The Modern Male Ethos: Improving the Merits of the Heart

I had previously written about the frail condition of many modern men. Sexual misconduct, emotional weakness, and intellectual self-destruction have become the unfavorable hallmarks of a skewed male ethos. To recalibrate our slumping social position, I’ve set out to offer some notes on and examples from men of character and of history to increase our understanding of the ethos, or ethics, of a healthy manhood. My first post was about “Improving the Merits of the Mind,” for if a man is to be truly healthy, he must first develop and then maintain a healthy view of himself and then of the world. This, my second post, is quite possibly a natural extension of improving the merits of one’s mind, and that is improving the merits of one’s heart.

What is Heart?

Let me begin by defining what I do and do not mean by heart. I am not using the word heart in the traditional sense; I am not talking about feelings, passions, or emotions. Simply improving one’s sentimentality or embracing some suppressed emotional side is both cliché and superficial. The majority of men (and I am including myself in all of this) are not the stereotypical stoic who lives emotionless like Dirty Harry or Mr. Spock. Many wish they were, or even pretend they are, but they are not. On the contrary, men are already incredibly emotional (just ask my wife how theatrical I get when the Chiefs play). The problem lies not in a lack of male emotions but in the unhealthy methods in which men often express their emotions. So, when I say men need to improve the merits of the heart, I am not speaking about mere feelings. There is a discussion to be had about the healthy expression of feelings, but this is not it.

Instead, when I say there needs to be a concerted effort towards improving the merits of the heart, what I am really referring to is character. Now, I acknowledge that I could have simply said, “men need to improve their character,” but I find that a worthy heart is an extension of a worthy character. Therefore, to improve one is to improve the other— they are intimately connected— and I don’t want to lose the intimacy of this connection by referring to character alone. To illustrate, when a man (or woman) chooses to act excellently or ethically (and we are talking about improving our collective male ethic) that act is often rooted in an excellent or ethical character. Heart, then, isn’t simply an organ or a feeling, it is one of the virtuous qualities that finds its development (or lack thereof) in character. Thus, a man with a weak heart will typically have a weak character; conversely, a man with a strong heart will inevitably have a strong character— and men of character and of heart are what our world needs more of.

Big Hearts on the Big Screen

A specific example of a character-fueled heart is found in the 1993 film Rudy, one of my favorite sports movies. It told the story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger and his repeated efforts to walk on to the University of Notre Dame’s football team. Rudy was small, weak, and lacking, but through a determined heart, Rudy played in one regular season game. He was involved in only three plays in that game, one of which was a quarterback sack. Regardless, it was Rudy’s tenacity and steadfast heart that won him the respect of the athletic world and the privilege of being only the second person in Notre Dame’s storied history to be carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates. There have been other protagonists on film that left an imprint on my memory because they, too, possessed exceptional heart: Sheriff John T. Chance in Rio Bravo; Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge Over the River Kwai; Rocky Balboa in the Rocky films; Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator; and my all-time favorite, William Wallace in Braveheart. While many of these fictional personalities, like real people, had their flaws, their character to persevere, which was often forged by personal hardship, fed their indomitable heart. It’s one of the reasons guys like movies such as these; we admire and respect, as we should, men with courage, grit, and heart.

Building Character

In order to improve the merits of our own heart, we must improve our character, and improving our character requires, like anything else, practice. Unfortunately, character does not come easy. In fact, it has been said that “character is forged on the anvil of adversity”— a proverb that is well documented in fiction and non-fiction alike. This is why not all men have character; for not all men have suffered. In fact, adversity is something our culture works very hard to insulate itself from. Modern mantras like “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” which I hear from my 20-something college students quite frequently, express the common social code. The easy road, the corner cut, and the path of least resistance is not only preferred, it’s promoted.

As might be expected, the easy road does not build character; it spoils character and replaces it with social, intellectual, and emotional impotence. I would even venture to say that many of the problems that plague men (e.g. sexual misconduct, emotional weakness, and intellectual self-destruction) are due, in a large part, to the fact that far too many of us have it far too easy. We are used to getting what we want, when we want it; and when women, work, circumstances, or life in general tell us “no,” we have a hard time dealing with it. So we cheat, steal, lie, and take the easy road to reach the satisfaction we so desperately desire.

