Adapted from Exodus 18:13-23
One day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. When Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you?” Moses said, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another.”
Moses’ father-in-law said, “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me, you should look for others to help you, so they will bear this burden with you. Then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.”
“The Gift” by Li-Young Lee www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171752
Early in my reading for this sermon I chanced on a recent book with a provocative title that intrigued me: “The End of Men and the Rise of Women.” It’s not that the male gender is in danger of disappearing, Hanna Rosen says. Instead, she points to recent trends suggesting that the patterns of male dominance that have been central to, at least, Western culture for millennia are shifting. We live at a time, Rosen argues, when by any number of measures women are not only gaining on men but are moving ahead. And, what’s especially troubling is that in many areas it’s not really a competition because men aren’t playing. They’ve checked out and instead are drifting: in and out of jobs, in and out of relationships. Many are “missing,” in a sense, from the mix.
An important factor in this, of course, is the economic transition we’ve been moving through. Since the turn of the century, millions of jobs, especially in manufacturing and related fields – areas that traditionally employed men – have disappeared.
For her book, Rosen visited Alexander City, Alabama, site of prosperous blue-collar jobs until early in this century when Berkshire Hathaway closed a premium maker of athletic wear that employed 7,000. The closing, she says, “ripped out the roots of the middle class,” and along with mass joblessness came a decline in marriage and an increase in divorce and single motherhood. Some men found jobs at the end of long commutes, others scrambled for this and that when they could find it, and others still quit looking and left the bread-winning to their wives.
And women did step up, moving into the few service jobs that opened up. Recently, the town elected its first woman mayor. The long-term effects of these losses, Rosen says, are being felt in the next generation. She interviews the school superintendent – a woman – who tells her that girls have taken to fighting, drug use is up among all students, and there’s a rash of unintended pregnancies. At the same time, every candidate for election to student government is a girl, and of the students taking part in a city-funded program to prepare them for future careers, 65% are girls. “I’m not sure where the males go or what happens to them” the superintendent told Rosen. “I think they’re just not as motivated.” It seems to be evidence, Rosen says, of a transition time for men. But what’s unclear is what the transition is to.
It’s a pattern that we see played out among more affluent men, too. Sociologist Michael Kimmel describes the evolution of something he calls “Guyland” that has emerged among white, middle class men. They move into communal housing with college buddies, work dead end jobs, devote many hours to the bar scene and hook up with women but steer clear of lasting relationships.
At the same time, the long-term disparity in the achievement of men and women at higher levels of the academic ladder is evening out and even shifting in the other direction. In the U.S., for example, women now earn 60% of bachelor’s and master’s degrees and around half of all PhDs as well as law, medical, and business degrees.
Of course, just because women have made gains doesn’t change that fact that the power differential in our culture remains heavily skewed in favor men. That enormous social overburden that has been described as “the patriarchy” – all the privileges and unspoken preferences that attach to men simply by virtue of their gender – is as strong as ever, though it, too, is shifting and evolving. And the process of change brings pain to men as well as women along the way.
We remember, after all, that each of us growing up didn’t invent the notion of what it means to be a man or a woman. We absorbed it from everything around us, from our families and communities, from the TV shows and movies we watched. And to varying degrees each of us struggled with the sex roles we were assigned with varying degrees of discomfort.
The excerpt from Exodus you heard earlier reminds me of one of the most enduring expectations that I know I absorbed early in life: that as a man I would be expected to be a long-suffering servant who, like Moses in that passage, would take on an unending stream of work uncomplainingly, even to the point of exhaustion.
It was something my father modeled for me with 60-hour weeks as a psychiatrist. I recognize it in my own work patterns – and I’m left to wonder how many others are afflicted with this notion that overworking not only serves society but somehow proves our manhood. How few of us listen to the Jethros in our lives who try tell us to slow down and share the load for the sake of our own endurance and, even more important, for the very peace of the world.
But behind all these social constructions there remains the question: Is there an essential essence to being a man, and is there a gift to be found there as well?
To look at the essence of manhood we might begin with biology. As a rule, maleness requires that the bearer have a Y chromosome that at about six weeks of gestation causes the body to be flooded with the male hormone, testosterone. Most such children head down the path to maleness, genitalia and all. I say most, because there can be variations on that theme. Another flood in the early teens completes the process with secondary sex characteristics like facial hair and the rest. Of course, having the standard male genitalia says nothing about more complicated things like an individual’s sexual orientation, or even necessarily how one might eventually identify one’s gender, as the story of Caitlin Jenner amply demonstrates.
