As I write this, it is Memorial Day here in the United States. A time to reflect on the ultimate sacrifice so many military families have made. It’s a fitting time to end this series on masculinity by reflecting on what it means to be a defender. Real men are defenders.
The ancient Spartans were known to be fierce warriors. Boys began training for battle when they were just 8 years old. It was brutal but effective training for developing fierce defenders.
Surprising for some to learn, the most prized piece of battle gear a Spartan had was not a sword, a spear, or an axe (for when we think of warriors we often think of offensive weapons). It was not their helmet or chest plate (these only benefitted the individual wearing them). The most prized battle gear for a Spartan was his shield. Loved ones would send their sons and husbands off to battle with a reminder to come home “with their shield or on it”. There was no greater disgrace than to return without one’s shield.
The shield. It represents protection, defense. Spartans prized courage, tenacity, fierceness — but prized these qualities in the service of something greater: the defense of the community. When they stood shoulder to shoulder, shields raised, they were not thinking of protecting themselves. They were defending their brother to either side, their brothers behind them, and their families back home.
In what is regarded as one of the greatest military battles of all time, 300 Spartans at Thermopylae held off an advancing Persian army numbering hundreds of thousands soldiers. Ultimately every Spartan soldier died and the city fell but their sacrifice is still remembered today as an example of the power of an army of men defending the land and the people they love.
I’m not suggesting we send all boys to train like Spartans. That would be cruel. Nor am I saying that military service is the only or best way for a man to be a defender. Being a defender is not so much about what a man does but more about how he does it. It is displayed in his being. The way he carries himself – not just his presence.
I’m suggesting that we teach boys to value service to others. We can teach our boys that aggression and fierceness is prized in the defense of others; but aggression for its own sake is often selfish and destructive.
We can teach our boys to value and cultivate the virtues of justice, self-control, wisdom, and courage. Virtues expressed most practically in the wisdom of the Stoics.
We can teach our boys that while they may not being facing an invading army, their daily choices are setting them on a path. They will walk a path that leads them to become a defender or one that leads them to become a taker. It’s a choice they must make every day.
Let us as men strive to embody the virtues of the Stoics in our daily lives. Let us be models of Spartan tenacity, courage, and resilience. And in doing so, may our actions inspire our boys to pick up their shields and become defenders.
Dr. Sean Smitham, Ph.D. a licensed Clinical Psychologist and family therapist who lives and practices in Spokane, Washington.