Manhood: Experiences of Ethical Presence

Posted on | September 4, 2016 | 2 Comments


manhoodManhood, growing into manhood, was genitally assumed.  An understated, softly-spoken, cryptic language shaped the tensions of my childhood home.

Just occasionally, a late caller would announce that Alf, in a drunken rage, had once again thrown Rogue to the floor.  The family men would gather muttering revenge.  My father was never wilfully violent.  I watched him unwillingly join them for the in-law beating that would follow.  No-one referred to it again.  Why should they?  They were no better than Alf.  Other family members repeated the same man to woman violence.  The woman’s bruised arms and face spoke louder than words.  The men were participants in multi generational domestic abuse.  Manhood was modelled by silence, withdrawal, violence and drunkenness.  I was a small observer.  This savage world was my inheritance.

None of this is remarkable for my generation of 1930s, 1940s inner suburban dwellers.  We were all destined for the same path.  We didn’t talk about it at school.  We reckoned that another kid up the road had it worse than any of us.  And there was that other kid in our class no one wanted to sit next to.  He spent all day in the second back seat shaping his penis against a piece of carved wood.  We sort of guessed, but had no words to explain this.  So, like our fathers, we avoided, sniggered at his difference and pretended it didn’t matter.  The sadists who posed as teachers asked him for cigarettes.  They modelled a manhood of indifference and contempt.  And for us, sex was simply function.

In those childhood days you encountered sex by innuendo.  No-one talked to us about sex – but we all knew instinctively.  The adult silences created our own prurient fascination with genitalia and coitus.  We were shaping as male functional predators.  I remember when Dennis brought his uncle’s male brothel pictures to school.  The shocking image is still in mind.  And no adult said anything.  A much older boy groped me in a movie theatre.  I ran away terrified, but there was no-one to tell about either the terror or the offence.  Manhood was about avoidance and silent observation.  And then you learnt to simply move on.  I think the worst advice I received from my father was the slogan ‘A good soldier never looks behind’.  This still haunts me and, like my father, I can close off the past and often (not always I need to add) move on without guilt.  I think back over so many lost and fractured friendships.  I do not say this with blame.  These character traits modelled manhood for my generation.  We boys were just the extension of our parents’ and grandparents’ world.

Rogue (Norah), my mother’s eldest sister, eventually came to live with us.  By then she was derelict.  She made the daily journey home from the pub, staggering erratically, then the final metres on hands and knees.  From my bedroom, I could hear her every night incoherently praying, then cursing with an encyclopaedic command of gutter talk.  Never once did I hear my parents swear.  My aunt delivered a barrage of sexually-laden words.  Morning came.  Nothing was said.  It was as if nothing had happened.  There was always some member of the family in our home – aunts, uncles, cousins.  All brought their crisis.  They stayed for months, some for years.  The air was always heavy with stale tobacco smoke.  Bert’s grubby fishing basket added one more sickening smell.

I covered the walls of my bedroom with newspaper cuttings.  Some, like the stories of Snowy Cutmore and Squizzy Taylor, Bea Miles and Tilly Devine exaggerated the squalor of life.  If manhood means you have to keep your head down, then extract the last filament of excitement.  It is hard to confess that Snowy Cutmore was my first boyhood hero.  Other cuttings paced political changes with photos of Frank Hardy and Katherine Suzannah Pritchard and Lance Sharkey.  Sharkey was my second hero.  I was already a Communist idealogue.  Uncle Jim, my mother’s brother, gave me left wing literature.  These heroes were my private, personal transition to another understanding of manhood.  They were jumbled voices in my head.  They were also a way out of the manhood I seemed otherwise destined to inherit..


The 6 o’clock swill

The manhood of daily experience was about isolation.  You kept your thoughts to yourself.  You know a man not by who he is, but by what he does.  Manhood was about fathering children, working to pay the bills and then, with time your own, being with your mates.  Locations for this were un-demanding – the pub, the dog track or the SP bookie and just occasionally over poker.  There it was, absolutely simple. The purpose of something defined its nature and its meaning.  Here was my muddle of manhood.


