The Impossible Paradox of Real Masculinity Jonathan Jackson

Aside from being a five-time Emmy Award winning actor — who’s currently starring on ABC’s ‘Nashville’ — and being the frontman of the band Jonathan Jackson + Enation, Jonathan Jackson is also a kind and compassionate human who is helping redefine what being a man is in today’s culture. I recently asked several of my favorite men what true masculinity looks like in our modern world. Their answers, and especially Jonathan’s, were too good not to share. Read his thoughts below, or download the entire eBook at NoisetradeHope they help! 

– Mike Zeller, Creator of Resurrecting the Modern Gentleman & Founder of TRIM Fashion

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Let’s say you have a football player who is extremely strong and tough physically. On the field, he has a war-like mentality. And yet off the field, this particular person is fearful of confrontation. Or perhaps he lacks integrity.

Now imagine another another man who is an accountant. He sits behind a desk and he’s not very physically domineering. Small shoulders. No swagger. No attributes that would cause anyone to say ‘wow.’ And yet that accountant is not afraid to have healthy confrontation with people. He’s trustworthy, and can be depended upon to do what he says he’s going to do. He is brave, conscientious and disciplined.

Based on that information, which of these two is more of a man? Is it the football player who does great athletic things on the field, but is timid and untrustworthy? Or is it the accountant, who is not necessarily very impressive to look at, but very impressive to know?

THE PARADOX OF MASCULINITY 

I don’t like dualistic ideas, because dualistic ideas so rarely exist in reality. It’s rarely one or the other. Things aren’t strong or weak. People aren’t good or bad. There is tension. There is paradox. The same is true with masculinity. Masculinity does have to do with strength, but it’s a strength that exists in paradox. The most important part of masculinity isn’t our physical strength, it’s our character strength. And character strength isn’t necessarily easy to quantify or even identify unless you know what you’re looking for.

Take vulnerability, for example. On the surface, many men think vulnerability is weakness. Being honest about what hurts you and letting people into your insecurities feels shameful. When we start feeling vulnerable, we tend to grow defensive or angry because we think that’s what strength looks like.

“Only a truly strong man knows how to be vulnerable.” 

But that’s dualistic thinking. The reality is that vulnerability is a kind of weakness, but it takes a lot of strength to achieve it. It’s easy to be angry and defensive. Only a truly strong man knows how to be vulnerable. There are more examples. Some men can be extremely sensitive and compassionate and, contrary to popular opinion, that is strength. In the Bible, Jesus compared himself to a mother hen. He displayed great sensitivity, emotion and empathy. He had a motherly heart. But few people would deny that Jesus was strong.

This is why it’s important not to draw hard, fast lines sometimes when you’re dealing with ideas of strength.

A DEEPER MASCULINITY 

The trouble comes from living in a society focused on aesthetics. We tend to think of masculinity in terms of tangibility—like a macho, domineering presence.
It’s not that physicality has nothing to do with manhood. It does. We’re physical creatures. But strength is not primarily an external thing. It’s a mindset. It has to do with the soul.

Now we’re talking about some very deep mysteries. The mystery of what it means to be a man is part of what it means to be human. And the mystery leads right to man and woman being created in the image of God.

Our identity comes from our closeness to who God is. Although God is incomprehensible and unknowable in His essence, He has made himself knowable through His activity in the world; through His spirit. And most profoundly, He’s made himself known through the incarnation of His son—where the unknowable made Himself visible.

To put it very simply, it’s as if God said Jesus is what manhood is. Jesus Christ is what it is to be a man.

THE ICON OF HUMANITY 

So, when we look at the life of Jesus, what do we see?

You see somebody who was persecuted and attacked, but never retaliated. That’s convicting. Even heartbreaking, at times. If someone is attacking me and I have the instinct to retaliate, I’m violating the image of Christ. In Jesus, you see patience, compassion and conviction. He wasn’t a pushover, but he was gentle. He mastered one of the most difficult things about being a man in society: having the discernment to know when to portray what kind of strength.

Humility is a kind of strength. Turning the cheek is a kind of strength. Speaking the truth in love is a kind of strength. And, yes, defending others is a kind of strength too. Real wisdom and maturity is knowing when and how to exercise what strength.

THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE 

Since going against our natural tendencies doesn’t come easily, there are a few simple life choices you can make to help foster your strength. Character is built in the same way physical muscles are—regular use. And, like physical exercise, you’ll start seeing results once you start disciplining yourself.

Real wisdom and maturity is knowing when and how to exercise what strength. 

The most important thing is prayer… Prayer is extremely important—maybe even more important than you think it is. It creates the space and the atmosphere to actually relate to God. It’s more than just throwing your thoughts out into the sky. Prayer includes listening to God. It’s a place of communion that helps us stay in touch with our hearts. Another thing you can do is experience good art.

Music is a beautiful way of connecting with your emotional life. It’s a universal language. We hear the groanings of humanity through music in a way we can’t always express. Great storytelling like movies and books can accomplish the same thing. Real and powerful films will open up your heart in a way that puts you in touch with something that you may have forgotten or need to be reminded of. It’s a beautiful way for people to connect with a deeper, inner life.

Finally, learn to be honest with yourself. That’s a main emphasis in the life of somebody who’s attempting to follow Christ: a focus on self honesty and repentance. It’s very hard and it’s a daily battle, but it’s the only way to be vulnerable. At first, it will feel like weakness. It will involve confessing that you can’t do it all alone and that you don’t have the strength for every challenge we meet. But this is all part of the paradox of true masculinity. As God told Saint Paul, “my power is made perfect in your weakness.”

We’re actually supposed to boast in our weakness instead of our strength. It’s all part of the paradox.

– Jonathan Jackson

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Photo by Travis Shinn.