Restoring Young Men to ManhoodAug 16, 2022
By almost any measure, the breakdown of sexual morality in the Post-Christian West is nothing short of catastrophic. Although it began with the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, its intellectual antecedents were evident long before that. It seduces the uninformed and innocent through the false promise that sexual licentiousness offers personal emancipation. At its core lies a new anthropology, a new vision and understanding of who and what man is, that distorts and subverts the received wisdom that has shaped generations past. Young men in particular are in the line of fire.(1)
Many young men today are suffering from a hidden affliction that the Sexual Revolution has foisted upon them, most through addictions to pornography and self-abuse.(2) People old enough to remember the advent of this cultural shift have first hand knowledge of the cultural rot that has ensued from it. The young are not so lucky. Their coming of age occurs amidst the decline, and in the innocence and inexperience of youth, they believe that the way things are is the way they have always been.
These addictions – all entailing a slavery to human passions and vice – are ruthless taskmasters that foster a great deal of suffering in a young man’s life. They are primary causes of the “failure to launch” that afflicts many young men today. They block healthy maturation by closing off the natural pathways that are necessary for masculine self-confidence and creativity. A young man almost always has the native – Godcreated and Godgiven – desire to flourish. But he faces a great deal of frustration and anguish when he discovers that the road to flourishing seems closed off to him by his vices. Moreover, he has no real idea how to wrestle himself free of them or even worse, believes that freedom is not even possible.
The lie that holds men back is the promise that sexual license is the pathway to personal emancipation. The lie has power because the new anthropology posits that sexual feelings are a primary constituent through which a man defines who he is. As a result, that necessary journey into self-knowledge and healthy manhood that should begin in adolescence and needs to be guided throughout the teen-age years gets off to a very shaky start. Many men end up stuck there.
Ask any priest who hears the confessions of young men and he will tell you that almost all boys are deeply affected by our moral collapse. Adolescence is an awakening to the world in stages, but instead of facing and conquering the challenges a boy normally faces in the course of his teen-age years, the frustrations mount and are relieved through self-abuse. The easy availability of pornography make this dysfunctional self-therapy more frequent because it makes arousal easier. It doesn’t take long before the responses are habituated and healthy maturation is thwarted.
Although pornography is often seen as the culprit in the breakdown, dealing with the pornography alone won’t solve the problem. Pornography functions as a self-abuse accelerant, as a means to foster arousal, and thus it is not the source or cause of the habituation. Programs that focus solely on pornography consumption alone don’t speak to the core of the problem and will in most cases fail.
The lie is what holds the young man in captivity. Man is not defined by his desires. Sexual desire, in other words, is not a primary constituent of what makes us human, what defines the “who” of who we are. Man is called to higher things, and these higher things are often expressed in terms of aspirations that define what a man desires to achieve; they point towards the road on which he should walk.
So what happens to the young afflicted with these vices? How does it affect their maturation and development? What counsel should be given to the young and what must they do to flourish?
The Approach to Healing
The key anthropological insight by which healing can begin is this: All desire, even inordinate desire, is ultimately grounded in the soul’s desire for communion with God. “Inordinate desire” is of course initially defined by the commandments that serve as the first sign-posts, the preliminary indicator that reveals something is amiss, that some behaviors are sinful.
The commandments are necessarily juridical, a conscription of behavior. These behavioral prohibitions, however, must be properly understood. Fundamentally they have an ontological character because they also bring into focus the desire that drives the sinful behavior and reveals it as being disordered. Healing then, is not understood solely as obedience to the commandment (a reduction that that sees healing as little more than behavior modification) but as an inner reorientation.
One of things that compels young men to seek healing is the deep feelings of dissipation, of a soul-crushing weakness, that they experience through the sin of self-abuse. When they hear that the struggle against the vice may also entail increasing self-knowledge and self-confidence as well as growth into stable, mature, and creative manhood, they are willing to take up the challenge. Indeed, many even seek it out.
It works like this. Sexual energy is primarily a creative energy. The sexual drive is given by God and it is good, and its primary end is the creation of new life. The energy is also a unitive force that when exercised brings the body, mind, and soul into a singular focus.
Properly understood then, sexual energy is a creative energy that courses through a person in ways that imply order and purpose. Proper order here is defined by the commandments, through moral proscriptions although the proscriptions, while a useful metric in some situations, can’t reach into ontology, into the places where desire is grounded. The violations of the proscriptions, in other words, reveal the disordered desire but offer no means for the re-ordering – the redemption and restoration – of the desire that fosters deeper self-integration and health. For the young men struggling with pornography and self-abuse then, the goal is to shift the sexual energy into the proper ordering.