I want to add here a personal story.  I will let the innuendo stand.  You might then guess why I have bothered to reminisce about childhood.  This story has a sad modern twist to it.  We are still too quick to define a person by their looks and actions.  We ask ‘what’, rarely ‘why’.  Social commentary makes it easy to miss the true marks of manhood.  He, she, we say is gay – as if that were the last word.  He, she, is fully human.  We only truly understand when we stop trying to solve them as problem.  Here, as elsewhere, we meet their hu-manhood in the experience of ethical presence.  This is ‘being present with people where they are, wherever that may be‘.

My mother was alcoholic – a multi-generational life tragedy.  That is what she was.  She did her best to hide it, but the concealed bottles were an easy find in drawers and wardrobes and cupboards.  I know she loved me and wanted a different world for me.  That is who she was.  But she had also wanted a girl.  I was her only child – though family innuendos made me believe another child before me had been aborted.  Alcoholic sentimentalism meant that she recited constantly her longing for a daughter.  It began to dawn on me that manhood was about NOT being someone else.  So who was I?  A nagging gender doubt confused my search for manhood.

I remember the bar-room and Tivoli songs my father sang to me as a very small child.  They still tinkle in my mind in reflective hours.  When he returned from fighting the war at Bathurst he was distant.  I do not recall his ever saying that he loved me.  He may have – but he never told me so.  Instead his innuendos about manhood showed that he doubted my capacity to be a ‘real man’.  There were no easy, homespun words for what he meant. The gender doubt multiplied.

manhoodAs young as 6 years old – it had to be 1940 because my father hadn’t yet signed up for the War.  I was left sitting on the pub steps while my parents ‘breasted the bar’.  I said to myself ‘When I grow up, my children will never do this’.  That, at least, is how I remembered it as the years passed.   Manhood would be about being different from my father’s generation.  And different in every way.  I remember being puzzled about the anti-Jewish rhetoric in our household right through to the 1950s.  Then, as our suburb Leichhardt in Sydney underwent radical ethnic change, the rhetoric became anti-Italian.  We were invaded by ‘wogs’ and ‘reffos’.  But Remo Bissaro was in my class at school.  He had such a cute name.  Why was I stuck with Bill?  The Norton Street doctor had an Italian name, Bentivoglio.  He also seemed a good guy.  The family innuendoes were powerful, destructive and puzzling.  I learnt to be suspicious of them.  Perhaps manhood was about more than doing and defining.  Perhaps it was about transitioning – but where would this lead?   Who would point the hero’s journey?

There were no words to describe the boy a few doors down, but I was sternly warned to keep my distance.  No-one ever asked how I felt about this.  I remember the humiliation of having to walk to his house to tell him I was not allowed to visit again.  I didn’t have the words but I knew instinctively why my parents saw him as different.  And the difference didn’t matter to me.   He was a kind, interesting, generous boy – just another boy.  But it seemed to matter a lot to my father, who had never spoken to him.

Once I overheard my father’s muttered innuendo that maybe I also was doubtful.  I knew what he meant, and felt profound shock.  I was confronted by an identity creed ready to deny me my manhood.  Something deep in me rebelled.  Perhaps it was the war and the absence of men in those crucial years of childhood.  Perhaps it was being a latch-key kid with my mother manpowered in 1942 into community service.  Perhaps it was just the prelude to the 1950s political turmoil, rapid refugee migration and industrialisation.  Perhaps, by 1955, it was the advent of Rock and Blackboard Jungle.  Whatever.  I did not like or want my father’s world and its view of manhood.  I was already exploring an alternative.  I was beginning to model my life on a radical hero-figure.  He would teach me how to transition into a different world of manhood and discovery.

‘Human rights (later civil rights), the emancipation of oppressed people, the role of moral choice, the role of emotion and personal experience, and the proper path to salvation’ were themes that grasped my imagination (George Lundskow, The Sociology of Religion: A Substantive and Transdisciplinary Approach, p.128).  I heard them first at 17 in my final year at school.  This was in 1951.  The teacher was the Anglican Dean of Sydney, Dr Stuart Barton Babbage.

What stays with me in these latter years is to believe that my children and grandchildren will learn their own ways of being human.  My manhood needs to be open with love, accepting of difference.  I must be a transitional person able to leave behind past generational isolation and tragedy.  I need to be a ‘person, who, in a single generation, changes the entire course of a lineage … who somehow finds a way to metabolize the poison and refuse to pass it on to their children. They break the mold’.  They will be free to follow their own hero-figures and discover how to be the persons they want to become.  To the best of my ability, I must experience with them, without innuendo.  I must be present with them where they are, wherever that may be.

