Americans—especially American men—take great pride in being brave, bold and independent. However, I’ve begun to wonder whether it is all a myth. Nowhere is the gap between fact and fiction more apparent than in the current failure of men to step up to make a concerted effort to change expectations about what it means to be a “real man.” Uncomfortable being authentic, unable to engage emotionally, unnerved by the repercussions of speaking truth to bullies who enforce the old macho power-aggression patterns (and the women who perpetuate the model as well), we look for a way to move forward without making waves, without taking risks.
Why are we scared? Why do we not have the courage of our convictions? Why do we care if we offend a few friends when so much is at stake?
I work out twice a week with a buddy from Belarus. A master Greco-Roman wrestler, he is by nature a tough-minded Russian. Between squats, he volunteered this observation about Americans:
I came to the States twenty years ago to build a life free of the constraints that were imposed on us back home. What is happening in the US now is actually worse than living in Russia. Americans are such lemmings. They don’t think for themselves. Growing up in Russia, you had to learn how to be an independent thinker, you constantly had to be on your guard, have your wits about you, not believe what the government or the press was telling you. You had to figure stuff out, and beat the system, or make it work for you. Here, no one thinks for themselves. They just repeat what others say.
His unexpected rant reminded me of another conversation eighteen years ago. It was on Election Night 2000 with my father-in-law, Amory Houghton, Jr., who was running for re-election to his Congressional seat in upstate New York, and had chosen to spend the day touring the district with his eight-year-old grandson.
A clear-headed pragmatist, who was then a singular voice of civility, reason, and restraint in Congress, he was one of four House Republicans to vote against all four articles of impeachment against President Clinton. A few years later, he would be one of six House Republicans to vote against going to war in Iraq. More recently, he has he refused to support Trump and has been quite vocal in his criticism.
Before heading to dinner, Amo, Parker, and I went to see Amo’s 100-year-old mother. After our visit, Amo was in a quiet, contemplative mood.
Parker asked his grandfather why some people didn’t vote for him.
Amo paused, then said, “Let me share something that Granny told me when I was about your age. She grew up in Providence, Rhode Island when the State Assembly was building a new statehouse, working with McKim, Mead and White, one of the most famous architectural firms of the day. They needed a statue for the dome, and after much debate, the Assembly rejected the firm’s proposed original eleven-foot sculpture “Hope.” Hope was not enough for them. They wanted something more, something BIG. They felt it was important to make a statement about the character of Rhode Island’s citizens and the way the Assembly would conduct itself. So on top of the dome is a strong, fearless man, wearing only a loincloth, carrying a spear and an anchor, that they call “The Independent Man.”
As my son listened, trying to absorb the lesson, his grandfather continued. “They chose ‘The Independent Man’ because they wanted a symbol of an individual who could think for himself to look over them to make sure that they were honest and just.”
I smiled. Amo was such a man.
I would submit that these words of wisdom are exactly what we all need to hear during these tumultuous times. We need to hit pause, and take time to reflect on the increasing global polarization—in our national politics, between nations, but most importantly, in the ongoing tug-of-war between the sexes.
We can reframe the toxic dynamics between men and women, but we must learn to be independent thinkers and better listeners, not willing to spout the latest vitriol as we endeavor to create a neutral space, some common ground, where we can retool the worn-out models that have never served us well.
We need to learn how to become non-reactive, thoughtful, respectful, responsible men and women so that we might devise new ways in which we can be honest, just, compassionate and kind. We need to learn how to stand up to power and the status quo when change must occur.
Like the State’s fiery founding father, Roger Williams, ‘The Independent Man’ is someone who is willing to take great risks and go where no man has gone before, rejecting the prevailing puritanical conventions. The Independent Man represents the character that today’s men and women must now demonstrate to develop a new language, a new model for reframing a new balance between the genders.
Providentially, we Americans are capable of doing just that.
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