What It Means to be a Man Today: The Essentials of Manhood

As I wrapped up my last blog post about men being the canaries in the coal mine I reference Sam Keen and his book  Fire in the Belly:  On Being a Man. In it Keen lays out four simple steps that we must do in order to continue to live on a planet that is conducive to human life.  I’ve found that to heal the Earth, we need to heal ourselves.  We might, then, describe what men need to do as follows:

  • Our new male vocation is to heal ourselves.
  • To heal ourselves, we must learn to love ourselves.
  • To love ourselves, we must get to know ourselves.
  • To know ourselves, we must get more deeply in touch with ourselves.

When I think of what makes me a man, there is no simple formula and there’s no description that applies to all men.  There are, however, some things worth saying about what it means to be a man today.  I suggest we explore the following basics to get us started.

  1.  Male cells all carry an XY chromosome.
  2.  Males make millions of tiny sperm, but only one is chosen.
  3.  Males compete with other males for access to attractive mates.
  4.  Males are attracted to youth and beauty.
  5.  Males have higher levels of testosterone.
  6.  Males have unique types of brains.
  7.  Males are naturally more vulnerable.

Let’s look at each of these aspects of maleness in more depth.  Each one can help us get in touch with who we really are, so that we can know ourselves better, love ourselves more completely, and become the healthy, joyous people we are meant to be.

XY:  It’s a Male Thing

All human cells, other than mature red blood cells, possess a nucleus which contains the genetic material (DNA) arranged into 46 chromosomes, themselves grouped into 23 pairs.  In 22 pairs, both members are essentially identical, one deriving from the individual’s mother, the other from the father.  The 23rd pair is different.  While in females this pair has two like chromosomes called “X,” in males it comprises one “X” and one “Y,” two very dissimilar chromosomes. It is these chromosome differences which determine sex.  That’s the good news about the Y chromosome.  If we didn’t have it we would all be females.

However, the bad news is that the Y is very short compared to the X with which it is paired.  Until quite recently it was believed that the Y chromosome was becoming ever shorter and some felt that it might lose function all together.  However, a 40-strong team of researchers led by Dr. David Page of the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found that the Y chromosome is much more important than scientists once believed.

As well as having a previously unknown and elaborate back-up system for self-repair, the Y chromosome also carries 78 genes, almost double the previously known tally, the researchers reported.  “The Y chromosome is a hall of mirrors,” says Page, whose team has for the first time identified the full genetic sequence of a Y chromosome, from an anonymous donor.

The team believes the Y has developed an apparently unique way of pairing up with itself. They found that many of its 50 million DNA “letters” occur in sequences known as palindromes. Like their grammatical counterparts, these sequences of letters read the same forward as backward but are arranged in opposite directions – like a mirror image – on both strands of the DNA double helix. This means that a back-up copy of each of the genes they contain occurs at each end of the sequence.  When the DNA divides during reproduction, the team believes, it opens an opportunity for genes to be shuffled or swapped and faulty copies to be deleted.

Take Home Learning:  At core of my being, I’m a self-healing palindrome (I love that word).  The essence of my healing is within me.  As the poet Robert Bly reminds us, males need to be in the company of other males (including ourselves) in order to “hear the sound that male cells sing.”  Every cell in our bodies sings a beautiful male song.

Sperm are From Men

Biologists have a very simple and useful definition of what is male and what is female, whether we are fish, ferns, or human beings.  An individual can either make many small gametes (sex cells) or fewer but larger gametes.  The individuals that produce smaller gametes are called “males” and the ones that produce larger gametes are called “females.”  Although the human egg is microscopic, it is large enough to house 250,000 sperm.

The small gametes are designed to fuse with a large one, and the large ones are designed to fuse with a small one.  The female strategy produces gametes that are large, and have a high rate of survival and fertilization.  The male strategy is to produce as many as possible, to increase the chances of finding a large one.  About 400 eggs are ovulated in a woman’s lifetime.  A healthy male produces 500 million sperm per day.

An individual must either invest in a few large eggs or in millions of sperm.  Thus, there will always be many times more sperm than there are eggs.  Consequently, sperm must compete for access to those rare eggs.

Take Home Learning:  Competition starts early in my life.  Only one sperm is destined to fertilize that precious egg.  My daily 500 million sperm output gives me a tendency to believe that “more is better,” but the one successful sperm reminds me to take care of myself so my “sperm guys” have the best chance to succeed.

“The cellular imbalance is at the center of maleness,” says geneticist Dr. Steve Jones.  “It confers on males a simpler sex life than their partners, together with a host of incidental idiosyncrasies, from more suicide, cancer and billionaires to rather less hair on the top of the head.”

Males Compete and Must Be Chosen

Generally it is easier to move the smaller sperm to the larger egg than vice versa, and so it is the male that seeks out the female and the female who makes the selection from those males that come courting.  “Males are in flux in almost every way:  in how they look and how they behave, of course,” says Jones, “but, more important, in how they are made.   From the greenest of algae to the most blue-blooded of aristocrats their restless state hints at an endless race in which males pursue but females escape.”

All guys know the experience of pursuing someone we’d like to mate with and always running the risk of being turned down.  I still can break into anxious sweats remembering being the ungainly kid in junior high walking across the room to ask a girl to dance, being rejected, and having to walk back to my seat feeling the eyes of everyone looking at me and imagining that they are thinking, “Loser, Loser, Loser.”

Whether we are gay or straight, if we’re male we have the experience of pursuing and having to be chosen.  Generally, we are rejected more often than we succeed.

Take Home Learning:  For a lot of my life, I’ve fantasized being so successful that I would never have to worry about being rejected.  I would never need to pursue a woman and put my balls on the line.  I could just sit back and let the beautiful women come to me.  But the truth is if I want something in life, or if I want that special someone, I’m going to have to get off my butt and go after them.  I may be rejected, probably will be, but I have to remind myself that “no” does not mean I’m a loser.  It means maybe later, try again.  Or maybe it means I’m not for you, move on.

Stay tuned to next week’s post where we’ll jump into the final four essentials. In the meantime, I’d love to get your input by sharing a comment or question below. You can also join the conversation on twitter @MenAliveNow

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  1. very true. what can women do to help men deal with these issues?

  2. Dianne, Thanks. I think what women can do is to learn about who we are in all our magnificence and love and appreciate us for all sides of ourselves, the light, the dark, and the confusing. I suspect this is what women want as well.

  3. Regarding “Males compete and must be chosen:” This point got me thinking about the many strategies we develop in order to win our targeted “prize.” The macho strategy is most obvious. Become an alpha male, get seen, admired, be the most obvious, the leader of the pack. But even in apes, another winning strategy is being the “nice guy,” the one who doesn’t compete, but hangs around the females and is sensitive to their needs. In apes, these guys get a lot of sex when the Alpha isn’t looking, or is busy elsewhere. There are plenty of males who opt out of the game, and enter the world of the mind (the nerds), and others who use their testosterone to win at other games – from videogames to academic games. From the original Greek Olympics, we’ve taken competition into every area of life, and Reality Shows on TV are popular examples. Then, we must account for all those who take the drop-out-completely strategy, giving up on all competition and living lives of quiet desperation. Thanks for stimulating these thoughts, Jed.