048: Initiating Five Sons, with Paul Ryan [podcast]

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


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In The Road to Character David 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.


Note: In our conversation we reference Healing the Masculine Soul by Gordon Dalbey.

 

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The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono

The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono

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.

The Road To Character, by David Brooks

The Road To Character by David Brooks

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 Characterhe 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.”

 

The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer

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.