Counter-cultural response needed for 'self-made man' myth

By Paul Mitchell

Western culture is slowly ridding itself of the damaging effects of centuries of patriarchy. And in that process, there are many myths to be dismantled. One that has for a long time infected men’s self-image is the myth of the “self-made” man.

There will be some who doubt it’s a myth. While many businessmen who have dominated companies and boardrooms inherit their wealth, prestige and power from family, others, like Bill Gates, seem to be truly “self-made”, rising from humble backgrounds to financial peaks.

But as English-Canadian social commentator Malcolm Gladwell documents in his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, so-called “self-made” men never deserve the label. Gladwell shows that “outlier” success stories are always the result of a confluence of accidents of history, opportunities given and received at the right time, and significant social and family supports.

There is no such thing as a self-made man, and yet the myth persists. And its over-riding emphasis, that men stoically working hard and taking control of every situation is the height of masculinity, permeates male consciousness. We have been taught to take it as a given that these men are the real men. They are even more manly than those men who’ve inherited their wealth, power and prestige. Below these two ranks of men come the plodders, those who go about their jobs and lives knowing they don’t quite meet the mark.

Given Jesus died a criminal on a cross and St Paul said “in my weakness I am strong”, it should be obvious to Christian men that this vision of masculinity is damaging. But followers of Jesus find it as difficult to be “Christ-made men” as might a self-made man. We are just as infected by the idea that we need be in control, strong and clear about our purpose and direction. Yet, as Franciscan Fr Richard Rohr points out in his book, Breathing Underwater, dealing thus with failures that come our way, which Rohr says are meant for our spiritual growth, is a recipe for spiritual disaster:

“Self-made people, and all heroic spiritualities, will try to manufacture an even stronger self by willpower and determination – to put them back in charge and seeming control. Usually most people admire this, not realising the unbending, sometimes proud, and eventually rigid personality that will be the long-term result … Eventually, the game is unsustainable, unless you make others, even your whole family, pay the price for your own aggression and self-assertion – which is the common pattern.”

It’s instructive that Rohr names the problem as being one for “self-made” people. But men may recognise themselves more in his final two sentences about making families pay for aggression and self-assertion. And this begs the question of how much the harmful masculinity in our culture, that leads to male-perpetrated family violence, results from men needing to be in control and self-made.

Jesus spoke of his path being the narrow one. As we try to follow him more closely, the narrowness of that path compared to the one the rest of society follows becomes clearer. Men can often mouth the words “in my weakness I am strong” – as long as we’re not weak for long, and we’re back in control as soon as possible. Truly admitting we’re not in control of our lives? Well, hey, that’s for addicts, for those who’ve lost control. But, alas, no. In the same way Jesus actually meant we’re supposed to love our enemies and do good to them, he and the saints that followed actually meant we’re supposed to give up the idea we’re in control of our lives.

That is absolutely counter-cultural. And, speaking as I am here about men, even in this era of slowly changing masculinity, giving up control of our lives and destinies appears “counter-masculine”. Any man who has tried it knows it’s also painful. Men, including Christian men, look at our peers and compare ourselves, in body, achievements, wealth and power. We know we shouldn’t, but we do. We see other men “in control of their lives” – high-powered jobs, financial success, seemingly perfect families festooned on social media – and we don’t measure up.

Still, if we listen to the quiet voice of the Spirit, we know in its depths and ours that what we see is not the narrow way. We have to let go of control, not for a moment, but forever. We have to trust ourselves and our destinies to Christ, allow ourselves to be “Christ-made”. As Rohr says again, that can feel like stepping from a high bridge into nothing. But it is in that scary place of nothing, of not being in control, that God meets us, moulds us and finally becomes us. Christ-made men.

Paul Mitchell is a Melbourne poet, fiction writer and essayist. His PhD in English included a novel, We. Are. Family., and thesis that dealt with contemporary Australian masculinities in Australian literature.