It was 21 years ago, but I remember the interaction like it was yesterday.
I was in the home of a mentor, and he and I were talking in the kitchen while two of his boys played in the adjoining room.
A few minutes into our conversation, a conflict arose between the boys. And in the blink of an eye, as sometimes happens in the glorious fellowship of boys, the older son laid a couple of solid knocks on his younger brother. Immediately, I turned to their dad to see how he was going to respond. And the way he did blew my mind.
Having observed the whole thing out of the corner of his eye, their father caught my eye and signaled a pause in our conversation. Then, he went over to the son who had taken the swings at his younger brother.
Calmly kneeling before him, my friend looked directly in the eyes of his son and slowly said this:
“Son, God has made you strong for a reason. I love your strength. I see your strength. But do you think God made you strong to hurt or to help your brother?”
It was a sacred moment that continues to reverberate with instruction for me decades later.
Instead of only addressing his son’s behavior, my friend dropped below to the level of the heart. He validated his son’s strength and then appealed to his son’s own understanding of his strength, directing him to consider for himself God’s intentions for his strength. Rather than moving against his son and exacerbating the atmosphere of battle, my friend chose to calm himself first, then harness his own adult strength in order to move toward his son in love.
Much was at stake, in the boy’s heart and also in mine.
As we have explored in previous resources, understanding our styles of relating (first given visibility through Karen Horney) has been powerful to help me and many grow in awareness of our own impact as well as curiosity about how to move from reactivity toward integrated responsiveness in my relationships.
And as I engage this work, it is in the realm of parenting that I am feeling both the exposure of where I still operate with dysfunctional styles of relating and also the power of applying the material for truer connection with God, myself, and my children.
I was recently interviewed by Paul Edwards on the topic of the Styles of Relating applied in the realm of parenting. He has graciously made the audio of his podcast available for the Become Good Soil fellowship. I hope you enjoy.
The masculine initiation can often be characterized not as a series of high achievements,
but rather as a series of humiliations of the false self.
Within the span of a single month last year, the world lost too many really good men. A few were elders; their crossing over was filled with sorrow but also with joy. As Paul taught regarding the life of David, these elders had fulfilled God’s sacred purpose in their generation and now awaited the restoration of all things (Acts 13:36).
But at least one man was cut short of his time.
Years ago, I reached out to thank Jason for his contribution to my initiation; that connection planted seeds of a friendship. Last year, he took his own life. It broke my heart.
When I received the news of his death, I was shocked. I sat stone-still for several moments, watching specks of dust shimmer in the winter light cascading through our southern windows. Then, as my shock turned to pain, I knew I had to get outside. Though it was cold, I found a patch of earth tucked in from the wind, and with the sun on my face, I fell apart.
I can’t remember the last time I couldn’t hold it together. I’ve become long accustomed to soldiering up and doing hard things. I’ve been rewarded for it for decades. Yet on that day, something in me finally broke open.
There was much to process. The terrible loss of Jason’s life. The excruciating pain his wife and two young children will have to endure. The gaping hole left in the world from his death.
But there was something else.
And in the belief that sharing in vulnerability strengthens our community, I want to share the picture that came to me: it was a vision of my own funeral. Or better said, a vision of the funeral of a version of the man I have become and who I’m afraid will have the final word on my story.
In this scene, I saw the faces of those closest to me: my daughter, my son, and my wife. All the other faces were out of view. I sensed that someone was speaking words—offering a eulogy regarding the impact of my life. And then the picture shifted to a grave marker and the epitaph carved upon it:
The words were alarming, yet so very true of an aspect of the man I have become. I let them find their way into me, again and again…
He came through,
proudly and anxiously,
for many and much,
at the expense of
who and what mattered most.
I know this man inside of me. I’ve lived with him all my life. I’ve served him, strengthened him, matured him, and demanded that his effort provide me some version of peace, safety, and validation.
And he has let me down.
That afternoon, I wept over the death of Jason. But I also wept over the man I have, in part, become, a man who anxiously and proudly comes through for many and much at the expense of who and what matters most.
It was then that the Father kindly and confidently reminded me that this anxious, proud, self-sufficient man is not the only truth. There is another man alive in me as well: a less mature but more true man.
There is a true man within me who is being initiated by a Good Father and has set his heart on things above, not on the things of the world’s system. A man in me who loves who and what he sees in the mirror. A man who is growing in his capacity to receive God’s love and to love God and others as himself in the overflow of that love.
