July 11, 2011:
While watching a movie last night, my desire to be in the special forces got reawakened. I don’t want to kill for any government but instead give life for the government of God, doing so in the manner of the elite teams:
- going behind enemy lines before conventional forces arrive
- being highly and specially trained
- using unconventional methods
- moving on when conventional forces arrive
- working with and training indigenous civilians
- blending in with civilians
- subverting the enemy instead of openly attacking
- using specialized weapons and strategies
We humans are amazingly adept at creating compensatory psychological mechanisms. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been plagued with feelings of cowardice, weakness, and unmanliness. To compensate, I gravitated toward several of our culture’s stereotypical lifestyle choices of the ‘macho’ man, like hunting, weightlifting, and an interest in the military. This was done unconsciously to convince myself and others that I actually belonged in my gender role. I learned to shoot a gun and kill defenseless creatures (I never enjoyed the killing but did love being in the woods). I started lifting weights at age 12 and still do from time to time, but I’m not someone who can gain a lot of muscle. For so long I pushed myself to extremes, trying to change my body into the idealized image of the macho man. I’ve been so unkind and unloving toward my body. And it never did change.
In my later teenage years, I grew interested in the special operations branches of the military – this despite, or maybe because, I was raised in the non-resistant Mennonite church. The Navy SEALS, Army Delta, Air Force Search & Rescue, etc. – my admiration for these guys burned like hot lava in my chest. There was and still is a little boy’s suffocating heart inside me that yearns to be acknowledged as the heart of a Man and welcomed into the company of Men. What these elite soldiers seem to have was what I desperately longed for: brotherhood and camaraderie, mutual respect and the respect of others, fearsomeness and lethal effectiveness, the support of superiors who believed in them and invested in them, muscular bodies and unbreakable minds, important missions…the list goes on. To many a young man, these commandos embody the very ideal of manhood. Even though I knew instinctively that there were many more ways to be a man than this, my needy false self also knew what kinds of attributes would get me attention I craved without fail.
When I joined Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL, my private self-narrative was very much modeled on the special forces. I styled myself as a kind of Christian commando, a bad-ass missionary who could elicit much adoration wherever I went. Just before meeting my wife and accepting the job in Uganda, I was telling God that I wanted to be sent to the most difficult assignment our organization had to offer. And true to the military analogy, I was actually thinking of Iraq or Afghanistan. I remember the feelings of superiority and entitlement inspired by my militaristic confabulation. When people responded to me with appropriate awe, I took it as a matter of course. And when they ignored me, I first pouted and then looked for the next, more extreme expression of my fragile grandiosity. Being a missionary is what elite Christians do. Being a Bible translator is what elite missionaries do. And going to godforsaken wilderness tribes is what elite Bible translators do. Right?
Young men seeking glory! They are often vain but may accomplish great things.
With a lot of help, I got some pretty cool junk done myself, like building two houses in one of the remotest outposts of Uganda and publishing nearly 1500 peer-reviewed pages on the Ik language. My drive for glory pushed me to extremes. But because to do this I had to ignore so many other integral parts of my inner being, the winning streak had to run out.
Still, we had a fantastic run, Amber and I.
It’s time to expand our notion of manliness and masculinity. There are plenty of super manly men around. They are astounding, and I am in awe of them. We need them. But so many of us men are not like that. We are different kinds of men but still men.