Jean-Paul Sartre shaped the genesis of this discovery: “Existence precedes essence.”  Sartre’s simple jingle meant that there is no transcendent ideal that attaches meaning to life. Life is a brute fact for which each person is burdened to create meaning of his own. As to standards of truth, goodness, and beauty—they, too, are not universal ideals that have “dropped from the sky.” Rather, each person is responsible for crafting his own life-guiding principles. Applied to human sexuality, Sartre’s catchphrase rocked the roles of manhood and womanhood. Nowhere is that more evident than in the ever-shifting views about masculinity. (Quoted from BreakPoint – a Christian Worldview)

Manhood, without innuendo, is about experiencing ethical presence.  Manhood is about Being.  And I must help transition this to the next generations.


I was beginning to discover a principle that would both inspire and devastate the years that followed.  At age 17, never having entered a church, I decided to become a priest.  There was no tradition of religion in my family.  My only connection was the vitality of the man who came weekly to Fort Street school to teach religion.  He offered us Jesus-stories as model for our manhood.  Life would be a vocation, an absolute commitment.  I inwardly promised celibacy and held to that commitment till I was 28, and still a virgin.  Following Jesus was the sum and goal of life.  He was the meaning and model of manhood.  Love was the mirror of duty.  Commitment to both was absolute.

Older parish clergy and theological mentors drummed the idea that sex was only for procreation.  It sounded quaint against the tide of the times.  Only longer time and careful listening would highlight the hypocrisy and self-delusion.  Even then there were rumours.  The euphemisms concealed reality.  One mentor broke ranks assuring me that ‘rape in marriage was acceptable’.  I sensed then his manhood as fractured and shabby.   I would soon discover that ‘being’ – ego driven theology – was shrouded in definition and dogma.  The concern was only what and never why.  This was compounded by a view that deviance had roots in bad theology.  All the while you lived with an urgency to be more than what surrounded you.  There were unfulfilled longings and passions.  Words for these came steadily from the music and media of the day.  I remember my first jaunt to ‘Rock Around the Clock’.  Bill Haley and the Comets gave a rhythm to half-formed words and scarecrow emotions.  Even at 16 Sartre and Heidegger had swept me along, but there was something about simply ‘being’ that didn’t ring true.  Existence may precede essence, but there must be something more.

The tension and discipline of my life decision was sometimes unbearable.  Theological perspectives might change but I believed back then that I should one day die at either altar or pulpit.  Priesthood was absolute call and permanent promise.  It was written in Anglican as in Roman Canon Law.  Indeed Anglican Law, as it was after 1604, had no process of ‘laicising’.  To this day, I call myself a priest.  It is my ‘character’.  But whatever can this mean for someone now effectively outside ecclesiastical jurisdiction?  There is no duty to perform, no sermon to preach, no liturgy to celebrate publicly.  Only ‘love’ holds me still in some more worldly communion.  Only love teaches me to reach beyond myself to discover that manhood is about more than doing and defining.  And it is more than simply being.  Manhood must first be disarmed.  Only then will the realisation dawn that manhood is about becoming, transitioning.


Manhood as patriarchal and conventionally understood must be disarmed. Manhood disarmed ‘finds its voice in experiences of ethical presence in relationship to other loving, attentive persons and their voices’. David Richards, Disarming Manhood: Roots of Ethical Resistance, Ohio University Press, 2005, p.217.

facing up to my manhoodRichards’ important book Disarming Manhood challenges those masculine codes of honour that endorse violence and ego driven conceit.  He urges men to listen again to those inner voices, often from childhood, that counselled compassion and engagement with others. His daring studies about love cross conventional boundaries. Manhood is about bonding with ‘the other’.  Yes, manhood is sexual and consensual.  At the same time it is an inner urgency to live a life of quality and passion.  Manhood gives voice to ‘attitude change’ that ‘simply involves always giving your best‘.

‘Facing up to my manhood’ has been a growing determination through adult life.  It has meant loving another – wife, children, grandchildren, friends.  I must be present … where they are, wherever that may be.  Manhood is about listening to those inner voices that have counselled an open path to our contingent world.  To do this, I have needed to dismantle within myself the self-destructive manhood images and voices of childhood.

