It’s a Hard-Knock Life: Suffering and Manhood

September 28, 2020 Updated: September 28, 2020

“Life is difficult.

“This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

Those first two paragraphs from M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled” hit me like a punch when I first read them long ago. I already knew life was difficult—I was 33 years old with a wife, an infant daughter, a new business, and a boatload of debt—but those two paragraphs allowed me an escape from fear and discouragement. From that point on, I made a mantra of “life is difficult,” and though my circumstances from then until now have brought challenges, Peck’s five magical sentences have frequently helped me conquer misfortune, take action, fulfill my responsibilities, and keep moving forward.  

Lost Boys

Many men and women enter adulthood blind to the idea that struggle and troubles are as natural a part of life as breathing, but males in particular suffer the consequences of that ignorance. Lacking fathers or good mentors, confused by the shifting definitions of manhood, addicted to diversions like drinking, drugs, online pornography, or video games, and sometimes coddled by helicopter parents, they slip into their 20s without a clue that “life is difficult.”

Statistics support this observation. Over 10 times the number of males are in prison compared to females, three times as many men as women commit suicide, and males are far more likely than females to use illicit drugs. The average age of marriage for men is now close to 30—it was 22.5 years in 1970—and marriage itself is in decline. 

This prolonged adolescence of our young men is a relatively new phenomenon. Two years ago, when I was trekking through the 11 volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Story of Civilization,” I was struck again and again by the youth of so many men when they first mounted the public stage. In American history, the same holds true. George Washington was leading military expeditions against the French at age 21; John Adams entered Harvard College at 16; and Andrew Jackson was 14 when he was captured by British forces during the American Revolution and nearly died in a prison camp. These men and others came of age in a world that taught them early on that life could be brutal and harsh, and that they had to man up and tackle tribulations if they were to prevail.

Today’s material advantages have shielded some of our young men from the trials faced by their ancestors and so have prohibited both their growth and ambition, allowing them to shamble through their 20s and even into their 30s as if they were still teenagers, focused on themselves, playing video games every night, partying away with friends, and finding themselves stunned when life throws a hook and knocks them to the canvas. 

Grownups

On the other hand, many young men I know became responsible adults early on. Let me introduce you to a few of them.

James, age 35, is a successful attorney in North Carolina, married, and the father of seven children, six of whom are adopted. Mike, 40, is the director of maintenance and a geometry teacher at a small private school in Pennsylvania, married, and the father of seven. Jonathan, 32, is a successful salesman for a computer software company, married, and the father of four children under six years of age; he and his wife also flip houses and own a dozen rental properties here in Front Royal, Virginia. A 25-year-old college graduate in my town, Jeremy, taught himself how to build websites, owns a company that performs that task, and is married with two children and a third on the way. A neighbor, Sam, whom I mentioned in an earlier article, is married with two children, earns his living as an independent contractor, and heads out every weekday morning before sunrise to begin his work.

So what sets these men and others I know apart from some of their contemporaries?

First, they have wives and children, and take their family duties seriously. Married shortly after graduation from college or while in their mid-20s, each of them stepped up to become both breadwinners and leaders in their families. And like all grownups, they have faced and overcome roadblocks and disappointments in their quest for success. 

Moreover, none of these men look for handouts or a free ride. They take their work seriously, and unlike some, they recognize the maxim of Jamestown’s John Smith: “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” They understand they must produce on a daily basis the income necessary for the support of their wives and children.

Finally, they take pride in their work. Like a lot of men I’ve met in my lifetime, they give each task they undertake their best effort, aware that if they cheat others, they are in truth robbing themselves of their own human dignity. 

Exemplars

So how are such men made? They don’t just pop up as full-blown grownups like those ancient mythic warriors who sprouted from dragons’ teeth in the soil of Colchis. Where do they come from? How did they learn early on M. Scott Peck’s great truth?

The ones I know grew up in a household with a mother, a father, and several siblings. Most attended church, and their parents stressed the importance of education and hard work. By word and deed, their parents, relatives, mentors, and teachers served as figures of emulation for them.

A Boy Scout leader and a beloved basketball coach, for example, mentored Jeremy. Mike, who attended the school where he now works, often tells stories of the priests and teachers in that institution whose influence shaped his personality and his determination to pursue a virtuous life. 

One wise single mother of my acquaintance, who cuts hair for a living, recognizes the importance of such men as guides for her son. At great personal sacrifice, she sends her teenage son to a private all-boys school whose mission is to teach its students truth, beauty, and goodness.

Let’s Talk to Them About Suffering and Adversity

The world’s major religions have always recognized that life is difficult, that suffering is a part of the human condition. For most of human history, a harsher environment and the tenets of religious faith taught adolescents that life is tough and often inflicts tribulation and misery, and that men, good men, real men, respond to those trials with stout-hearted grit. 

Today, not so much. 

If we wish to inculcate our young men with Peck’s great truth, if we wish to raise them as hardy, responsible, and loving individuals who can face life’s vicissitudes with courage and perseverance, then we must educate them daily with those goals in mind. The tests they face in the classroom and on the playing fields, the chores they do, the summer jobs they work, their mentors, our own example: These forces and others shape boys into men. 

Let’s end with an anecdote illustrating this point. Beside the bed and breakfast that my wife and I operated in Waynesville, North Carolina, was the Way House, named after the doctor who had built that beautiful brick home around 1900. A descendant told me this story of her great-grandmother, the doctor’s wife.

One day, when her grandsons arrived home from school, Mrs. Way announced she had bought a cow.

“Why’d you buy a cow, Grandma?” they asked.

“Boys,” she told them, “I’ve never known a man to amount to a hill of beans who wasn’t up and at work by dawn. You now have a reason to get up in the morning.”

There was a woman who knew that good men are made, not born. 

Life is difficult, yes, but by accepting that truth, we strip those three words of their negative power, and freed from doubt or despair, we can come to grips with the troubles at hand. Let’s make sure our young people know that.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.