The week before Christmas, President Obama tweeted a holiday-themed ad promoting Obamacare that immediately attracted attention. There he sat, in all his millennial hipster glory – a young man in footie pajamas, gently cradling a cup of cocoa like a lock of hair from Justin Vernon’s beard. There was a look on his face of childlike glee, as though Santa had just appeared to let him know that he really can keep his plan. It was one of those things you wish you could unsee.
My criticism has nothing to do with politics. The disturbing thing about the tweet is how it symbolically reveals the decline of manliness in America. Clearly, the social media gurus who designed the ad believed that a majority of young men would identify with this man-child. We are quickly becoming the “men without chests” that C.S. Lewis warned of in The Abolition of Man, and it’s high time we recapture what it means to be a man in America.
Just as a man is not the perpetual adolescent depicted in the administration’s tweet, neither is he the boorish, hard-drinking, hard-living cowboy that is the easy foil to pajama boy. Real manliness is best exhibited in the lives of quiet strength and virtue modeled by men like my grandfathers.
They were two different men. Neither was perfect, but both loved God, remained faithful to one woman, and valued honesty and hard work. In my eyes, they were bigger than life and set a standard I will chase forever.
Johnny grew up in Madisonville, Kentucky during the Great Depression. Like most men in that part of the state, he worked for the coal company and enlisted in the military after the U.S. entered World War II. While serving with the Navy in the South Pacific, he earned the Purple Heart after being blown off the top deck of his ship by a Japanese Kamikaze. My earliest memories involve sitting in his lap, listening to Johnny Cash records and war stories. I didn’t realize it until his funeral, but he had never spoken of his service until that time. As I reflect on these conversations, each one focused on the same themes of honor, duty, and selflessness. He was patient, never given to bouts of anger, and consistently reminded me to treat everyone with kindness and respect no matter what they’d done. I learned these lessons through both his words and actions.
Once, when I was young, my family traveled to Kentucky for a family wedding. A cloud hung over the wedding because of a recent divorce that resulted in division and bitterness. My family was in full defense mode. That is, everyone but Grandpa. Before the ceremony, I saw him walk across the church to greet the person who was the object of my family’s anger and share in the joy of the moment. It was a shocking gesture of Christ-like forgiveness that made an impression I still carry with me today.
Barc’s life was very different, but made no less of an impact on me. Growing up in a small farming community in Northern Kentucky, his father was a hard man who struggled with alcoholism and eventually committed suicide. Like many children today, he lacked a good example of manliness and had to learn it on his own. Considering the circumstances, he did an amazing job, and passed on the lessons he struggled to learn to his grandchildren.
Papaw taught me about the value of hard work and the joy of doing a job with excellence. From early childhood until high school, I spent weeks each year working on the family farm with my cousins. The work was backbreaking, and I’d be lying if I said it was always fun. One cold winter, we woke early to tend to the cattle and discovered that a few had broken down a section of fence. Despite the inches of snow on the ground and bitter cold, we worked for hours chopping through the frozen ground to set new posts and string fresh barbed wire. By the time we were done, my feet were so cold that I couldn’t feel the ground beneath them. To this day, they still tingle in the winter. With each tingle I am reminded that doing the hard things well, whether it’s farming or slaving away in front of a computer screen, is one of the virtues that makes a man great.
My grandfathers would be horrified by the emerging cultural norms of entitlement, laziness, and pleasure seeking that Pajama Boy represents. The problems that America is facing today are not the fault of politicians in Washington, D.C. Rather; they are the result of the failure of men to be men. Instead of seeking true joy through living the values modeled by men like our grandfathers, we too often settle for a self-centered, fleeting brand of happiness that is destroying our families and our culture. Men, it’s time to take off the footie pajamas, put on a pair of boots and set to the hard work of loving God, our wives, and raising a generation that will look back on us with the same pride that we have when we think of our grandfathers. Lasting fulfilment lies in that.
- Manliness in America: Lessons From my Grandfathers - January 31, 2014