I am concerned about the fate of men. Yes, I mean adult males. The gender with which I have identified has had a poor showing of late. On a daily basis, men in positions of power are being “outed” for their boorish sexual and aggressive behavior—mostly but not exclusively directed towards women. When we look carefully at the men who are running our governments, corporations, and religious institutions, we find plenty of despots but precious few leaders. Almost every day in the U.S., a desperate man enters a public place, heavily armed, and opens fire on other members of his community. Men commit 90% of all homicides and 77% of all suicides. They are also three times as likely as women to be murdered and nine times as likely to end up in a State or Federal prison.
Your first reaction to all this might be: Let’s not throw a pity party for men when they have been handed so much power! Because of that power, the fate of men is the fate of our planet. And we must all be concerned when we empower individuals without preparing them properly for the responsibilities that such power entails.
As Abraham Lincoln noted, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Having graded thousands of exams in my life, I can say that the vast majority of men in power would earn a failing grade on this test. Why is that? My sense is that our world lacks a clear sense of what it means to be a man.
How do we define a man? In a time when the question of gender has become far more complex, having a penis or an XY genotype is simply not enough. We now know that gender is a social construct. The clothes we wear, the length and style of our hair, the activities we enjoy, and the ways in which we interact with other men and women, are all shaped by family, community, and culture. We see plenty of evidence every day that women can enjoy and succeed at work and leisure activities that were once considered the exclusive domain of men. And even the role of men in family life has been called into question at a time when one in four children is being raised without a father.
While conventional gender roles crumble and collapse, we are left to wonder: What should a boy know by the time he becomes a man? I feel strongly that manhood is about giving. In the sexual act, a man may give himself to his partner in the most intimate way possible, inserting himself into the one that inspires his love and passion. Yes, men are capable of being receptive, too. Giving and receiving are equally important capabilities, and neither is the exclusive domain of one gender. I just mean that men are biologically and spiritually disposed to give themselves fully—to their lovers, friends, families, and communities.
Albert Einstein said, “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” To me, a man of value is a selfless servant. He understands that power can only be constructive when it is wielded for the benefit of others. At a time when the actions of an individual have global consequences, we have no choice but to redefine success and value in terms of the greater good. In the past, men in power have often operated under the assumption that “he who dies with the most toys wins.” This assumption has never been grounded in truth; now we see how destructive a philosophy it really is. The rules of the game have changed. Our common survival depends on a new conception of manhood: “He who gives himself most freely wins.” A man’s value can only be measured in terms of how he benefits the world.
I can only think of one test of manhood that has any significance at this juncture in human history. It is the answer to a single question: Is the world better off because of you? In the past, too many men have failed this test. If humanity has any hope of a future, we must do everything in our power to make sure that every man—and every woman—passes this test with flying colors.