Another proverb I’ve read illustrates this: “Hard times create strong men; strong men create good times; good times create weak men; weak men create hard times.” Modern America is the play ground for good times (and rightfully so, I love this country)! However, it is also the breeding ground for weak men. This is why our collective reputation has fallen on hard times. But if the cycle of the aforementioned proverb is true, then strong men are on the horizon— if not already among us.

In the Same Vein as Great Men

Truth, integrity, diligence, determination, magnanimity and the like are the instruments that build one’s character and, as a result, strengthen the cords of the heart. I personally love to study the men of history, who were laid upon the anvil of adversity, forged the character to endure, developed the heart to serve and sacrifice for those around them, and left an example for my son and I to follow. Men like Maximilian Kolb, King David, John “Casey” Jones, Arland Williams, Jesus Christ, Ulysses S. Grant, Oskar Schindler, Martin Luther King Jr., Miki Endo, Nelson Mandela, and my favorite, Abraham Lincoln, help inspire and instruct my heart. Some of these men are household names, some are not; some sacrificed their lives for others, some simply sacrificed time and energy. All found themselves in a moment or in a life that required more than that of the average man, and through a strong heart they answered that call. They are all worthy of imitation, for they practiced the virtues which I previously spoke of— the sort of virtues that manhood requires. The essential point, however, is that they practiced them.

Great men, of fiction or of history, understood something I have said before: character matters— as does heart. Some may say that heart can’t be taught, but I disagree. Once a person learns to withstand the anvil of adversity, something that can be taught, character accrues. That character then becomes the bedrock of a burgeoning heart, and I don’t know of a quality that is more “manly” than a man with a big heart. My father, who died when I was only a boy, had a big heart. He was humble and soft-spoken, much like Abraham Lincoln was, but he had character. I am told by my family that my dad was loved and respected because of the quality of his character. All men want to be loved and respected, but like everything else important in life, it must be earned.

The Value of Sacrifice

It goes without saying that nothing worth having has ever come easy. Anything of great value in my own life has come only as a result of sacrifice. Sacrifice is the required cost of greatness; this is a universal principle. One cannot gain something of value without giving up something else of value. Educational degrees are earned at the sacrifice of freedom. Freedom is earned at the sacrifice of the soldier. The soldier’s life is earned at the sacrifice of the civilian’s. Likewise, the character and the heart of a man, for soldier and civilian alike, is earned at the sacrifice of the primrose path; the soft path makes for the soft man, but the formidable path makes for a formidable man. It’s only then, when a man has developed a Rudy-like or a Rocky-like heart, that his value to himself and the world increases.

We can see this hard-earned value in the world of precious metal and gems: pearls earn their full potential only with time; gold earns its full worth only when it has been refined by fire; and diamonds earn their value only when they’ve been exposed to constant pressure. Time, fire, and pressure increase the worth of man and material alike.

Men with Strong Hearts

Once men improve their character, it will improve the merits of their heart. A stout character won’t allow for a weak heart; rather, a stout character compels a strong heart. Men with strong hearts protect the weak; they don’t prey on them. Men with strong hearts are selfless; they are not selfish. Men with strong hearts accept responsibilities; they don’t avoid them. Men with strong hearts, coupled with a strong mind, fortify the condition not only of themselves but others around them. If men are to recoup our slumping social position, regain an improved collective ethos, and recalibrate the definition of individual excellence, it ends and begins with our own minds and our own hearts. I’ll offer one more article on the modern male ethos in the future. Until then, I will end with words of Will Durant from his 1926 book, The Story of Philosophy. Durant summarizes Aristotle saying, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Men need to develop the habit of being excellent in both mind and heart. Otherwise, if we repeatedly resort to impotence, perniciousness, and villainy when we are laid upon anvil of adversity, then impotent, pernicious, and villainous men is all we will ever be.

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