Its end is an ‘attitude change’ to my world of belonging.  Its beginning is more isolated, more lonely and self-focussed. This struggle to find manhood’s voice will be marred by ego and self-centredness.  Others, even Margaret, would sometimes feature on the edge.  Here is a dark and often tortured prelude.  But it colours bonding with that ‘other’ who cared for me while sustaining her own long and silent journey.  It is also grounds hearing the voice of that ‘Other’ who awakened me to relationship with the divine in the breadth of human life and experience.


A transitional character works at  filtering ‘the destructiveness out of their own lineage so that the generations downstream will have a supportive foundation upon which to build productive lives’.

Our young family venture into the Gascoyne-Murchison region of Western Australia marks a dramatic fresh moment of discovery.  There, I was caught by the urgency to explore the dark, inner depths of self.  Amanhood central part of that sense of self was ‘the character’ of priest borne since ordination.  I had to face up to ‘vocation’, admission to lifelong ‘Holy Orders’.  Even now, near the ending of life, I still struggle with its demands and its constraints.  Both manhood and priesthood have persistently driven me beyond mere ‘functionality’.  Sometimes the balance has been precarious.

Where you stumble, there your treasure is … The world is a match for us and we are a match for the world. And where it seems most challenging lies the greatest invitation to find deeper and greater powers in ourselves. – Joseph Campbell

It may all have been fifty years ago and maybe recollections are clouded but, even in wakeful night hours, distant names and faces come powerfully into focus.  This past becomes suddenly alive, crowded with memories.  Adventures, discoveries, doubts, sadness and tragedy shaped those distant days.  As these words touch the page, they awaken both excitement and despair.  I re-live events.  They add depth, colour and character to present excitement and despair.  As then, if life is to remain an adventure, there is no alternative to ‘facing up to my manhood’.  Manhood is about becoming, transitioning.

Here is journey’s beginning with Margaret, Kathy, Nicola and Rozi at Sydney airport in 1967:

facing up to my manhood


I must colour this story with other people and wildflowers.  A tourism brochure captures one vision of Mullewa, our new home destination:

Mullewa is a town located 98 kilometres east-northeast of Geraldton, it is a vibrant, diverse and resilient community, rich in both natural and cultural heritage.

manhoodThat was not our primary recollection of the town or its surrounds.  But it was as true and real then as it is now.  In wildflower season, it is breathtakingly picturesque.  With our small children we bathed in its beauty.  Fifty years later a tired, wilted bunch of wildflowers holds place on the kitchen bench.  The flowers can still awaken vivid memories of people and events that shook the foundations of life.  Mullewa taught the priest that the greatest of my life’s lessons was ‘facing up to his manhood’.


We finalised life at Moore College in 1964.  With Margaret, Kathy and Nicola, we settled for a long stay at Dural with its seven worship centres in a 100 square miles (260 square kms) of parish.  Almost at once illness struck.  Nicola was rushed to hospital.  I steadily languished with asthma and bronchitis.  Margaret, always resourceful, held the family together.  She shaped her own distinctive ministry with a growing number of young families.

facing up to my manhood

The Rectory was old, dusty and mould-ridden. Rats in the roof spaces, and once by Rosalind’s cot, added anxiety to our life.  The final months at Dural were punctuated by my severe asthma and depression.  On medical advice, I offered my resignation. The next stages of life looked bleak.  My own sense of being was shattered.

With no prior warning, a phone call came from Bill Rich then heading up the Bush Church Aid Society (BCA).  Would I, with my family, set off for the Murchison area of Western Australia to be parish priest at Mullewa? Details were sketchy. But this was literally what the doctor ordered.  BCA offered a new life in a hot dry climate where asthma might recede and the inner self recover.  Life in rural Dural with its summer fruits and chicken runs came to an abrupt end.

We accepted at once.  Letters to and from Bishop Witt, the Bishop of North-West Australia, began to suggest that the parish would grow in size and complexity. What had looked like a ‘country town’ ministry quickly extended across 65,000 square kilometres. imagegenThe small near ghost-town Yalgoo with its 150 residents was added. I was facing a parish bordering Mingenew, Morowa and Three Springs to the south, Byro Station to the north and Edah to the East.  I would soon discover the challenge of facing up to my manhood.

There is not one masculinity but multiple masculinities, based not only in individual uniqueness, but also in race, sexual orientation, culture, degree of genderedness, and so on. The phrase “man up” now loses its aggressive and shaming meaning since there are so many ways to be a man.