Both men are within me.
And the question I have is this: which man will have the final word on my life?
Almost two millennia ago, the apostle Paul articulated this crux of the human experience: we have two selves within us, both contending for primacy.
As I continued to reflect, I realized I had come to another fork in the narrow road of the masculine journey. It is my choice. There are two men within me with very different motives, different fuels, different destinations, and different relationships.
And there are two potential epitaphs.
Which one will ring true at the end of my life?
In the weeks that followed, I asked other trusted, like-hearted men this question:
How about you? Who is the impostor within? What would be the epitaph for your false self?
Each courageously took time to form his own version of an epitaph for his self-life. And with their blessing, I have shared some of them below:
He finally made it happen.
He reached the goal.
He pushed through every obstacle, including the ones he loved.
He left an indelible mark…on his couch.
He was smarter and better than everyone else.
He was untouchable, able to push everyone away to not get hurt again.
He died rich and alone and empty inside.
He pursued the self-life and got results,
but they were never enough.
Never good enough and quite frustrating,
Even infuriating, below the water line.
Maybe the results impressed some from a distance, but never those who mattered.
A costly game he played…
He always felt care for his heart was synonymous with selfishness.
He was paralyzed to step into the octagon in times of need.
Unfathered orphans and a broken widow are his legacy.
Well done, indeed.
Who described the frontier of God’s grace
Only from his view at the fenceline.
He was a Diamond travel member,
Promoted every decade,
Made double-digit moves across the country,
but ignored his elderly Dad,
Held unforgiveness tight on his heart
and brought revenge for those who crossed him.
He was distracted, never present, on his phone.
He loved with condition, ignored the present, and his famous last words were, “I don’t have time. Maybe someday.”
His wife thought she married a man, but learned later he was but a boy.
He rushed and hurried and stayed busy, because he prized relevance over Reverence.
He graduated with honors from the “Nice Guy Academy.”
Master Illusionist – He had it all in control
Here lies an orphan
Never trusted anyone
Strove to “make it happen” by himself
Angry, afraid, alone
A successful man who relentlessly fought the man he knew he could become
Bully, baby, git
Nobody liked him.
He tore the skin off his own hands
To win the approval and applause of those he didn’t know,
Whilst neglecting those he should have loved.
He earned his way.
He was right.
At the expense of relationships he said were dear to him.
He died all alone.
(If you’re viewing on a computer, here is the video of the grave marker collective.)
Here is the good news: the epitaph that describes our false self need not be the final word over our lives. There is another way. The way of apprenticeship to Jesus, the way of pervasive inner transformation.
Instead of denying the reality of the two selves who vie for our allegiance, the Kingdom of God places our hidden inner world on center stage. The Spirit of Jesus teaches us that God’s love comes to expose the false self in order resurrect the true.
As Paul wrote to the followers of Christ in Ephesus, “But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light” (Eph. 5:13 NLT). Through bringing our false selves into the light of God’s love, God transforms them from sources of shame to sources of strength, markers of orientation along the ancient path of recovering the True Man within.
David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, shares candidly his own version of the false self at work with him:
“I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality. I’ve also become more aware that, like many people these days, I have lived a life of vague moral aspirations—vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger purpose, while lacking a concrete moral vocabulary, a clear understanding of how to live a rich inner life, or even a clear knowledge of how character is developed and depth is achieved.”
He goes onto to explain,
“We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life. The competition to succeed and win admiration is so fierce that it becomes all-consuming. The consumer marketplace encourages us to live by a utilitarian calculus, to satisfy our desires and lose sight of the stakes involved in everyday decisions. The noise of fast and shallow communications makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from the depths. We master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.”
Brooks suggests that “resumé virtues” may contribute to short-term success, but eulogy virtues are the ones that matter in the long run. “They’re virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”
Here are a few questions that might help you take another step along the narrow road:
Who is the man in you that is no longer working?
What is on his epitaph?
What do you observe about his energy, his motive, his fears, his goals?
Take the time to write out his epitaph.
Then consider, What is the next step for you? How is the Father beckoning you to crucify this false self? How is Father calling forth the true man God meant when he meant you?
And finally, what would you love the epitaph to be for your True Self? In a few words or sentences, what description of your impact would mean the world to you?
