Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What Defines a Man?

From television shows and movies, to magazine and newspaper articles, to songs and commercial jingles, the way men are characterized varies widely. Some portray man as one who is found outdoors, more comfortable communing with nature than with someone else. Others paint him as the tireless adventure seeker, living on the edge, weekend after weekend, pursuing the next do-or-die exploit. Still others see him as refined and suave, a man for all seasons, fluent in Romance languages, Mediterranean liqueurs, and exotic ladies.

It's my opinion manhood is not defined by whether or not a guy can shoot, field dress, and spit roast his dinner or if he appreciates the nuance between a salad fork and a tuning fork. Nor is knowledge or physical prowess sufficient in themselves to pass muster into true manliness.

For me a man is defined by strength -- not the power of his muscles, but the quality of his character.

This comes through in many ways. One way is that he will speak for those without a voice. History, both ancient and modern, has had its fill of brutes that have oppressed and bullied people without cause. In these instances, true men have often stood tall, giving voice to the tormented and maligned. Today a man can stand strong and give voice to those without one.

A man is one whose word is his bond. That word is not lightly given, but when it is, it can be counted on. It's also, on closer inspection, offered sincerely and with an eye to its fairness in respect to all involved. Legion are those who have filled their coffers at the expense of others, ignoring both contract and conscience to get what they want -- no matter who gets bulldozed in the process. In these instances, it's easy -- when covering one's derriere -- to shift blame, deflect responsibility, and spin statements. A man who does not keep his word is, in my opinion, not a man. A man is a person whose words and actions are one and the same.

A man takes responsibility. If mistakes were made, a man steps up and says, "I did it. How can I make it right?" A man is not ashamed to show and share his emotions. When a friend dies, he weeps. When his daughter is born, he can't help but be enthusiastic.

Being a man is many things, but many of those things are not what the world would have us believe. Millions of boys and young men are adrift in a stew of popular culture that thrives on diluting godly characterizations of men for any squirrely substitute or mass-marketable image it can come up with. And, sad to say, when the men in their lives abandon them -- as is all too frequent the case -- the images of popular culture are often all those left behind are left with.

Boys need men who are secure in what it means to be a man. They need role models, mentors, teachers, guides -- call it what you want -- boys need men to learn how to be one.

Can you be that man for someone else?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Madness of March

March Madness kicks off with the first round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship Tournament today in Dayton, Ohio. Sixty-eight college teams will begin the tournament with the goal of playing in Arlington, Texas, for the Championship on April 7. March Madness is not just a time for players and coaches; it's a time for everyone to become an expert as they fill out their brackets.

From boardrooms to break rooms, grade schools to colleges and beyond, people will be watching the results of each game as they compete in their bracket challenges. With players from 68 teams, coaches, cheerleaders, support staff, and fans, there are thousands of people involved in the annual "Big Dance." The air is electric in these games, as a spirit of intense competition mixes with heartfelt university pride. Together they produce a high-octane enthusiasm that ignites stadiums, restaurants, pubs and living rooms across America.

Bracket challenges have taught me a few lessons I can take forward in life:

1. Anything's possible. Underdog teams have won the Championship before. Said another way, even something highly unlikely can occur. To me that's encouraging. It means no matter what I'm attempting, there's a chance I just might succeed.

2. Sometimes sentiment can get in the way. I have a friend who once picked the winners in every game, except for the Championship. He chose the team from his own state, and then lost. His brain said one thing; his heart said another. Sometimes I need to listen to my brain.

3. There is no perfect system. Some complete their brackets by grinding over stats; some choose schools by their mascots; others decide by the color of players' uniforms. There have been times (probably many) when those choosing teams based on criteria not involving stats have outperformed their stat-conscious rivals. There are times I must follow instincts.

All of this is to say 1) shoot for the moon; you just might hit it. When you're heading there, 2) keep your head in the game. If you actually do hit it, 3) see if it was your calculations or your instincts that got you there.