The biology of sex and gender, we have learned in recent years, is far more complex than many of us had ever imagined. But still, biology matters. Let’s look at testosterone. Both men and women produce testosterone, but men produce much more – often 10 times as much. High testosterone correlates with the behavioral traits that stereotypes would lead you to expect: self-confidence, competitiveness, strength, self-confidence, sexual drive. But it’s not a constant thing. Levels of testosterone in the body change in response to changing circumstances, such as physical confrontations or arousing situations.
High testosterone levels are not necessarily linked to violence, but they can be a risk factor. At those times, men are more likely to be reactive and impulsive and less likely to be thoughtful and deliberative. That may work fine in action films, but day to day in our work lives and interacting with others we need our wits about us, and in relationship we need to refine the skills that lead to lasting commitments not just quick thrills. It tends to be after those moments of testosterone-fueled rage or sexual acting out that you hear comments that echo our topic today: Ugh! Men: what are they good for?
It’s worth remembering, though, that part of the advantage that testosterone can confer is strength not just for quick action but also for endurance. We do, after all, have a choice in how we respond. The spiritual that we began with, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” makes that point. It is said to have been a song that African-American slaves sang to encourage each other to stick it out in the hope that they would be freed someday.
It’s a hymn to endurance. The steep and rugged road to freedom was a challenge that they saw their work preparing them for, and each stroke, each hammer blow, each step strengthened them further. “We are climbing on.”
There are many stories that remind us of such lessons. Back in the 70s and 80s a men’s movement arose in the U.S. that looked to ancient fables for guidance on finding a more fulfilling and resonant vision of manhood than our culture seemed to provide. Perhaps the most famous of these was the story of “Iron John,” a Western European coming-of-age tale raised up by the poet Robert Bly.
“Iron John” tells of a boy who comes upon a mythical wild man in the woods who by assigning one task after another encourages the boy to learn disciplines that cultivate courage, endurance and strength that leads the boy to become a mature, confident and compassionate man.
Bly argued that a number of helpful practices that the tale pointed to, such as male mentoring, have been largely lost in our culture and encouraged men to look for ways to reinstate them in the coming-of-age process.
For a time, the archetypes in these stories became the center of retreats, full of dancing and chanting and drumming around campfires. In recent years, though, much of this “men’s movement” has faded from view.
Looking back, we can see that as a teaching tool “Iron John” had its limitations and that the way that Bly and others interpreted the stories often reinforced traditional gender roles. They also provided no way of framing anything but the heterosexual experience.
Still, they served a role by opening the conversation into a way to understand gender identity not simply as a fact of biology but also as a resource for our own awakening, a gift that shapes who we will be and what we will give to the world.
We men look to the wisdom of millennia that tells us that it is not our impulsive energy but our enduring strength that holds whatever greatness we are to achieve. It is not our power over but our steadfast love that will win what is worth keeping.
The “gift” that Li-Young Lee both receives and dispenses in the poem that you heard earlier is just such love, a gift that inspires courage, which is to say strength of heart, in those who receive it. And this may be the greatest gift that men have to give: a gift given from strength and confidence that affirms the ultimate worth and the essential capacity of others.
Hanna Rosen closes her book with a few glimmers of hope among the lost and drifting men she was following. She tells about reconnecting with Calvin, the boyfriend of a young woman she’d met in a Virginia beach town. The two had had a child together, but Calvin had drifted off and the woman, Bethenney, was fine to let him go. She was getting on with her life, studying for a nursing degree and raising her daughter. Calvin just couldn’t seem to find anything.
Checking back with Calvin some months later, Rosen learns that he is recovering from a car wreck that got him thinking about what he wanted from life. “Do I really want to spend the last days of my life smashed between two guys in the front seat of a truck?” he said.
He tells Rosen that he remembers back to when he was 11 and an uncle who was sick came to live with his family. He recalls that after the uncle recovered he started paying attention to Calvin, taking him on fishing trips and teaching him carpentry. The experience, she says, reminded him how just a little care could do a lot to mend people and relationships.
He tells her that he finally got up the nerve to get his papers together to apply to a local college, and how terrifying he found it to walk it into the admission office.
But he did it. And Rosen says Calvin told her that when he crossed the threshold of that office, “I also got this little thrill: like I’m finally doing it.”