It begins with understanding who and what a man is. Men find themselves in work. Work is how a man expresses himself, where his creative prowess is actualized and made concrete. Men build skyscrapers and bridges and businesses. They fight wars. They yearn for strength and accomplishment. They coach baseball teams, write books, fix cars, and fly helicopters. Men differ from women in that it is in their nature to create things outside of themselves, using their bodies to make and do things. (Women may indeed do this as well, but their primary concern lies within. Men, however, must do this if they are to fully realize their manhood.)
But work requires ascetic discipline, and when discipline is applied in overcoming this sexual vice, one of the first things a man experiences is a flush of creative energy. That energy, which used to be dissipated through self-abuse, needs to be directed, to be channeled; otherwise the young man will fall into frustration and the cycle continues. It is not enough to say he needs to work. The mentor may need to teach him how to work, how to apply himself, how to overcome things that led to the frustrations that led to the dissipation.
Almost all young men who struggle with pornography consumption and self-abuse started at a very young age, some as young as eleven years old. For many the cycle of consumption and dissipation has become habituated, a way of dealing with stress and frustration that has unfortunately blocked maturation in different areas of their life. Most often the blockages deal with self-knowledge and self-confidence. They don’t know what they were put on this world to do and they don’t know how to figure that out. It leads to a self-perpetuating cycle of frustration and release that undermines the courage and confidence the young man needs to develop into the strong man he yearns to become.
These broken young men are the detritus of Sexual Revolution whose proponents promised freedom but instead brought enslavement. In addition, there are ancillary behaviors that perpetuate their interior dysfunction, video games being one of them. Boys who have lost their way into manhood escape into a virtual world. That world can feel as real as the concrete world but it is still a substitute world and cannot make up for what is lost. One of the first things most young men do who authentically embrace the struggle is get rid of their video games. It’s the same with drugs. If the young man is to succeed, the marijuana has got to go.
A Praxis of Healing
The depth and power of the potential transformation in a young man’s life once he embarks on the path of healing should not be underestimated, even though it sometimes occurs in fits and starts. When a man commits to the ascetic discipline necessary to break the grip of the vice, several things happen. First his thinking sharpens. Purifying the heart makes for a sharper mind (we call it “gaining clarity”) that makes focusing his intellectual powers easier. A mind that was often scattered by simple anxieties and other distractions becomes easier to direct.
Second, the moral logic of the commandments becomes internalized and their rationale becomes self-evident. The ascetic discipline coupled with the proper channeling of the energy it releases is actually an awakening of the nous, the internal faculty of illumined seeing through which the true nature of things is revealed. When this happens (and it is a concrete event, an experiential, internal illumination), a choice can be made whether to walk in this newness of life or return to the more familiar patterns of sin. Most choose the new life. If they fall, repentance is always available and often quick.
Third, it becomes abundantly clear to any mentor or spiritual father helping young men on this road of healing that the men have no greater advocate than the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. No one desires their healing more than Christ. The prayers for them are answered quickly and the opportunities for flourishing are abundant. The blessings are manifold and reveal the Lord’s great love for them. To the mentor they reveal that the forces that contributed to their brokenness and that sought to keep them enslaved come from the depths of hell.
The healing begins with the deliberate effort to curb the pornography consumption and self-abuse it fosters. This is difficult at first but what the young man has to see that the connection between temptation and sin is often reflexive. There are usually many years of habituation that needs to be undone and while the man has learned through bitter experience that he cannot defeat the vice by will power alone, his will (volition) has to be directed somewhere simply because healing is not automatic. Resisting the sin is self-evident, of course, but what he does not know is how to deal with both the chronological and interior spaces that open up when he begins to resist. For this he needs a mentor or spiritual father because these spaces are where the healing takes place.
The chronological space needs to be filled with a more ordered life. The energy previously dissipated in self-abuse will come rushing back and it has to be directed somewhere. With young men in particular, goals need to be set and tasks defined. He needs to clean up his room or apartment, create a to-do list, strive to perform better in school or at work, all the things necessary for increased personal success. This will give the energy a new outlet, consonant with his native skills and aspirations, that creates progress in his vocation, whatever it may be.