Entering the Kingdom means receiving the invitation to the with-God life and entering a grace-fueled process of taking off the old self and becoming the New Man in the spirit and nature of Jesus, our brother. It’s a prevailing story of inner transformation and deepening access to and union with a life, a source, and a person beyond ourselves. Receiving this new way of being human frees us from being at the center of our own story and gives us a safe place to mature in love. It invites us to mature in the life-giving perspective that the life of the Creator of creation is alive and well, is authoring and perfecting a story, and has destined a unique place and sacred purpose in our participation.
In time, I saw two men and two epitaphs. These two men, the false man within me and the true man, have different motives, different fuels, different destinations, and very different relationships. And seeing them both so clearly, I realized I had come to another fork in the narrow road of the masculine journey. It is my choice. Will the epitaph that described my false self be the pronouncement at the end of my days, the summation of who I was and what I offered? Or will it be said that I was a man who resolved day by day and decade by decade to put the self-life to death in order that the true man, connected to God, could rise and live a life of loving and being loved?
Could I become the kind of man who says yes to a few things that matter most, to live a life that makes his wife proud to call him husband and his kids proud to call him dad?
Will I choose to crucify the energies of self-saving, self-sufficiency, and self-deception in order to receive the intimate resurrection life of Christ acting with me to respond to God’s initiation and learn his heart and his Kingdom as he truly is?
For the Kingdom,
“Every moment we make in response to God has a ripple effect, touching family, neighbors, friends, community.” – Eugene Petersen, The Message
(1) music bed in epitaph video provided graciously by the Pattersons.
Though it is rare, there are people who have built a strong inner character, who have achieved a certain depth. In these people, at the end of this struggle, the climb to success has surrendered to the struggle to deepen the soul. -David Brooks, The Road to Character
In The Road to CharacterDavid Brooks explains the crooked timber tradition, an ancient way of understanding human nature. The crooked timber tradition holds two facets of the human person in stable tension: humans have a genuine capacity for goodness and greatness (the timber); and, there are grains within each of us that are inherently “crooked” and must be addressed. If something beautiful, good, and true is to be constructed from a person’s life, the inner “bentness” must be corrected through an intentional process of pervasive inner transformation. In the mission and message of Become Good Soil, we have come to call this traveling the ancient road.
Brooks intimately scrutinizes key historical figures whose lives exuded a particularly generative power, illustrating how each of these uniquely transformative men and women consciously devoted themselves to an ongoing process of personal reformation. Through his study, Brooks distills this universal theme: “You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside of yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.”
How rare it is to sit with a man who has traveled this crooked timber way, a man who reckons honestly with our God-given capacity to participate with God’s life and offer genuine strength for the sake his Kingdom, and also continually confronts the bent places within. How much rarer it is to lean into a man who has not only been initiated himself, but has also invested much of his strength to initiate five sons over the course of more than two decades. (This video is an example, a glimpse into one of the many initiation stories of Paul’s son Aaron.) Simply put, we are initiated as we initiate others.
Paul Ryan is this kind of man.
As part of the living legend series, I had the privilege to host an initiation conversation with Paul, a Become Good Soil mentor who serves as Director for Ellel Ministries in Australia, and more importantly is husband of Joanne and father to five sons and a radiant daughter.
Join us as we dive deep, excavating another layer of masculine initiation.
The story of Elzéard Bouffier, The Man Who Planted Trees, lives in the top five most influential books I’ve ever read, or, better said, immersed myself in. This book slows me down, not just my pace, but my breathing and heart rate as well. It evokes longing and opens up a landscape of soul that defies words. Written in France in 1953, this narrative distills dimensions of the Gospel for the heart of a man to their most simple and breathtaking form. Story is the language of the heart; the greatest truths, those that invite us to be both formed and forged over decades, are often hidden in parables like this. The Man Who Planted Trees stands on its own merit as one of the great exemplars of restored masculinity operating in wisdom’s long view. It’s a book you can pass along to a like-hearted king whose heart burns to become who he was made to be.
Amazon Description: Elzéard Bouffier spent his life planting one hundred acorns a day in a desolate, barren section of Provence in the south of France. The result was a total transformation of the landscape—from one devoid of life, with miserable, contentious inhabitants, to one filled with the scent of flowers, the songs of birds, and fresh, flowing water.
