My piece earlier this week — noting research that college men have less physical strength than their fathers did — kicked up a bit of a hornet’s nest. I got a number of responses both on Twitter and sent to me privately that took issue with what they called (in general) my hurtful caricature of masculinity.
Not all men need to be strong, they argued. The new economy meant that men didn’t have to be strong to compete, and — besides — many men experienced deep pain when they were mocked as kids for being “sissies” when they didn’t play sports or participate in outdoor activities. My piece brought back bad memories, and revived “toxic” conceptions of gender roles that have allegedly done much harm.
Let me respond with a story. A few years ago, my wife and I went on a Cub Scout hike with my son’s pack. We walked a couple miles down a steep ravine, stopped at a waterfall, and watched while the boys played in the creek. Unfortunately, one of the boys threw a rock that hit my son square in the head. Blood was everywhere, and the gash was deep. I know that head wounds bleed a lot, but this one was worse than most. And there was no way an ambulance could come to us.
So we had to carry him, very quickly, up the ravine. He was starting to lose consciousness, so we couldn’t ask him to walk. While the pack leader applied direct pressure, my wife and I began the climb — moving as quickly as we could. When I tired, I handed him to her, and she carried him until I got my breath back. Working together, we got to the top of the hill just as the ambulance arrived. He was transported immediately to the hospital, and they patched him up before the blood loss was serious.
Here’s the problem — just three years before, when I’d mostly surrendered to my desk job life, I wouldn’t have been able to run with my third-grade son more than 100 yards up a steep hill, much less most of the two miles. I would have collapsed, wheezing, on the ground while I counted on other parents to do the lion’s share of the work to help my own child. He would have needed me, and I wouldn’t have been able to provide meaningful help. But fortunately, I had already made a serious, concerted effort to get in shape. I was there for him.
Compared to most real crises, my story isn’t that big a deal. But I don’t care if you’re a social media manager, fashion designer, or full-time e-sports champ who makes seven figures clicking a mouse, life still happens. You never know what tomorrow brings. I’m not saying that everyone should be a body builder or a mechanic — after all, some people will always be better lawyers than lumberjacks — but even lawyers can knock out push-ups and run on a track.
Here’s my own test of reasonable physical strength – one that can be met by every able-bodied and able-minded military-age male in the U.S.
Could you, if necessary, pick up a rifle and defend your nation from its enemies? To make this concrete, could you meet the minimum standards of even the military’s least-demanding physical fitness test?
If an intruder came into your home or a criminal attacked your family, do you have enough physical strength to at least give yourself a chance at fighting off an average attacker?
Are you strong enough to render valuable service to neighbors in need? In other words, could you fill sandbags if there’s a flood, change truck tires if an elderly woman is stranded on the roadside, or provide capable service when the shut-in down the street needs to move her belongings to an assisted living facility?
I raise these items in the context of masculinity not because women can’t help (you should have seen my wife taking her turns carrying our kid) but because men are far better equipped than women to provide immediate physical aid. Your average man simply has much more potential physical strength then your average woman, and the decision to voluntarily let that strength decline is a waste. I should know. As I said before, there was a time when I let myself go, content with the he knowledge that I could succeed as a lawyer and writer without the benefit of a single push-up. I changed course, and it’s made my life better, it’s made my family’s life better, and it’s made me a better example for my son.
Bullying is wrong, but childhood bullying is not a reason to demand less from men but rather a reason to demand civility and manners from the bullies. Crass stereotyping has hurt young men, especially some young teens, but the answer is to confront the crass, not to detonate gender norms. Physical weakness is not a virtue. Voluntary weakness is a vice. And, yes, a man has an obligation to be strong.