The interior space that opens needs discipline as well. That includes establishing a prayer rule, confession, and all the other basics necessary for sound growth. He will experience conflict once he starts this path because the things that have impeded his maturation, the things that directed his sexual energy into the inordinate behavior, begin to surface. He comes to see that his habituated behaviors started as ways to ameliorate pain, trauma, boredom, insecurities, whatever the case may be (it usually is a mixture of things), and until he deals with these issues the habit will not be broken and he will remain stagnant. The guidance a qualified mentor or spiritual father can provide is of much help here.
The union of the exterior and interior life deepens as the young man experiences healing. As he begins to define and fullfil his vocation, the relationship between maintaining interior clarity and his flourishing becomes clearer and deeper fidelity and obedience to God is the result. This begins within the relationship established between the young man and his mentor. The mentor directs him to God by teaching him how to pray, encouraging his activity in the Church and other activities alongside the practical advice he gives about working in the world. The mentor must keep in mind that he teaching the young man so that one day the young man can teach others just as the mentor was once taught.
It is important to note that what drives the desire to be healed is to be free of the emasculation and all its variants that the sexual dissipation incites – insecurity, aimlessness, irritability, diminished energy, lack of focus and drive, among others. Self-abuse robs him of manly self-confidence (he may sense this but not always see the direct connection) because self-abuse is the dissipation of masculine creative energy. That’s why the healing of this vice requires that both the exterior and interior components work hand in hand.
Shame enters in, of course, but the best way to deal with that is to assure the young man that a lot of men have struggled with this sin and overcome it. But again, the victory and the self-assurance that success fosters rests not so much in a celebration in overcoming the vice, but in experiencing the increase in masculine self-identity and self-confidence, in building the bridge or skyscraper, in creating something good and enduring, all in ways that complement the particular man’s native gifts and abilities. The confidence comes through accomplishment, by learning what he was put into this world to do and by doing it. Shame dissolves when the struggle is approached in this way.
Moreover, the therapy that takes place in the man’s interior spaces need not be long or involved. Most of the time it is not necessary to go into any deep analysis of the past. Psychological analysis can have informational value, but it has no real transformative power. Rather, simply becoming aware of how past experiences shaped the dysfunctional patterns of thinking is enough to weaken their grip. The transformation comes in the change of behavior, of saying no to what has been a habitual yes. Again, that’s why the interior therapy must be linked into exterior accomplishment. Once that success occurs and the flush of masculine self-confidence is experienced, the old patterns of thinking are more easily abandoned, because strength vanquishes the numbing weakness of dissipation.
Accountability is necessary. Accountability, however, is more than a confession of temptation or fall (although it can be that). Accountability requires a trust between men that teaches the younger how to become a man. For that reason the mentor to the young man has to be male. A woman cannot meet these masculine needs. Accountability structures can vary from a simple text message to internet filters such as “Covenant Eyes.” Approaches will differ depending on the person.
Fatherhood, Manhood, and God
For the mentor or spiritual father, to watch a young man grow into self-knowledge, to guide him on the path he was created to walk, to see him develop into the man that God created him to be may be one of the most rewarding tasks a man can undertake. It is more blessed to give than to receive, St. Paul teaches, and the mentor often receives much more than he gives as he guides a young man into manhood. One learns how deep and boundless the love of God truly is.
For many young men the absence of a father who could model healthy manhood contributed to their confusion. Add to this the generalized assault on the male that metastasized out of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. Young men assimilate these attitudes largely through cultural osmosis and a part of their healing requires that the flawed anthropology of such ideologies as radical feminism and homosexualism be addressed as well.
Restoration and redemption occurs in the relationship between the mentor or spiritual father and the young man. In a very real sense the relationship that was missing in childhood, the relationship that otherwise could have directed him away from the pitfalls that tripped him up, is to some extent replaced, so that he can finally get on his feet. It is grounded, of course, in the Fatherhood of God who desires that all men come to the knowledge of the truth. Much of that knowledge is gained and expressed experientially, so that as a man comes to know himself, he will also come to know God, and as a man comes to know God he will also come to know himself.
1. Pornography, a particularly toxic affliction for young men, is becoming normalized. See my article published in the Minneapolis Star and Tribune: "Pornography is an affliction for young men. And it's been mainstreamed. It comes from the depths of hell to destroy their characters before they can grow into a healthy sense of who they are." http://www.startribune.com/pornography-is-an-affliction-for-young-men-and-it-s-been-mainstreamed/413461753/
- I use the term “self-abuse” instead of the more clinical term “masturbation” because the latter implies a behaviorist understanding that mutes the relational dimension necessary for healing.
Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse
An excerpt from the book: Healing Humanity
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