A Conversation with Sarah Mae, Author of The Complicated Heart
Andy Whisenant | Sep 17th
I wrote Heroic in response to three lines of thinking that at first seemed totally disparate: the heroic journey in literature, the person of Jesus and my lifelong struggle to be a man. But those disparate lines all started converging over time in my mind and heart in some very surprising ways. Some of that was conceptual, but most importantly, it was experiential. Out of that came both remarkable points of insight and remarkable moments of healing. It seemed like this was something I could no longer keep to myself. Other men needed to hear about all of this as well. After speaking and teaching about the themes in “Heroic” for some time, the next step was to put it in a book form.
Originally, I wrote Heroic for men in general. But as we started the publishing process, it seemed like there were two distinct types of men we wanted to reach. The first and primary type were younger men in their late teens to early 30s. With the lack of cultural markers as to what masculinity is, there is a vast sense of lostness, of being set adrift sexually without moorings. It has created enormous confusion for young men. It cuts into their understanding of marriage and fathering, as well as their sense of purpose in life. They don’t know what a man really is and don’t know how to find out. I want this book to be a place for them to find understanding, hope and guidance.
The second type of men are older men in their late 40s and 50s, who have experienced enough crisis or pain in life that they are ready to do some soul-excavating. They know something is wrong with how they have conceived of their lives as men and are ready to look at something new. This book is that something new.
Having delineated the two types of men for the book, I have to state first that the heroic longing is universal inside of every man, irrespective of age, race, culture or religion. Every man longs to find a hero to follow and longs to become one himself. This is the reason for our fascination with the heroic. In those true heroes, we see something of what a man should be like. It is like being called back home: “Oh, this is what I should be like. This is what a man does.” Even further, I think the hero is a glimpse of a man untainted by the fall. It is a glimpse of his primeval glory. A man sees it, and something reverberates deeply inside him. He knows without being told that this is right and true and good.
The most obvious place you see this reverberation is in the movies men watch and love. Whether it’s in the modern Marvel movies or the more classic movies like “Braveheart” and “Gladiator,” they watch and rewatch these films because it makes them come alive in a way very few other things do. They go to have their hearts set aflame, hoping it will stay with them after the movie is over.
The same thing can be said of why men love war heroes. Whether in biography or movie, there is something about being the warrior who lays down his life for others that moves men in a singular way. There is universal admiration and respect for those heroes, but even deeper, men would love to be like those heroes.
Yes, that’s the rub. That’s the problem. That’s what makes this all so confusing. Every hero a man has will at some point let him down. Starting with boyhood heroes and continuing on into our adult heroes, the real men we looked up to will disappoint us. This is especially true with our fathers, no matter how good or bad they were. We want our heroes on a pedestal. In some way, we need to put them on a pedestal. But they can’t stay there. And what a man does with that disappointment is so critical to his heart. Sadly, most choose the route of shutting down the longing. I know I did. It just hurt too much to keep that longing alive.
But even more confusing is our attempts to be heroic. Our inspiration does not turn into reality. When we try to live out what we saw in film, in myth or in our real-life heroes, it becomes something else entirely: a chasing after fame or power or success. It gets all twisted around, and we are left more confused than ever, having now hurt others around us as well as ourselves.
There are a lot of wrong ideas about manhood. Becoming a man doesn’t happen when he has sex the first time, nor when he gets drunk the first time. It doesn’t happen when he joins a gang or a fraternity. Those are the more obvious errors, but they are still easy to fall for in a culture where there are so few markers for manhood. Less obvious but probably more insidious are myths like these: manhood is about being the alpha-male, or the one who speaks with the loudest voice, or the one who carries the most power or the one who has the most physical strength. There is just enough truth in these myths to keep men falling for them, but they are either insufficient or soul-corrupting.
Scripture tells us that Jesus is the head of a whole new race. He is the pioneer of a new manhood. Yes, he was fully God, but he was also fully man, and how he lived and died as a man gives us a whole new playbook to look at and live by. In Jesus, we see a hero climbing out of story and myth and taking on flesh and blood. He became what Adam wasn’t. He did what Adam couldn’t. And here is the shocker: the whole purpose for why he came was to make men into his image. If he was the great hero of all time, what does that mean for us as men? I think it means that Jesus has a heroic journey he wants us to take, just as he did. There are many aspects to the heroic journey in literature, but I think the three most important for men are these:
I think these three gifts become the way Jesus redefines manhood for us. He lived this way as a hero, and this is how he will make us into men.
The surprise is not so much our understanding of the heroic. Every man knows what being heroic is. We don’t have to be told or taught. It is so deeply implanted inside of us, a faint trace of our pre-fall existence. That’s not the surprise. The surprise is how to get there. It’s not about climbing to the top or having the loudest voice or the biggest influence. The way we get there is through death. This is the surprise. Jesus initiates us as men through the death we must walk through: a death to our idols, a death to our false selves, a death to our agendas and plans and cherished outcomes for our lives. All of that must go to choose the path to manhood. Yet at the same time, men know they need to be initiated, and male initiation has been a part of culture throughout history until recently. So the initiatory death is at first a surprise, and one we shrink back from, yet at the same time it speaks to our deep longing to be initiated.
An even bigger surprise comes after the death. It’s resurrection. It’s the resurrection of our hearts as men. It comes upon us slowly and then in huge waves at times. The men we longed to be like is happening. It’s becoming a reality.
Silence is the only way we become heroic. You can’t get it by reading biographies of heroes. You can’t get it by watching movies of heroes. You can’t get it by even reading “Heroic”! You have to enter the silence and meet Jesus. Only in the silence do you become stained with his Word. Only in the silence do you begin to recognize his voice. Only in the silence do you find your true identity. Only in the silence do you discover you quest and find the courage to keep continuing on that quest. And only in the silence do you receive his personal coaching.
Yet men by and large are terrible with silence. Some of that is the cultural onslaught of noise, media, and technology, along with an epidemic of busyness. But some of that is also men’s fear of silence, of being stripped naked before God. But if a man stays in the silence, he will find what has eluded him his whole life. He will find not only rest and peace, affirmation and love. He will find glory as well, the aura of glory that emanated from all his heroes. He will find the glory of being with Jesus and uniting with him.
I hope men will feel the electricity of connecting to the heroic longing inside of them. I hope they will awaken to the hope of a life they have never dreamed possible. I hope they will see Jesus in a startling new light and be drawn to him. But finally, and most importantly, I hope they just say yes — yes to the call to be coached by Jesus, yes to the call to die, yes to the call to find their identity and quest and yes to the call to enter silence to meet Jesus.
A Conversation with Sarah Mae, Author of The Complicated Heart
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