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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

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Thursday, June 15, 2017
MAN AND MALE: An excerpt from LETTERS TO MY SON by Kent Nerburn
At once spiritual, practical, and streetwise, Kent Nerburn’s Letters to My Son: A Father’s Wisdom on Manhood, Life, and Love has been beloved by readers from all walks of life, including single mothers seeking guidance in raising a son, fathers looking to share a voice of clarity about life’s most important issues, and young men wanting an intelligent, thoughtful, and sensitive companion on the journey toward a worthy manhood.

In honor of Father’s Day, we hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the twentieth anniversary edition, in which Nerburn shares his reflections on education and learning.

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My father was not an extraordinary man.

There could be no epics written about his accomplishments. But he was a good man. He never harmed another person willingly, and he was always ready to do a kindness for those in need.

For the last ten years I have watched him slowly lose interest in life.

He is not unhappy. He is beyond unhappiness. He is depleted and defeated by the losses that have taken all sense of self-worth from him. First it was his job, then his physical strength, and finally any sense of usefulness that gave him a way to value his presence on earth.

It is a sad thing to see. All of us still love him and respect him and honor him as the father, but he no longer loves and honors and respects himself. His world and his body have betrayed him.

How did such a thing happen? How could a man who was always strong suddenly become so weak? Why did he give up when the horizons of life still stretched out to unknown distances before him? 

I am afraid he gave up because he no longer considered himself a man. 

He had done his best to meet the image of the man he had been told he should become — to raise the brightest, be the strongest, earn the most, need the least. And he had done well. Perhaps not as well as he would have dreamed, but for a boy who was alone in the world by age sixteen, he was more successful than he might have hoped. He raised himself up, found a place in the world, and built a family with honor, dignity, and caring. What took place in his mind that caused him to value his achievements so little? Why should he, who started with nothing and accomplished so much, feel that his manhood is gone?

The answer is harsh but clear. He confused being a male with being a man.

Being a male is part of our biological coding. It has to do with strength, domination, territoriality, competition, and a host of other traits that were essential in the days when dominance was the key to human survival.

Being a man is something different. It is taking these male traits and forming them into a life that meets the demands of the world around you while serving the needs of others. It is action in service of a dream. It is being grounded in belief while reaching for the stars.

The world into which my father was born did not allow him to see his manhood as separate from his maleness. Mere survival called forth all the powers of aggression, competition, and physical strength he had to offer.

He was born into poverty. His father ran off. His mother died. Before he was even an adult he was swallowed up into the Great Depression. To get food he had to work and to get work he had to be stronger and work harder. Soon Nazism and Fascism appeared on the world stage, and he was called to take up weapons against other men. After the war was over, he came back with nothing and had to carve out a place for his family in an economic and social order he had never seen.

From his earliest childhood he had been cut adrift in a world where a person needed to emerge the winner to keep from being annihilated. No wonder his sense of manhood was so deeply tied to his sense of male dominance and mastery.

Now, as his body fails him, that sense of dominance and mastery has been replaced by a sense of dependence. He feels purposeless and meaningless. The loss of his job, the loss of his physical strength and sexual powers, the loss of his ability to control the world around him are the loss of his manhood. He is a shell, living out his days in a benign hopelessness.

It did not have to be this way. As his son, I see his real manhood. I see the man who went for days without sleep to help people who had lost their homes to fires and floods. I see the man who worked two, sometimes three, jobs to give his children Christmas presents and who always put his own needs last. I see a man who took his male strengths and put them in service of a vision of caring and sharing, and nothing can diminish his manhood in my eyes.

He was a good man. In a small way, he was a great man. But he cannot see this. He lived in a time when manhood meant maleness, and he measured himself by those terms.

But now the times have changed.

You were born into a different world that will present you with different gifts and challenges. A new vision of manhood will be called for that does not tie so closely into the more aggressive and competitive residues of our male character. You will need to search out new ways of expressing strength, showing mastery, and exhibiting courage — ways that do not depend upon confronting the world before you as an adversary. 

To a great extent, you will have to find the ways for yourself. In times past there were rituals of passage that conducted a boy into manhood, where other men passed along the wisdom and responsibilities that needed to be shared. But today we have no rituals. We are not conducted into manhood; we simply find ourselves there.

When our bodies tell us we have arrived, it is with a desire and a longing and a sense of unfulfilled outreach. But what we think is manhood is nothing more than our maleness coming into full flower. And when maleness operates untempered with moral value, it visits damage upon the earth.

I want you to consider this distinction as you go forward in life. Being male is not enough; being a man is a right to be earned and an honor to be cherished. I cannot tell you how to earn that right or deserve that honor. But I can tell you that the formation of your manhood must be a conscious act governed by the highest vision of the man you want to be.

As you reach for that vision, the echoes of the male will always be with you. The competitive, the dominating, the great sexual urgency and desire for outreach will always whisper. But if you are able to transform them, these male attributes will become the true measures of manhood — strength and honor and moral force; courage, sacrifice, and confidence of touch.

So acknowledge your male characteristics. Celebrate them. Honor them. Turn them into a manhood that serves the world around you. But do not let them overwhelm you and do not let those who confuse maleness and manhood take your manhood from you. Most of all, do not fall prey to the false belief that mastery and domination are synonymous with manliness.

Be like my father. Be like the generations of nameless men who served as stewards of the age into which they were born and never willingly raised their hands to harm another.

Measure your greatness by the length of your reach, but also by the gentleness of your touch. For now, the world needs hands that love, not hands that conquer. Let your hands be among them.
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A two-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award, Kent Nerburn is the author of numerous books on spirituality and Native themes, including Voices in the Stones, The Wolf at Twilight, The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo, Simple Truths, and Letters to My Son. His award-winning Native American novel Neither Wolf Nor Dog was recently made into a feature film.

Excerpted from the book Letters to My Son. Copyright © 1994, 1999, 2014 by Kent Nerburn.


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