A former soldier explains the emotional vacancy of “the fatherless generation”
“Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say that we devise their misery. But they themselves — in their depravity — design grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.”
―Homer, The Odyssey
I don’t have the group picture from the day my dad visited my fraternity house at Oklahoma State University. It was awkward compared to the “Mom’s Day” photo we would snap a few months later. Not that it’s awkward to take pictures with my dad — we’re all smiles — but the “Dad’s Day” photo, which hung above my fraternity brother’s desk, along with a compilation of date party photos, looked anything but natural.
Each year, the university invites parents to spend a day with their kids. Most of us eat at one of the iconic Eskimo Joe’s restaurants, tailgate, and then head to a football game. Afterward, it’s off to the bars, or whatever late night event your parent can muster the energy for. Outside fraternity and sorority houses, you’ll find co-eds posing for group photos with dear old mom or dad.
The photos with the moms always turn out great. There we are, hugging mom or kissing her face. Everyone’s laughing and appears to be having a great time. If your mom made it out to the bar for a drink, like mine did, you’d introduce her to the girl you were interested in while acting part of the perfect gentlemen. Then you’d meet the mother of said-girl and your moms would screech about what a cute couple the two of you would make.
Dads were different. Like Saturn versus Earth different.
The group photos always seemed cold. There were some hugs happening, but they were those weird side hugs that Christians seem so fond of giving one another — the “keep some room for the Holy Spirit” variety. Everyone looks like a stoic philosopher; the smiles seem somewhat forced. When the dads came to the bar, they either became Frank the Tank or scanned the room like the Terminator. Most guys never introduced their dad to the girl they were interested in, either. Unlike my mom, my dad and I grabbed dinner and caught up before he had to leave. He had work the next day.
I’ve long wondered why the two photos turned out so opposite. Why did we suddenly look like “mama’s boys” when we so often tried to be “the man?” Why such a lack of intimacy with our fathers (and even our friends) when we seemed to be OK with it from our mothers?
Where’d You Learn to Be a “Man”?
The memory of the Dad’s Day picture has been nagging me, so I start questioning other men and my friends. At first my question was too complex: Who did you learn emotional intimacy from? Or do you feel you have any intimacy with male friends? Some guys laughed. Other stared and responded with something like, “WTF does that mean?” So I changed my question:
“Did your dad ever teach you how to be a man?”
The responses I’ve received range from learning how to change a tire or the oil in a car, or learning how to tie a tie. This made me think, if this is what qualifies as masculinity, we’re in deep ####. So I dug further.
“Did your dad ever talk to you about the mistakes he made in life? Was he vulnerable? Did he teach you how to date or romance a woman? How to pick healthy friends? Did he talk about sex, porn, or masturbation?”
It’s fascinating that in Judeo-Christian literature there’s an entire book of the Bible dedicated to teaching a son about money, friends, sex, adultery, making wise decisions, marriage, and business — the book of Proverbs, in case you’re wondering — but in America, the resounding answer I heard from men was, “No, my dad didn’t talk about those things.” If a father did talk about those issues, then it was usually one of those, “This is how sex works… good talk,” moments. But because we live in what I call a fatherless generation, Dad wasn’t often in the picture to begin with.
So where did we learn to become men?
The Influence of the Alpha Male
Most everyone who’s read Lord of the Flies remembers how a group of boys descend into barbarity, and can easily recall the moment where Piggy gets his brains smashed in. For most boys, growing up these days isn’t all that dissimilar. With no one teaching young men virtue, character, or responsibility, the alpha male emerges thinking he has some semblance of how the world works, and so the other boys follow his lead. Sometimes the alpha male lands that leadership position because he’s mimicking problematic behavior that’s been demonstrated by a bad father figure at home, which his friends may consider cool, since they don’t have positive male representation around them. Dad shows him porn, so he shows it to his friends, who then learn early on to objectify women. Dad talks about sports all the time and can tell you where every player on the Patriots played junior varsity football, so his alpha son gets his friends into sports and berates them for not having an encyclopedic knowledge. Dad talks about women with misogynistic overtones, so he and his friends mimic him and begin to talk that way too. Dad reminds his son that real men don’t cry. Real men act tough all the time. Real men get angry when insulted. Real men don’t show their emotions.
It doesn’t all come down to just one alpha’s influence, though. Many of these behaviors and ideas permeate young boys’ minds through things they’ve seen or heard in the media and online. The wolves teach the wolf pups how to become wolves. But we don’t run in packs anymore. We prefer to lone wolf it. Or if we do run in a pack, we never display weakness for fear we’ll be turned on and devoured.
It’s a lonely world when you don’t have friends you can have deep conversations with. It’s much more common to find yourself in male friendships where you can’t express your angst or pain without fear of being labeled a pussy. There’s no camaraderie. Aside from guys you grab drinks with after work or go to a sporting event with, the extent of your relationship is superficial. When you don’t know how to manage your emotions, you won’t know how to handle rejection, dating, fear, loneliness, or sadness — let alone anything else. Virtues like character, loyalty, love, humility, courage, and vulnerability are replaced with vices like anger, jealousy, vanity, and pride.
While men desperately crave emotional intimacy with other men, some of us have built up callouses so tough that even the notion of deep connection is considered effeminate. Instead, men lash out with deadly violence and dive head first into asynchronistic digital intimacy as opposed to real relationships.
Getting Bombed in Austin...
Every man can tell how many goats or sheep he possesses, but not how many friends.
