A war breaks out and the king orders the men to fight. So, the man gets up, puts on his coat, walks down the hall and says to his wife, “I’m going to battle. I hope to see you again, but I dare not promise.” The woman cries, pulls at his coat and says, “Stay there. Think about us!” The man scratches his head, takes off his coat again, and says, “You’re right. Sod off to the king.” He wants to hug her, but the woman holds back. Is this a real man, she wonders.
5.5 million German and 10.7 million Russian soldiers died in World War II. A bit further back, a total of more than 8.6 million soldiers died in the First World War. In short, hundreds of wars have claimed the lives of millions of soldiers, and I suspect at least 95 percent of them were men.
Those men didn’t choose to die. That’s a choice generals—other men—made for them. If you grew up as a boy, you just had to be lucky that your country wasn’t at war. If you weren’t so lucky, you could have docked in Port Lyttelton in 1916, New Zealand, only to be shot by the German infantry one day after arriving at the Somme after a journey of months. Or the first faint mustache of manhood could have graced your face while you were trapped with the Red Army in Stalingrad in 1943. There your choice was either dying from bullets from behind you or bullets from in front.
Now we are here. We thought we had left that all behind us, but thanks to Vladimir Putin, we haven’t and Ukrainian men who fled to the west to avoid the war are getting the stink eye. Shouldn’t they defend their country? Not long ago, when IS wreaked havoc in Syria and Iraq, Isis first loaded all the men, 14 years and older, into trucks, drove out of the village, and put bullets through their heads. No more trouble from these men, according to the other men.
We can argue that a man’s life is worth less than a woman’s life. Until a few years ago, even Dutch law stated that men were subject to compulsory military service, so they can die for king and country, and women were not. That has been adjusted, but laws follow culture and culture does not change that quickly.
Besides those wars, the mines, the factories, the industrial revolution and more swallowed men. In any event it took them away from home and family, often to an early death, whether or not it was hastened by one of the many variants of self-destruction that were readily available.
We can argue that a man’s life is worth less than a woman’s life
In a way, it’s nothing to get angry about: a male, or a male mammal, is simply biologically less useful than the female. If our only goal was to procreate, that is. We only need a few men, who might be having the time of their lives (that’s where biology helps), for a community to exist.
Basically a man knows that he is, at the core of it, redundant. But he is also human; he thinks so he exists in the present and he wants to, at least, survive. But he also wants to be seen, touched, loved, and to matter, and to be immortal. To live on.
But how to, without a uterus? Nor does he have a body that makes it clear every month that he has to stop or that teaches him to deal with loss, like a woman can lose an egg, loses blood, can lose a pregnancy, or lose her freedom because of one. No, or not that much, development of visible body parts forcing him to respond to the eyes – and more – of others. No transition, where a body makes clear to a woman, again, what phase she is in. Never the experience of carrying an unborn child. Few men will be jealous about that, but it is interesting to consider that the man is in this way deprived of the internal, physical, experience of loss and gain.
In other words, if you wonder why men do what they do (and why it is sometimes fantastic and sometimes terrible) the answer is: he acts from impotence. He knows of his redundancy, he knows that he has to sort out being human himself and his body doesn’t helping him with that. And from his impotence, the man moves to get power, always and again. That’s what I call: the first polarity of the man.
All too often he does so at the expense of women’s freedom. Thus the woman loses her freedom; the man loses his life.
To temper these polarities, communities invented meaningful rituals such as hazing, memorization of sacred texts, the army, and getting a driver’s license, which at least let boys know they weren’t boys anymore, but men, who were entitled to power, or freedom.
The polarity led to immortal artists and inventive entrepreneurs, groundbreaking athletes, and intrepid adventurers, but also cruel generals and terrorists. All in search of immortality. The estimated $200 billion, attributed to Putin, is apparently not enough for him to feel man enough. I fear it will never be enough unless we proclaim him supreme leader of the free world.
All in search of immortality
Because that’s the problem with the impotence-power polarity, mortality-immortality. When is it enough? Or did you already gain power when you’ve challenged mortality? That may explain why so many men in the Great War voluntarily picked up their bayonets and jumped out of the trenches, and why drug criminals may live a short life and consider that an acceptable risk in exchange for a Rolex on the wrist and speeding down the highway in a Lamborghini.
With women, I suspect, the polarities are less extreme: they are better at taking a pause. Not only because of the cycles of their bodies, but also because they know better than men that they cannot and do not have to do it alone and that ‘being’ is at least as important as ‘doing’.
We often see that the man who hoped to harvest in middle age finds that his efforts have yielded little. That the roles he thought he had to play—devoted father, faithful partner, industrious worker, loyal son, considerate neighbor, and so on—have left little benefit: little sense of meaning or belonging. An emptiness ensues, again impotence. It is not surprising that men between the ages of 40 and 70 are at greatest risk of suicide.
‘being’ is at least as important as ‘doing’
I lost a brother to suicide in this age group; a father of three sons; his standard answer to ‘how are you?’ was ‘good-good’. I now regularly speak to relatives of these types of men. They turned out to feel impotent: hadn’t learned to deal with emotions, and fear and sadness kicked in as anger turned inwards.
Men still have a long way to go in this regard, but the advantage within this disadvantage is that our earth can no longer tolerate patriarchy or capitalism in its old form. The old polarity from powerlessness to power has mainly led to economic power, shareholder power. After all: whoever had the money could buy immortality. But that is no longer the case.
Rather today than tomorrow, men – starting with those between the ages of 40 and 70 – could get present to the polarity and try to get out of it. They could stop thinking: what am I entitled to, or how can I get as much as possible, or what do they expect from me? But rather, make room in the present for their true needs and desires. To find healthy autonomy by being completely honest with themselves and others, no matter how painful that may be. That’s not selfish, that’s strong.
If men genuinely love themselves, without requiring idiotic behavior to prove it, we can get rid of that patriarchy – and with it, capitalism, and hopefully the climate crisis. And we can stop a man having to go to war, to prove to a woman that he matters.