits and ties. And liked it. They felt manly doing so.
Certainly, it is easy and wrong to romanticize the past, but there is reason to miss at least some elements of days gone by. My dad died two years ago at the age of 88. He was, in many ways, a man typical of his generation. He was manly, responsible, dutiful and faithful. He told me that when he was a boy, boys quite desperately wanted to be men. And they knew what it was to be a man. They knew they had to acquire a skill to be able to get a job, and they needed to learn how to court and respect women. These accomplishments enabled them to win the women they wanted as mothers for their future children and to provide well for them. They had a strong sense of responsibility and wanted to make a contribution to the common good. That was pretty much the script of my dad’s life.
As a young boy, he worked in his dad’s grocery store and developed a strong work ethic. He told me when he was in 10th grade he was expected to ask a girl to the regular Saturday night dance at the high school. He would ask her on Wednesday as a matter of courtesy, but also so they would have the time to practice their dance steps. (An otherwise somewhat clumsy man, my father was smooth as silk on the dance floor.) He would have to walk up to the door of her house and shake her father’s hand, who would look him in the eye and tell him, “I expect you to take good care of my daughter, son” (said with a deepened voice). The next week, he would ask a different girl out; maybe the first girl’s sister or best friend, but never the same girl twice, since it was considered very wrong to “go steady.”
After his service in WWII, Dad came back ready to settle down. He met my mom working in the university cafeteria and married her because she was beautiful, hardworking and good. Their letters to each other when they lived apart for a few months are as chaste and sweet a correspondence as can be found. My parents raised six children, first on a shoestring and then quite comfortably, as a result of his careful planning and my mother’s frugality. He was very active in the Jaycees, a group that did civil-service projects such as building tennis courts and ball diamonds; he coached athletic teams; he was president of the PTA and the sports boosters club and more. He also loved to play; he bragged that he never worked more than 40 hours a week (38 1/2 during the summer for the purposes of golf); and he used up every vacation day. Duty first, but as much play as possible.
For much of his life, he practiced his Catholicism in a fairly routine fashion, driven largely by his gratitude. Then, as he aged, his faith matured to be a quiet and strong force. With his death, it has become clearer and clearer what an exemplar he was of the highest values for his children and grandchildren and all those blessed to know him; indeed, he continues to exercise a strong influence on us.
I have been reading these columns on the sad state of modern manhood combined with the memories of my admirable dad and his generation against the background of rereading Kristin Lavransdatter, a book that should be read at least once in one’s youth and again in adulthood. Like Augustine’s Confessions, it seems to strike a note of authenticity about the role that passions and relationships play in most people’s lives. Kristin was a woman whose motherhood enabled her to undergo a steady and true maturation, but who nevertheless still made unwise decisions, driven by unbridled passion or smoldering resentment. Despite her seriously sinful actions and attitudes, Kristin’s faith ultimately carried her through a life of profound sorrows and intermittent ecstatic joy and shaped her soul into one truly devoted to God.
While Kristin and her fateful choices dominate Sigrid Undset’s superb novel, the title is apt not only because it carries her moniker, but because she is very much portrayed as Lavransdatter, the daughter of Lavrans. Lavrans was an upright man, kind, generous, forgiving, pious and wise. He was imperfect, in a way understandable for a man in an arranged marriage to a woman who had loved someone else. That he was imperfect surely makes him a more believable character, but his moral excellence was such that, in the end, it served to assuage the harm done by his inability to fully love his wife.
Throughout the book, Lavrans is referenced as a person who lived in accord with God’s will and who ordered all of his affairs justly, though he could also engage enthusiastically in immoderate drinking and tale-telling. After his death, they discovered his flagellant, which suggests he had unruly passions that he struggled to subdue. In 14th-century Norway, a country shaped by noble pagan ideals and elevated by Christianity, but still inhabited by those who easily settled a dispute by swordplay, Lavrans stood out as one who brought Christian civility to all.
In contrast, Erlend, Kristin’s husband, was never able to achieve the manliness of her father. He was a fine shipbuilder and swordsman, had dash and elegance, a sly seductive smile, and an irresistible joie de vivre, but he could not develop the virtues necessary to be a responsible steward of his possessions, a supportive husband to his wife, and a worthy role model for his sons.
The story of Erlend indicates that boys who fail to become men have always been with us; it also shows how that failure wreaks havoc on their wives and seriously shortchanges their children. The story of men like my father and Lavrans serve to show what beautiful things men can do when they strive to be men, the men God meant them to be.
Janet Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.