— Marcus Tullius Cicero
When the package bombings that rocked Austin, Texas, made the news this past March, friends called to check and see if I was anywhere near the explosions. Once they learned I was fine, they asked if the bombings carried the markings of someone with military expertise, due to my combat experience.
All around Austin, fear ran rampant as rumors were passed as fact. Neighbors informed me that our area of town should expect to be hit next. I laughed at their misinformed panic, fueled by the fact that we love to believe what we want to hear — provided it lines up with what we already assume.
When I explained that the Austin bombings carried the mark of an amateur who probably learned from YouTube, the dark web, or a jihadi website, people then asked about motive. While everyone still seems to be searching for it — since bomber Mark Anthony Conditt’s confession video didn’t offer any definitive explanation — I think it’s right in front of our faces. The statement made about Conditt’s confession video by Austin police Chief Brian Manley explained that this was “the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.”
People were caught up in semantics after Manley’s statement, wanting to know whether the bomber was a terrorist or whether his motive was racially-based, since two of the victims were prominent members of Austin’s black community. I think the more simple truth is — like other men in our generation — Conditt was lonely, isolated, and bought into the view that men express anger and hurt through violence. As I stated in another piece, we’re dealing with a generation that no longer has the skills necessary to cope with hardship and adversity. People are chronically lonely even though they’re more connected than ever. Notice there are zero media reports in which they interview Conditt’s friends or past girlfriends, even. The only people in the interviews are old acquaintances from school or church. And don’t hold up the penalty card as if his dad provided sufficient care because he was raised in a religious home. Many times, religious homes can be the most emotionally vacant place for a young man.
A team of researchers at the John Hopkins School of Medicine set out on a 30-year study to find if a single related cause existed for five major issues: mental illness, hypertension, malignant tumors, coronary heart disease, and suicide. After studying 1,377 students over thirty years, the most prevalent single cause wasn’t what everyone thought. They found that the most significant predictor of these tragedies was a lack of closeness to the parents, especially the father.
The Warrior Poet
Late one evening I stumbled out of a dusty building like a drunk pirate not quite used to walking on land. My head was spinning from the news I had just received. I wanted to vomit and scream all at the same time. The Iraqi base I was stationed at in the middle of Ramadi remained still while the whirl of generators filled the night, my shuffling adding to the noise. Taking another step, I collapsed into the dirt and wept until my tears formed mud on my hands and face.
It would be my friend Greg who would find the shell of a man lying on the ground with a muddy, tear-streaked face.
“She’s leaving. She’s leaving… god, she’s really leaving,” is all I managed to get out while sobs racked my body.
Thirty minutes ago I’d gotten the devastating news about the end of my relationship back home. Iraq was a hard enough place to deal with anyway, but now the person I loved most was gone. Greg leaned me against his barrel-shaped chest and hugged me while I cried. What he said that night made all the difference.
“You’re not alone… and we’ll get through this together.”
Many view the military as the epitome or last great bastion of masculinity. Even English writer Samuel Johnson once remarked, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.” Each time men learn I served in the military and in combat, I often hear similar sentiments. “I wanted to enlist, but have a medical condition/parents wanted me to go to college/[insert reason here].” While many men (but not all) see the military as a mark of masculinity, what they fail to recognize or acknowledge is the deep and emotional bonding that occurs amongst soldiers. Instead they paint us solely as warriors and never poets with deep feelings.
Of the men I served with I can tell you about their life stories, fears, victories, relationships, and struggles. We’ve cried, hugged, laughed, and shared some of our deepest secrets with one another.
While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) gets lobbed around like a grenade in a china store as an explanation for why soldiers are killing themselves at an endemic rate, I believe the answer is much simpler. We’re lonely and lack the emotional intimacy we once had with our brothers in arms.
Those who ascribe to the toxic view that men should stifle their emotions are likely unaware of a soldier’s capacity to feel deeply — due in large part to the relationships we foster — and their possession of a so-called “effeminate” side.
Oh Fathers, Where Art Thou?
”The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”
— Plato, “The Republic”
As a child, I jumped off houses trying to mimic Superman. I microwaved spiders in an attempt to transform into Spiderman. Every stick was a sword. Apples became grenades. Crackers were carefully bitten into the shape of guns as my brother and I carried out invisible cracker wars with our snacks.
But I also drew and loved art. I sang in a choir. I played with Barbies. I wrote poetry and stories.
There is currently a two pronged assault on young boys.
We view roughhousing, playing with toy swords, and fake war as a sign that our boys will become psychopaths because of recent events.
Men falsely believe sensitivity and visible displays of emotions are signs of weakness.
This leaves a lot of young men growing up confused. We don’t engage in the healthy types of play we need to bond, and we don’t get the emotional connection we need from fathers or other men. This leaves men apathetic and indifferent when they feel they can be neither, and thus we retreat into our digital worlds of lethargy.
Today, many good men sit on the sidelines while evil continues to infect the masculine soul like a cancer. We’re not teaching young men virtue or character, but vice. We’re telling them, tamp down your feelings, but also don’t be too masculine because that’s bad. The internal warrior gets crushed, and the poet is labeled a sissy.
I’m not sure what the answer is to all this, but I know it begins with strong male figures “fathering” other men. It will take men of integrity who want to change our culture from within, not those who scream from their social media soapbox. Any change that happens will be built on the backs of one-on-one mentoring between men of character and their pupils lost and adrift in today’s culture.
It will take men of honor.
It will take courage in a world that promotes vice.
Only then can we create warrior poets.
Storyteller | Veteran | Metalhead | Designer |
"Bleeding on a page just makes it more authentic."