Perusing local news, we see recent stories of brawling young lads at Smith’s … young lads walking quite unwisely across ice at Ashley Pond. I couldn’t help but remember my own days of teenage male youthfulness—the testosterone-fueled drives of pride and combativeness in young males, which so easily turns to rage—something seen throughout the animal kingdom.
Young men typically have feelings of inadequacy due to yet-unproven manhood and the longing to remedy such perceived deficiency—mine own exacerbated by tales of courage at grandfather’s knee of the horrendous trials overcome in battle-riven trenches of early 20th century France. Young men wooing danger to prove manhood is as old as humanity itself; we need only look at coming-of-age rites for boys around the world. Youth wear out many a guardian angel.
After the latest spate of shootings, we saw a fair amount of condemnation in some circles of so-called “toxic masculinity” … some proclaiming masculinity itself as destructive. Yet, that same “toxic masculinity” provides so much drive to defend family and nations, protect the weak, run into burning buildings, charge terrorists on trains and planes, challenge armed criminals, and work countless hours—often in thankless and back-breaking jobs—to support the family. Courageous service is by no means limited to men alone, but such fortitude and courage is certainly a characteristic for which the majority of men long to achieve.
The lumping together of all persons of a certain inherent characteristic into a moral category because of the behavior of a few (even of many) is, of course, quite unjust. Just when one thinks that society if finally coming to grips with the injustice of profiling, it shows itself again. Yes, there can be a “toxic masculinity”, and there can be a “toxic femininity”, but not because of masculinity or femininity in themselves, but rather by how the individual uses his/her gifts—just as any tool can be used to good or evil purpose.
I was re-reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (one of his most readable, and still quite applicable) in which he writes of the concept of virtue, which he describes as often the mean—the middle ground—between two vices (called the “Golden Mean”, though Aristotle himself doesn’t use the term). Courage, for instance, he describes as the mean between cowardice and recklessness; friendliness, the mean between grouchiness and obsequiousness (servile fawning). When one considers the thousands of years that have passed between Aristotle and today, it’s interesting how the perception of the quality of such things has remained essentially unchanged—across time … across cultures—indicating their timelessness.
In any discussion of ethics the central question is: What is the “good”? Thousands of years of philosophical and religious thought on the subject could hardly fit a newspaper column, even if one had the knowledge to effect such a condensation, but we can simply surmise in summary, I think, that the “good” is that which is beneficial and not harmful—taking degree of good and harm into account.
We are the products of both physiology and environment. Physiology we pretty much have to deal with as best we can—the emotional rage common in youthful men, for example. But forewarned is forearmed, and through reason we can recognize our weaknesses and adjust our behavior according to virtue—the good and beneficial.
Our environment—that to which we are exposed—we can definitely modify, to seek things of virtue and which elevate good rather than evil, because constant exposure to either forms judgment and behavior—“we are what we eat”, so to speak. How many adages are there that speak of this? “Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas.” “You know who you are by the company you keep.” Even St. Paul writes: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” (1 Corinthians 15:33)
Youth are especially susceptible to this as they form their nascent self-identity, for in their (very natural) desire for independence, self-assertion, self-determination and recognition they often rebel and stray to that which is counter to norms of society and which is NOT beneficial, even to themselves … whether it be substance abuse, sexual license, blatant disrespect/disregard of elders and authority, etc.—common sense notwithstanding.
And, thus, the importance of providing our young people with outlets and opportunities for real (and non-destructive) challenge and excellence—all the while balancing these against personal inclination and capacity (some parents tell me that kids are TOO busy, constantly running from event to event, and often destructive behavior is their last avenue of some self-determination). But always—and essentially—all with mind of cultivating real excellence … the truly beneficial foundational and cardinal (“hinge”) virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude—summarized in Jesus’ admonition: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Because whatever success or recognition one achieves in life, it will not be a good life without virtue. It is moral makeup, virtue and the degree of mastery of oneself, which largely determine the goodness of each life.
Many youth—in that desire for self-assertion and recognition—will unfortunately default to the easy path of vice and criminality, believing that “daring” and rebellion in and of themselves are worthy of note and praise. Hopefully they eventually recognize the futility of that road; sadly, many do not.
Youth will always do foolish and dangerous things to prove themselves and to build self-confidence. We their elders can only advise and give them good and wise example … with constant prayers for their safety, exhorting them to those words of St. Paul: “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)