Beyond Mullewa township would be days of travel through wheat and sheep country to cattle station in the North.  There, the signage pointed to Useless Loop. When I accepted all this I could not have imagined the exhilaration that awaited me. I say me because, if Mullewa would shake me into facing up to my manhood, it held some hard times for Margaret and our three small girls.


Mullewa would be like nothing we had ever experienced. That first day, we drove along the coastal road to Geraldton. I recall seeing blue sky and green pastures as if for the first time. We turned inland. All was lush for the first twenty minutes, then a slight rise in the road and the land was red brown and parched. Another fifty-minute drive – not far really – the road took a sudden bend and there was our first sight of Mullewa. It was not the most exciting moment of our day.

facing up to my manhood

A derelict pub was to our left, some tin roofed houses slumped in empty silence. The rail line was nearby and it was easy to see that long ago the town had been larger. Decay and contraction had set in and 1500 people now lived here maintaining the rail link, feeding the wheat silo, running Stock and Station Agencies and so keeping some continuity for the surrounding farms.

A handful of shops served the community – though as we quickly discovered adequately.  Geraldton only an hour’s drive always added a great monthly shopping and beach experience. Kathy our eldest attended the local school and Nicola joined up with the preschool. Roz was still too small for that sort of grown-up discovery so she stayed busily at home. Then Ian came, born in the local hospital. Sister Beamont aided Margaret through his anxious birth and stayed friends with us for years after.  Our growing family squeezed into the small Rectory.  We shared the space with many a visitor.

That house was minute – four stone walls and a tin roof made it an oven in the searing heat of summer. There was no air-conditioning, not so much as a ceiling fan. On the hottest days we stood in the bath with an electric fan blowing air through a wet towel.

Three girls slept in one room, Ian was in a tiny room the size of a pantry or large cupboard,  For the rest, we had one other bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom and toilet (complete with redback spiders) – nothing more. The yard had a derelict water tank, an equally derelict shed and some prickly pear.facing up to my manhood

No one came to Mullewa to make their fortune. The few commercial managers stayed their time and moved on. The majority had lived in the town for three or four generations.  Some had never travelled past the edge of the town wheat bin. They were fiercely protective of their insularity. Apart from the Catholic priest who was a long time part of the community and an occasional dweller in the Geraldton lock up when found disorderly, the other three clergy were temporary itinerants. People asked each of us what mistakes we had made to be sent there – and the question seemed to have some substance.

And then there was that other town Yalgoo and its vast station country.   I learnt here to follow backtracks, face isolation and test my instincts.  And when the track led to a dead end and worse to a flooded creek bed, the supreme lesson was always to have telephoned beforehand.  These were tracks rarely travelled, spectacular after rain, dusty and treacherous for the unwary city-boy let loose on the bush.  You could die out there.

We received welcome and support from Bishop and Mrs Witt. They were generous, hospitable, supportive and openhearted. They shared life and home with us. Howell Witt was the only bishop in my sixty years of ministry who took time with every member of our family and cared for our spiritual growth.  In this he modelled a Christ-like manhood.  He showed us what we might become.


To end the story there would be to miss the ‘vibrant, diverse and resilient communities’ we met in Mullewa and beyond.   Facing up to manhood was about much more than wildflowers and back-of-the-bush tracks.  Facing up to manhood was about engaging the sort of Australian who still shapes our country.  They are resilient, courageous, determined to achieve against all odds.  They make you look deeply into your self and own your failings and achievements.  They show you that your worst moment gives you space for recovery.

In case all this sounds like author posturing, let me introduce you to some of the people whose lives and conversations awakened this transitioning manhood.

