Wednesday, November 18, 2015

What does it mean to be a man in the 21st century? (1 of 4)

In the summer of 2014 after returning from Everest I was feeling lonely being single, and I wrote a series of four articles exploring my singleness. This is the first in that series although I doubt that I will publish the rest of those articles. I have added updates as other events have occurred. In particular this past week, Malala Yousafzai coming out as a feminist including saying “…because feminism is another word for equality.”  Specifically, I have considered myself a feminist for the better part of a decade, but in the last year I’ve begun to wonder if I can really stand by that. First the original article.

Original article:
I’m going to do a miniseries of four articles talking about my views of being a man, or at least an adult male, and being single. While I am typically rather revealing of my personal life, I think these four articles may take it a step farther. It is important to note that some of the things I say will probably be rather negative and not the most optimistic, perhaps even offensive, but I aim to be me, and present the world as I see it. The second article is, “More Scary: Mt. Everest or a Beautiful Woman”, the third is, “My Trouble Dating Women”, and the fourth is “Letting Go...”

With all of these tech companies releasing their employment demographics and the relative push to get more women into STEM fields, I feel we have done a fairly decent job of at least opening the doors to the old boys clubs. As we motivate women to take on more  technical jobs and motivate men to do more at home, we are really redefining the roles of men and women. To be honest, this is a stumbling block for me. Men and women are different. I believe that as different, complementary humans, they do have different roles. But what is the truth, what is best or ideal when it comes to the roles of a man or a woman? I don’t know. I hear stay at home dads do really well at raising kids. 

A woman I know told me, she will not ask out or approach a man, in the context of dating. He must come to her and make a move. Diverging for a minute, why do women date jerks and the “bad” boys? Simple, those guys are the ones that ask them out. I know a lot of great guys, awkward engineers, that would bend over backwards to make a woman happy, they are single because talking to strange new women is really difficult. The point being, if women can do everything a man does, why does he still have to lead in a relationship setting? Taking it a step further, if women can do everything a man can do, why do men have to stand up for women?

I don’t know. I mean, I know what it means to be an American in the early 21st century, which to me is paying it forward to all the less fortunate, six billion people in the world, and pushing the limits of “possible”, interpreted as pushing the limits of what has been done. I suppose the ideal person to define what it means to be a man is his significant other. By that I mean that in any individual case the expectation and the ideal might be different. Yet, simply by his actions before even meeting or getting into a relationship with her he is already defining the type of woman he is looking for. It seems a positive feedback loop, or a escalating spiral. In other words, the way a man acts defines the kinds of people he meets and woman he becomes involved with, which in turn define and encourage those traits he started that led him to that woman in the first place.

The above is great, yet, men can’t have babies. We cannot achieve that miraculous opportunity to grow another pre-born human inside of us. In that way women and men will never be equal. At least it’s going to take a long time before scientists figure out how to put a functioning uterus in a man. Frankly, I’m not sure it will ever happen.

I’ve been thinking about this for over a year, ‘what does it mean to be a man?’ I must say while I have considered the question, ‘what does it mean to be a woman?’ I’m not in the best position to really say, although to define one is to define the other. On the men’s side I’ve come up with a word to describe a man: strong. It’s difficult to further refine that because physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually there are exceptions to every generalization. Yes, many men can be emotionally expressive, and also emotionally stable, with an emotional strength. Similarly, men can be physically strong, yet I know a dozen female track athletes that can out lift me in the weight room, and that's just in Dubuque, Iowa. Yet there is a certain male strength that all men seem to have in some form. One good article defined it as strength with restraint. The challenge with calling men strong is what it implies for women. 

I’ve realized that we young males have trouble expressing our strength and masculinity in the 21st century. How are we supposed to express our masculinity? Wars rarely beckon, and their purposes are not so clear. Women are graduating with more college degrees and getting good jobs, while many men are taking the lower skilled jobs, so being a family provider is not as clear as it was in the recent past, although perhaps more like it was in the distant past. That is to say, what it means to be a woman has changed significantly over the last 150 years in the view of society, but if you go back 200 years or more, it might have been more like it is today, at least from a day to day economic sense. I mean, when 95% of the world were farmers, the women did plenty of work, right along with the men. Even early industrialization involved women weaving in factories.

Two months ago a 66 year old woman was sexually assaulted and killed by a 19 year old boy here in Dubuque, basically in public at 5 AM, along my commute. It’s heart breaking. Sure we can blame a lack of male role models, mental illness, lack of community, and other factors, but I think some small measure of responsibility is that we as a culture or a society don’t have a great way for men to express their masculinity. In the past men were protectors, warriors, often leaders, very defined roles in what were often violent times. Keep in mind, we are living in the safest time period in recorded human history. A man no longer needs to be the protector, even though we want to be.

What I’m saying is, “…feminism is another word for equality.” and it can be, but what defines equality? Because again, men and women are different, to deny that is the scientific equivalent of saving the Earth is cube shaped, not basically spherical. So how does different but equal exist?

In Bible study the past year we read from Ephesians 5:22-33. We as a 21st century  society always get hung up on the “wives submit to your husbands” because how can it say that in the context of equality?! Yet after that short passage, there is a much longer passage about husbands loving their wives, as their own body. After reading that the married woman sitting beside me said, “I feel fortunate to be the woman, that sounds so much harder for the man.” Which stuck with me, and obviously I had no response, because in today's world asking a woman to submit to me, is bewildering. I've certainly never done it.  

I’m 29.5 years old. I don’t own a house. I still have student loans. The five traditional signs of adulthood are: a stable job, owning a home, being married, having kids, and finishing your formal education. I have only two of the five, and the other three don't seem likely to happen soon. Am I not a man? It seems ridiculous, if I am not a man, who is a man?

It's such a luxury to contemplate this kind of question. People in poverty don't have the luxury of taking hours and hours to research and write this article and talk with friends and family about intangible issues like this. I am a man, at least in my own eyes. What does that mean? It means I have to pay it forward, to sacrifice, for those that don't have what I have. 


  1. Women don't ask men out because we've been socialized to think that you are desperate if you do this. Also a guy could say yes...but...does that mean he is into you?? Sometimes we like someone and get the idea that we should ask that someone out since it is obvious they like as but are too scared to ask us...some women don't like men who put fear of rejection before missed opportunities...after all missing opportunities is real life failure.

  2. I'm strong. I've had the type of life that breaks regular people. I know what strength is and it's not bravado. Real strength is showing vulnerability and being strong enough to handle it. My life, as a woman, means I'm constantly judged by how I look and my relationships, in particular my mothering skills. Im not judged on the PhD I have, not how hard I work. My dreams or's more like " oh, you have dreams and ambitions"? "Good for you"! I think society always focuses on the differences between men and women but the reality is those differences are small compared to what we have in common.

  3. I just had to watch this TED talk today for a leadership class I'm in this year but I think it relates to what you're saying. One of her points is that men aren't supposed to be vulnerable (still) and there is shame in being perceived as weak. Agree? Disagree?

  4. Agree. that men are given these negative constraints. Men who are close to their mothers do much better - are much more successful, healthy, happy etc but they are "mamas boys". I took my sons to soccer and their was a guy there getting mad at his 3 year old son crying because he was having trouble transitioning into the soccer practice and he was essentially telling his son to "man up"...he's only 3!! He has no idea how to handle his emotions, really he has to start repressing them now!! I love Brene Brown. After my husband died I carried he book "daring greatly" for several months. For some reason it comforted me!

  5. Can't edit and see several grammatical errors...such is life


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