Reading David Brooks is like becoming acquainted with a long lost brother whose heart beats with the same hunger for the restoration of men and women. Though his inquiry is powerfully intellectual, historical, and even philosophical (which makes sense—he is a prolific writer for the New York Times), the sincerity of his quest for personal restoration shines through as well; he is a man who has descended through his own initiation. Through his personal reckoning, he’s become a trustworthy guide and steady clarifying voice. His personal reflections on love and his distilled insight into the texture of humility are without a doubt some of the most helpful guidance I’ve ever absorbed. Devoted to truth-telling, he offers biographical sketches of ten historical figures without minimizing either the strengths or weakness of their character. He presents penetrating narratives of multifaceted people, all of whom bear the image of God and all of whom pass through deeply personal struggles and afflictions. Brooks demonstrates how over time each person matures through failure to become the kind of man or woman whose life has a generative impact that continues to this day. This book is a must for your collection of stories, heroes, and guideposts on the path to becoming whole and holy.
Amazon Description: With the wisdom, humor, curiosity, and sharp insights that have brought millions of readers to his New York Times column and his previous bestsellers, David Brooks has consistently illuminated our daily lives in surprising and original ways. In The Social Animal, he explored the neuroscience of human connection and how we can flourish together. Now, in The Road to Character, he focuses on the deeper values that should inform our lives.
Looking to some of the world’s greatest thinkers and inspiring leaders, Brooks explores how, through internal struggle and a sense of their own limitations, they have built a strong inner character. Labor activist Frances Perkins understood the need to suppress parts of herself so that she could be an instrument in a larger cause. Dwight Eisenhower organized his life not around impulsive self-expression but considered self-restraint. Dorothy Day, a devout Catholic convert and champion of the poor, learned as a young woman the vocabulary of simplicity and surrender. Civil rights pioneers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin learned reticence and the logic of self-discipline, the need to distrust oneself even while waging a noble crusade.
Blending psychology, politics, spirituality, and confessional, The Road to Character provides an opportunity for us to rethink our priorities and strive to build rich inner lives marked by humility and moral depth.
“Joy,” David Brooks writes, “is a byproduct experienced by people who are aiming for something else. But it comes.”
It’s rare I find myself laughing out loud and crying in the same chapter of a book. It’s even more rare that I go to Amazon and order every book written by an author, before I’ve even finished reading his first. J.R. Moehringer is that kind of writer. Few authors have taken me more vividly into the dignity and depravity of the human experience, while leaving room for the process of coming to informed conclusions over time. This is life. And there is nothing like a great story of masculine initiation to access the ache and longing over the same themes in our own story. J.R. was raised in a bar, in the company of messy men. If seeds of desire to respond to God’s initiation are rooted deeply in our hearts, especially through the failures, the parables and personalities J.R. narrates can help us find our way toward true north.
Amazon Description: The New York Times bestseller and one of the 100 Most Notable Books of 2005. In the tradition of This Boy’s Life and The Liar’s Club, a raucous, poignant, luminously written memoir about a boy striving to become a man, and his romance with a bar.
J.R. Moehringer grew up captivated by a voice. It was the voice of his father, a New York City disc jockey who vanished before J.R. spoke his first word. Sitting on the stoop, pressing an ear to the radio, J.R. would strain to hear in that plummy baritone the secrets of masculinity and identity. Though J.R.’s mother was his world, his rock, he craved something more, something faintly and hauntingly audible only in The Voice.
At eight years old, suddenly unable to find The Voice on the radio, J.R. turned in desperation to the bar on the corner, where he found a rousing chorus of new voices. The alphas along the bar—including J.R.’s Uncle Charlie, a Humphrey Bogart look-alike; Colt, a Yogi Bear sound-alike; and Joey D, a softhearted brawler—took J.R. to the beach, to ballgames, and ultimately into their circle. They taught J.R., tended him, and provided a kind of fathering-by-committee. Torn between the stirring example of his mother and the lurid romance of the bar, J.R. tried to forge a self somewhere in the center. But when it was time for J.R. to leave home, the bar became an increasingly seductive sanctuary, a place to return and regroup during his picaresque journeys. Time and again the bar offered shelter from failure, rejection, heartbreak—and eventually from reality.
In the grand tradition of landmark memoirs, The Tender Bar is suspenseful, wrenching, and achingly funny. A classic American story of self-invention and escape, of the fierce love between a single mother and an only son, it’s also a moving portrait of one boy’s struggle to become a man, and an unforgettable depiction of how men remain, at heart, lost boys.