A few weeks in town and I was off visiting station country.  It would be eight days alone on unsealed roads and bush tracks.  One night would find me sleeping on the road-side and awed at how starry and clear was the sky.  The morning brought light dew on my face.  I was thirty-three years old and appreciating manhood in a new dynamic way.  I felt alive and vibrant.  And I was welcomed as a man.  ‘What have come for?’ said one cynic.  ‘When the Salvation Army come they want our money.  When the Presbyterians come they want our beer.  What do you want?’  I remember faltering at the challenge and then replying ‘I want your friendship and company.’

facing up to my manhood

Murgoo Sation

There was the overwhelming sense of freedom as I travelled around the vast parish. The fun moment was arriving at Murgoo Station just before race day. I think the bush telegraph must have preceded me.  The station owner eyed me over.  He commented that his jockey had broken his leg and invited me to ride in his place. We bonded in banter. There was family time at Meeberrie and beautiful acceptance. There were large families at Edah and at Byro – and twenty other places where in almost every instance I could stand outside the formal role of parish priest.  I could simply be a man with other men and women. Then race day met an hour’s drive from Mullewa.  We saw amazing horsemanship with Indigenous people standing tall in their community. That wasn’t always so, but in those days and well into the outback you met Indigenous people who actually managed the stations.   The priest was becoming a man.

facing up to my manhood

At Meeberrie Station


Planning, long before we arrived, was in place for the St Andrew’s annual cabaret.  Even twenty years without a Minister hadn’t dampened the enthusiasm of the Ladies’ Guild.  The Cabaret was the town’s great alcohol swim through. People were known to have got drunk and then beaten up partner or neighbour well before midnight.  That night the police would be on special patrol.

Was it courage or some Puritan knee-jerk?  But I banned the Cabaret. I insisted that instead we run the Anglican Ball, with no alcohol allowed but food available. This was greeted with shock.  I had banned the grog. Eight o’clock came, the band was playing, no one was in the hall. Eight thirty the crowd came first to laugh at my stupidity and then, catching the music, to dance. By ten o’clock the hall was packed.  No drunks were in sight and wives and husbands admitted it was the first time they had spent a whole night like this together. The next morning we were heroes – though morning was about as long as that accepting mood lasted.

It is hard to choose the stories and to keep the commentary balanced.  There were hilarious moments.  George Eves, the church warden responded to my query about the large iron cross being at the wrong end of the church building.  ‘We’re on DC current’ he said, as if that explained everything.  I looked curiously at him so he continued. ‘The SP bookie lives next door’.  He pointed to the cottage and repeated his comment about DC current.  ‘You can see the wiring’, he added, ‘from his house to the closest point of connection – the iron cross’.  In that situation it all seemed so obvious.  It had nothing to do with judgemental values.  It was just being neighbourly.  And it was a signal between the churchwarden and me about transitioning to manhood.

Max Kimber, one of the local small police force lived opposite.  Max brought his energy to our small group.  Single-handed he repaired the broken main doors and painted the church interior.  But best of all, Max became our friend.  This was a genuine, honest, open friendship.  Max helped me plan my trips outback.  He knew every person in the district.  He never shared the privacies of his work connections but he encouraged me to search for the real in myself and others.  Only in subsequent years have I learnt the tragedies and struggles that had shaped his own sense of manhood.  In my company he lived his manhood out of the depths of what life had taught him.  On hot evenings we sat together on the Rectory front step, beer in hand and generous acceptance of the small world that had brought us together

Jim and Bea du Boulay, and their many children, joined our congregation.  Suddenly we had a Sunday School.  Jim and Bea, bless them, had previously been members of one of the Geraldton Pentecostal Churches.  Jim would punctuate Sunday sermons with loud A-mens.  I started to keep count.  Some days the interjections were few.  I knew I must speak the following week with more urgency – and more mentions of Jesus.  No sarcasm is intended.  Jim and Bea were honest committed Christians who challenged the tired religious cliches and publicly lived their faith.  One show day, their Bible stall offered music from the Nurses Christian Fellowship.  The tune and words still ring in my thoughts:

My Lord and I, we hold such sweet communion
I know He plans my life each passing day
I may not see, but He is close beside me
He drives the clouds and darkness all away.

The beautiful intensity was never quite Margaret or me.  Jim and Bea tried hard to draw us closer.  And our difference was never so great that we separated.  They taught me that manhood is about shared destiny where difference can explore each other’s uniqueness as gift.  ‘Authentic men reject passivity, accept responsibility, lead courageously, and invest eternally.’  You meet manhood in the experience of ethical presence.  This is ‘being present with people where they are, wherever that may be’.


There was another side to Mullewa township that was deeply troubling.  I totally lacked the skills to address it.  Perhaps I can best introduce this through what was to become a favourite story.