Good luck and God bless!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lessons Learned on Long Car Trips

Maybe it was a four-state junket to attend college, or packing up the kids on a 15-hour journey to grandma's house, or just a bunch of friends in search of spring break beaches, but we all have our memories of long car trips. The longest I've travelled in one stretch was a 20-hour marathon from Flint, Michigan, to Denver, stopping only for gas and rest stops.

Sometimes the length of the trip has nothing to do with the time it takes to get there. I once sat in a traffic jam for more than 14 hours behind two large trucks that had collided on a snow-covered bridge. We had to wait until crews could clear the wreckage before we could move. I ended up driving 150 miles in just under 18 hours -- not a good rate of speed.

Miles and time are only two determinants that make for a long car trip. Others factors include number of kids in the car, inconvenient bathroom requests, travelers prone to car sickness, backed-up traffic, and unexpected breakdowns -- all these can lead to road trips we'd like to forget.

But no matter what the reason for a long trip, I have learned a few lessons along the way:

1. Go with the flow. Whether it's traffic or life, if I keep up with those around me and don't stress about getting ahead, the road is made easier.

2. Accept the inevitable. There will always be two trucks passing each other on a long, uphill grade that slows down traffic, and there will always be those obstacles in life we can't control. It's just better to lay off the horn, slow down, and enjoy the ride.

3. If you gotta go, you better stop. No matter how close the next rest stop is, it's better to stop sooner than later. This is especially true when travelling with children and pets. On the road of life I've learned it's better to take a break than press onward unnecessarily. Your car's brakes are there for a reason.

4. Slow down in hazardous conditions. Ice, sleet, snow, rain, fog and smoke all make driving hazardous. It's better to slow down than rush forward into an accident. In life it is inevitable a little rain will fall, so consider slowing down and not rushing into bad decisions.

5. Turn down the volume. There are times on a trip I want to drive in silence. This quiet time gives me pause to think and pray. Sometimes in life I need to unplug and tune out too, so I can settle my mind and think or pray.

Long road trips are like life in general. They're full of things to see, filled with unexpected twists and turns, and reminders that, sooner or later, we're all going to run out of gas.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Camouflaged Wisdom

We've all heard them and may have even vowed to never say them. It's even possible we promised if anyone around us said them we'd likely disavow their friendship. Yet, each of us in a moment of frustration or weakness has probably professed them, at least once or twice. And what are these things we have sought to avoid uttering at all costs? They're those clichéd words of homespun wisdom we unwittingly inherited from our parents and others.

One version of a fairly commonplace saying handed down from generation to generation is this: "If your buddy jumped off a cliff, does that mean you would too?" Now if in days gone by you answered in the affirmative to this query (either because yeah, you would jump off a cliff or because you wanted to be a smart aleck), you probably found out such a reply wasn't in your best interest.

On the other hand, such a question did get you to thinking about 1) seeing something from a different angle and 2) whether it was just dumb allegiance that led you to blindly follow the herd.

It should come as no surprise then that these timeworn phrases have a ring of truth to them, a hidden gem of real wisdom. The fact they're handed down shows they still possess some punch (i.e. educational value). I didn't appreciate that nuance much growing up, but since I've entered adulthood -- and have found myself using a few of these nuggets on occasion -- I better understand they're staying power.

The point here is that wisdom, however it presents itself to us, makes good building blocks for constructing a practical and sensible life. I found this out again not too long ago when wisdom arrived -- from of all places - the mouth of my mechanic. You see, I told him I thought I could save a few bucks by holding off on the new brake pads he recommended, at least for a while. Upon dispensing this pearl of spending restraint, he told me I could indeed wait a while, adding that to do so might require additional work and expense on the brake drum. "You can pay me now, or you can pay me double later. It's up to you."

As my car was rising on the lift I again appreciated the presence of wisdom in its many forms.