A close friend of mine proudly describes the Philly neighborhood where he grew up as a place “where the men are men, and so are the women!”
Lest anyone misunderstand, he’s not a chauvinist. He’s not commenting on transgenderism. He means no insult nor to demean his peers. In fact, ladies from the same ‘hood tend to agree with him!
His sardonic saying characterizes the locale of his upbringing as a tough place. Life on those streets demands a mixture of brawn and brains, of strength and savvy. When necessary, local law is enforced with fists. To thrive there, everyone has to “be a man.”
That expression suggests that manly men are the strong ones, that virility exudes toughness. It’s not a big leap from this image to the belief that “to the victor go the spoils.”
That conception undergirds the alt- and anti- movements making news these days. The stories and images portray the force of anger inciting the masses, coaxing into public expression an impulse to vengeance.
Recently, Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia identified this as our American “epidemic.” He claims we are “addicted” to it because we’ve learned “to like being angry.” He adds that “we’re relentlessly reinforced in it by mass media that compulsively feed our emotions and starve our reason.”
Admittedly, anger is not a new illness. But curing this epidemic does require something new — a reconceptualization of what it means to be a manly man. To counter the anger rampant in society, we need men (and women) who know, and live, the virtue of meekness.
Virtue has its etymological roots in notions of force, strength and vigor long associated with men (from the Latin “vir,” meaning “man”). But meekness hardly comes off as manly in a world of pronounced conflict.
Enter St. Francis de Sales, with his insight that “nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.”
This saint knew anger up close. The subject of numerous insults and calumnies, he confesses being prone to anger and struggling mightily to keep it in check. His natural proclivity likely inspired his adamant advice in the Introduction to the Devout Life to “not be angry at all, if that is possible, and (to) not accept any pretext whatsoever to open the door of your heart to wrath.”
We would consider that possibility to be slim, at best. He then reminds us of what we know from experience: “when reason prevails and peaceably administers punishment, correction and reproof (even though it is done strictly and precisely) everyone likes it and approves of it, but when reason comes with anger, wrath and rage … it makes itself more feared than loved and even reason’s own heart is trampled and abused.”
Power promotes fear; fear produces resentment. Once embraced, resentful anger “is converted into hatred,” says the saint, “and there is no way to get rid of it, because it feeds on a thousand false excuses, so no angry person ever thought his anger unfair.”
Or, as Archbishop Chaput puts it, “Wrath feels good, especially when the ugliness of the habit can be dressed in a struggle against real or perceived evils.”
To remedy this, de Sales counsels meekness or gentleness (“douceur”). Far from being a softness that the English words suggest, this virtue is not at all wishy-washy. It requires the strength to intentionally respond to others not out of emotion, but from the reasoning that they are like us — imperfect yet worthy, having personal flaws yet also possessing inherent dignity. The same holds true for groups and governments. We, the people, are all alike when it comes to being human.
Being nice, being kind, being gracious — it sounds sappy and appears slight in response to the violent protests that have engulfed our society. Can harm on such a grand scale be countered by such a “little” virtue?
Perhaps we first need to try it. Pointing fingers, shouting accusations and raising torches or clubs does nothing to lessen the indignation or calm the fracas. Long before we reach that level, the virtue of gentleness offers an antidote which can be administered at home, in school, and around the neighborhood. As the archbishop says, “It should start with us.”
And if what the saint says elsewhere is true — “it takes more oil than vinegar to make a good salad!”– then maybe it also takes more meekness than toughness to make good men, and women too.
Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S., holds the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.