My adventures with Australian Indigenous people began with a chance meeting almost forty years ago. On a Western Australian inland track, where the lizard trails skirt the Gibson and Great Victoria deserts, I squatted with a bush man as he sketched a dust map with his finger. We were on a level sacred plain where red dust affirmed the commonality of our shared humanity. The seed-power of life experienced here has its measure in workplaces where Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff learn together to respect human possibility.  My memories of that first ‘meeting’ is tinged with the pain of unused calf muscles, my feet on the red desert dust beneath me a reminder that I too was a man of the earth. (quoted from ‘Community service orientations of indigenous peoples: The role of spiritual values).

Township Yamaji people lived tragic, depressed lives.   But some showed great dignity.  I have clear memories of Bessie Dingo and Jack Comeagain.  I forget her name but I will never forget the day I stumbled into a house on the Reserve.  A woman sat dignified and self-possessed.  The room stank with vomit and a youth lay drunk and wretching in a bed close by.  She ignored the circumstance.  She spoke simply of her inner struggle to be and to become.  She lived determination.  She spoke about transitioning to a better life for her son and her.  I knew in that moment of conversation that this was my own destiny.  True manhood is the process of becoming, of living with possibility, of hoping and enduring.  Manhood learns resilience through hardship.  It awakened me to face ministry and marriage in a different way.  Life for Margaret and me continued to change dramatically and to refine our thinking and actions. Tragedy shaped our central yearning for honesty in speaking and integrity in living.  We learnt to be ‘present with people where they are, wherever that may be’.

When at length we moved on to Darlinghurst, I wrote these words in my now shredded dairy: ‘Generations of men and women have battled for survival in arid, inhospitable surroundings; year after year the earth has yielded its life grudgingly. They have laboured among the thorns and thistles with scarcely a vision of Eden. And in the cities, hidden from the gaze and the concern of comfortable, middle suburbia, the asphalt and the concrete ring with the steps of the homeless and the dispossessed.’   We saw here, again, the indomitable human spirit.  We watched some consumed by life’s misfortune.  We saw others transition to fresh hope.


What sort of manhood can I still reflect to my children and grandchildren?  I can become what psychologist and family therapist Carlfred Broderick calls a ‘transitional character‘.  I can show that each of us can break destructive cycles in our lives by transitioning to or becoming agents of change.

A transitional character is a person, who, in a single generation, changes the entire course of a lineage. The changes might be for good or ill, but the most noteworthy examples are those individuals who grow up in an abusive, emotionally destructive environment and who somehow find a way to metabolize the poison and refuse to pass it on to their children. They break the mold. They refute the observation that abused children become abusive parents, that the children of alcoholics become alcoholic adults, that ‘the sins of the fathers are visited upon the heads of children to the third and fourth generation.’ Their contribution to humanity is to filter the destructiveness out of their own lineage so that the generations downstream will have a supportive foundation upon which to build productive lives.

So, I lay down my scrap of life story with all its innuendoes.  I celebrate my own transition to manhood and becoming.  I stand on the cusp of what will be, not longing for the end but hoping for the next moment of discovery.  I hold to my heart my mother’s wishes for my life.  ‘Forget the past of our family and all its mistakes.  Make the family of your own choosing.  Follow your dream.  Share your goals.’

‘Forgetting’ the past is not possible.  But I can transition from it.   Memory will constantly alert me to past dangers and warnings.  But I can hope to shape and display an ethical presence that promises children and grandchildren a supportive foundation upon which to build productive lives.  If I am serious about transition, then I will hope with all my heart, that each will shape a distinctive life journey of their own that makes them agents of freedom for the next generation.  And, as a matter of course, they will transition from those values and culture that have constrained me.

Bill Lawton

25 September 2016


2 Responses to “Manhood: Experiences of Ethical Presence”

  1. John Kidson
    February 23rd, 2017 @ 7:12 am

    I really enjoyed/was moved by your writing Bill. It has informed our sharing time @ and around MTC … shared time/s were too few!
    Having read your ‘stuff’ I am more deeply thankful for my lineage- for whoever it was who transitioned it ‘correctly’. Hopefully you will seek to publish in print media!
    Thanks and regards

  2. billlawton
    February 24th, 2017 @ 4:08 am

    John, thanks for the comments. My sense is you are well and in good spirits: I hope so. I appreciate the suggestion re publishing but I think my days doing that are over. I simply can’t imagine anyone from the various worlds I have inhabited being interested in this old man’s ramblings – though I do value your affirmation. Bill.

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