I Had a ‘Barbie’ Moment Reading This Book On Masculinity

By: Akos Balogh

I never thought I’d cry reading a book on masculinity.

But that’s what happened as I read The Manual – Getting Masculinity Right, by author Al Stewart. I don’t think he intended for men to cry as they read that book (at least he didn’t say so in the introduction). But I felt strong emotions as I read a chapter that, for me, touched on the challenges of being a man in today’s world.

In other words, it was my male ‘Barbie’ moment.

Many females will tell you they had such a moment in the recent movie Barbie, where they resonated with the frustrations expressed by the character Gloria (played by America Ferrera), who spills her heart to the main character Barbie (Margot Robbie) about the pressures of being a female in today’s world:

Like, we [women] have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong. You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin…You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men’s bad behaviour, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining…You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you!

So, what hit me so hard in Stewart’s book that I couldn’t help welling up with emotion?

For me, it was the chapter on ‘Endurance: The Power of Turning Up’. Here’s what he has to say – and if you’re a bloke, especially if you’re a bloke in the thick of mid-life, with responsibilities growing on you like barnacles – see if it resonates with you:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. So said American author Henry David Thoreau. He’s right. There are many different reasons for this desperation. For some of us, our dreams may be dying. I don’t mean the dreams we had as kids, where we realise we won’t represent our country at the Olympics, but those deeply private things we’d hoped for. Those dreams that we didn’t share with anyone else. Eventually we realise these things are not going to happen…and that sense of quiet desperation lives with us.

He continues:

Or maybe the quiet desperation comes from heartache – just the wear and tear of life. I don’t know anyone who’s reached middle age without major heartache of some kind, be that from a failed marriage, or wayward children, or lack of children, or wider family, or failure at work, or health issues for themselves or for someone they love. Heartache is inevitable.’

While I wouldn’t have thought of my life as one of quiet desperation – on so many levels I feel blessed – these words about the pain and frustration of life hit a nerve, as I’m sure they do for many other men.

For other men, they’re frustrated by the everyday ‘Groundhog Day’ nature of life: ‘It’s easy for us to feel like we’re living the same day again, and again and again. Boredom is just a fact of life…For many men, the repetitive, mind-numbing routine of life is what they dread.’

Going to work, coming home, taking kids to their activities, eat, sleep, repeat. Day after day. Week after week. Year after year. And throw in a stressful job, aging parents, and teenage kids that revel in arguing about everything, and for many men it’s a recipe for despair.

So, What’s the Answer?

As Stewart points out, many men deal with this desperation by escaping with porn, alcohol or gambling. Others buy expensive toys. But these responses can be destructive, and don’t address the desperation.[1]

Stewart also critiques those who say that becoming a Christian will make the boredom or stress disappear. Who say that life will be a wonderful adventure. But while following Jesus does bring meaning and purpose that nothing else can bring, life can still feel mundane.[2]

So, what’s the answer?

Stewart takes us to a surprising passage of the Bible, where the apostle Paul writes about God’s power working in the lives of believers, so that they might have…great endurance and patience (Col 1:11). At first blush that sounds so…ordinary. God’s mighty work in someone to give them something so ordinary as endurance and patience? What about miracles? Healings? Converting thousands?

But there is enormous power in just turning up. In enduring. In being patient:

I’m not sure who first said, “80 percent of life is just turning up”, but they were right. One of the secrets to living well is in deciding what is worth doing and who you should care for, and then continuing to just turn up and do it…Rarely do you make a difference in one amazing incident or appearance; it usually in the persistence of turning up. Endurance and patience are what it takes, and God promises that those who follow Jesus can have this through the work of his Spirit in their lives. [3]

Turning up regularly can be hard. When the going gets tough, it’s easier to give up. To do something more exciting or interesting. But turning up is like compound interest: its power is seen over the long term.

An Ordinary Yet Amazing Example of Masculinity

To bring the power of turning up home to us men, Stewart gives us the example of his grandfather, Donald Shaw.

Born 1891, he marched off to World War 1 at age 24. He became a Christian at age 30, attending the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, in Grafton. He married Eliza, with whom he had seven children (Stewart’s mother being the youngest). And then, in 1935, the minister decided to return to Scotland, and told everyone that Donald Shaw would be taking the church services from then on (Donald was 44 years old). As Stewart points out, Donald hadn’t been asked before the announcement was made (!).

How did Donald respond to all this? Let’s hear again from Stewart:

My grandfather was not highly educated, and so felt unable to preach or teach. So he would prepare published sermons from the great preachers of the past (men like Charles Spurgeon, George Whitfield and JC Ryle). He would then read these sermons beautifully in the church meetings. He would pray, and he would lead the singing. It was only a little church, but he would do it all. He generally did this twice on a Sunday, and at a midweek meeting. When he went on holidays, he would go to the beach at Yamba, near Grafton, so that on Saturday afternoon he could catch the bus back from the beach, take the church meetings on the Sunday, then go back to the beach again on Monday. When the church lawn needed mowing, he would ride his bicycle from one side of Grafton to the other while carrying the push mower in his hand, mow the lawn, and ride back home again. He did this week by week without fail, again and again, until the next minister arrived from Scotland.

And when did the next minister arrive?

The next minister arrived in 1972, 37 years later. My grandfather was then 81 years old.[4]

Stewart goes on to say that his grandfather died in 1983 at the age of 92. But he showed what he believed, and what he cared about, with great endurance and patience. And then in 2019 and 2020, three of Donald’s great-great-grandchildren were baptised in that church. ‘He just kept turning up; he kept doing what mattered to support those around him’.[5]

When We Know What We’re Turning Up For

While life in a fallen world has a ‘Groundhog Day’ element to it, when we understand who we’re turning up for and what we really value, turning up, again and again, starts to feel different. ‘We turn up, not passive or resigned or sulky or petulant, but deliberate and intentional.’[6]

(And yes, amid turning up, Stewart encourages us to make time for things to refresh us – a hobby or project ‘which your wife rolls your eye at’ – like cycling, golf, or a hunting trip to Cape York).[7]

If we’re Christian, God gives us the power to keep turning up – with all endurance and patience. And over time – often a long time – we can and often will make a difference. Even through lives that are often mundane and ordinary.

That’s enough to make a grown man cry, but this time with joy and thankfulness.

Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.

Feature image: Photo by Craig McLachlan on Unsplash

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