Over the holiday I read a remarkable news article about a father-and-son “Good Samaritan” duo who pulled a woman from the burning wreckage of an accident that totaled her truck and broke her legs, undoubtedly saving her life. Only once they had carried the woman to safety did the father realize his own leg had been on fire.
The Hartford Courant went on to include detailed descriptions of the previous exploits of these tough Northeastern loggers who were used to hauling themselves and each other out of the woods to the hospital with broken ribs, bleeding wounds from chainsaw accidents, and more.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this story is how unremarkably common it is. A good friend who was in the Marines tells one about stopping for coffee at a drive-thru on his way to the emergency room to treat a head laceration from being struck by a tree. I bet if we all asked our guy friends, we’d get at least a few similar stories (minus the dramatic rescue, perhaps).
This particularly male brand of obliviousness to danger was satirized in the classic spoof Monty Python and the Holy Grail by the Black Knight, who, hopping about absurdly with both arms severed, protests, “It’s just a flesh wound.”
It’s a fun, easy target for mockery – until, of course, someone needs to be pulled from a smoldering Ford Ranger.
The Connecticut logger exemplifies such virtues as courage, physical and mental strength, selflessness, sacrifice. Enter the Catholic Encyclopedia to remind us that the etymological root of virtue is vir, man.
Is that because there is no such thing as lumberjills, nuns never wield chainsaws, or that women aren’t capable of amazing feats? Of course not. Still, research provides ample evidence that testosterone reduces fear. If it were me in the truck and I had to bet my life on it, I would hope my rescuer had “cojones.”
Fearlessness must be properly channeled, or it can become disregard for just consequences and others’ suffering. We’ve seen plenty of that lately. Early in the developing Weinstein saga I commented that people might be underestimating how bad things could really be. I stand by that, and my eyes haven’t stopped rolling over Woody Allen’s fears of a witch hunt.
Nevertheless, the label and fretting over “toxic masculinity” gets the emphasis deeply wrong. I expect sincere feminists will at this point complain that it is not meant to apply to all men. But to this observer, the phrase has always lent itself too conveniently to scapegoating.
In any case, damage is being done. I was incredibly saddened by a Washington Post reporter’s tweet that “We must regard all men as potential monsters to be feared.” I’ve encountered genuine evil and still cannot imagine living that way. Abuse distorts reality, and there is a great need for this to be addressed in counseling by competent professionals.
Writer Stephen Marche invokes everyone from Oedipus to Origen (that the latter castrated himself is disputed, by the way) in his New York Times indictment of “the nature of men in general” and “the implicit brutality of male sexuality.” His diagnoses – for instance, that many people would prefer to avoid the discomfort of difficult conversations about evil – are not wholly inaccurate, but his prescriptions are vague at best, and his unexplained dismissal of “morality” troubling.
“If you want to be a civilized man, you have to consider what you are,” Marche writes. If a man is a hopeless beast whose highest aspiration is to muddle along inflicting as little harm as possible, though, what’s there to consider?
Furthermore, where is any discussion of to what extent characters like Lady Macbeth or the cruel princess Turandot are emblematic of the whole female sex? While we are finally just beginning to admit that a woman can rape a man, there is no comparable national conversation about any toxic culture of gossip, cattiness, and weaponized social ostracization that can thrive in spaces dominated by women. We had Mean Girls and then the world largely moved on.
The antidote to all of this is not to despair and wallow in the darkness of the dark or the viceyness of the vice. Nor is it to deny that evil could manifest differently in men and women. It must be countered with heroic virtue.
Boys and men need to hear just as much – no, more! – about the Connecticut loggers, or about the Afghani policeman who gave his life to stop a suicide bomber without a second thought, as they do about Harvey Weinstein and company. They need to hear the word virtue, hear it praised, especially after we’ve spent decades deriding it in the sexual arena.
The responsibility of a Christian in a fallen world and a post-Christian culture is to point toward the real hope of redemption and recall the heights that are still attainable through the grace of our God – grace that allows a hero like our logger to say truly and in all humility:
“You do the right thing. That’s the way I was raised.”