aim higher: how we think about men

“I know how to do it at school, but I don’t know how to do it at home.” Our four year old daughter loves to yell at me, perched atop the toilet near our kitchen. Yesterday, after telling her I could not leave the stove to watch her pee, she demanded I come wipe her. I reminded her she knows how to take care of herself, and does it at school all the time. That’s when she whine-yelled the sentence above on loop for several minutes.

Her reasoning was ridiculous, but I have a feeling she learned it from us. Many of us have standards for behaviors that vary based on our setting. For instance, I am more likely to yell at someone who angers me at home, but I have yet to do so at work. My kids’ behavior at home reminds me of wild elephants that are occasionally affectionate but always leave a wake of destruction in their path. I sincerely hope they do not behave that way in other people’s homes. My own mother has wished for years that I had different standards of clothing for home and public. Alas, I continue to baffle her, rarely looking in the mirror before I grab my keys.

Her hope that I will dress up for the outside world reflects a larger cultural acceptance that our behavior and habits change depending on where we are.

This is certainly true in many areas of my life, but at times it all seems rather absurd to me. Why do I use restraint or fully engage only in certain arenas? Why do our expectations of others fluctuate dependent on place? My favorite iteration of this type of thinking is when married women disparage their husbands, laughing as they complain that their partner is genetically incapable of picking up his shoes, returning his glass to the sink, lowering the seat, or remembering when the kids have choir. The deficits of males who live in interdependent households shared by others are widely mocked and accepted by women and men alike.

Often the party pooper, I loathe this type of thinking for at least two reasons.

First, these stereotypes totalize our gendered experiences in ways that I find unobservant. The basic construct that ALL MEN do any one thing strikes me as ridiculous. We know plenty of slobby, disorganized women, just as we know type A, neat freak men. Given this, why do we agree to pretend like there are no exceptions to the rule that men mostly function as needy, additional children?

I think the answer is imbedded in the question. We love to think we are exceptional, while often painting others with the broadest brush possible. I am more than a product of my gender or cultural norms or habits, but those other people are all the same! We offer ourselves the dignity of agency, choosing how we live and how our actions impact others, but we easily slide into assuming the people around us are just the way they are, and we might as well get used to it.

We might be less likely to dismiss others if we notice the unique individual standing before us rather than seeing them mostly as a product of the group to which they ‘belong.’

The second reason I think humorous stereotypes about men are unintelligent and maybe even dangerous is this: We expect and allow men to rule the world while treating them as incapable slobs around the house. The boldness of our society-wide cognitive dissonance is staggering. How do we simultaneously view men as natural leaders, effective visionaries who complete tasks while improving systems as they go, and—at the same time—as utterly incapable of getting their laundry to and from the washing machine? In my view, we mostly give them far too much credit in the public sphere, and far too little credit in the private one.

It is tempting to treat men like extra-large problem children. It is often all in good fun, and many men seem to enjoy the banter and revel in the labels placed upon them (Maybe they have discovered that such incongruent stereotypes work in their favor. These widely mocked behaviors pave the way for men to kick ass at work and do little at home. Sounds like a sweet deal, but I know better). Even if it is socially acceptable to belittle the function of men at home, it reduces us in toxic ways.

I need look no further than my partner and husband, who is a physician. He is, in fact, prone to leave his junk wherever it lands at home, he often forgets who goes where when, and his instincts for tidying up are lackluster. However, he has never, to my knowledge, forgotten about a surgery or left medical instruments inside a person’s body. He is, in fact, incredibly organized, decisive, dare I say tidy?, at work. He is a fabulous leader and detail oriented in all the right ways. Knowing this, why on earth would I treat him as an incapable slob at home, preventing him from engaging our family in all the helpful ways that only he can?

When we reduce folks to a stereotype, locking them into a tribe or a group rather than seeing them as individuals capable of growth, we limit our ability to hope for better. We choose to deal with the status quo rather than to challenge it in order to improve.  

Why do we act certain ways in some contexts, and abandon those standards in others? We know how to be compassionate in many spaces, but we thwart those instincts in others. We know how to speak up, using our voice to raise a different point of view or to protect a vulnerable person in some moments, but we remain silent in others. For the next few weeks, I’ll explore the ways our habits demonstrate my daughter’s thinking as she hollers incessantly from the bathroom. Let’s think about all the ways we “know how to do it at school, but don’t know how to do it at home,” and then dream together as we imagine how to remind ourselves that we already know how to care deeply about the growth of those around us, if only we will pay attention.

on earth day (in your neighborhood)

Today is Earth Day, so I’m offering a few thoughts on the earth and how we inhabit it. It seems to me that in order to think well about the earth we must first consider the way we share our human existence in it. I like to think of my approach to others as a community park where anyone can wonder in and enjoy sharing space, hardship or conversation. In reality, though, my default approach is often more like a country club where certain others are deemed worthy (or not) of welcome. This is the worst! It reveals my instinct to make my self and my preferences exceptional. I privilege me. Deep down, although I know I am ‘one of many’, I somehow keep behaving as if I am ‘the one.’ On this day set aside to honor the earth, it is a helpful exercise to think about the way we think we fit together. Fundamentally, do I want to share, or hoard?

God is a big fan of community. We know this because our origin story is not about a guy, but a community comprised of Father, Son and Spirit God. Genesis explains that God created Adam and Eve as partners, and later sent pairs into the ark in order to preserve life after devastating destruction. God also sent disciples out in pairs, and then made sure his mother and best friend did not forget to do the obvious—care for each other in his absence—upon his death.  God is a creator of community; long lasting, through cycles of scarcity and plenty, togetherness is one of the messages of Scripture. God’s neighborhood—God’s ‘us’—is bigger than ours.

God created the earth: Sky, light, sea, land, and all the plants and animals in it, and then proclaimed the creation “Good.” He created people and called them, “Very Good.” For the first work God asked Adam to build a community with the animals. To name them. To care for them. To be with them. This work gave Adam dignity and purpose, charging him with stewarding his dominion as a shared participant in the community. It was the second manifestation of God’s love of community. First, the Trinity.  Second, living things sharing space. Neighborhoods, if you will.

 Just as God created the cycles of day and night, the growing process had a cycle of working and resting. We work to plant the next harvest or child or litter, and then wait for life to come and grow. This waiting, being one part of a bigger whole, is a manifestation of the necessary humility built into the universe. We have the privilege to do our part, but we know our part is ultimately insufficient. Our human experience fundamentally reflects and mimics the experiences of others, following the earth’s rhythm repeated all over the world.

And yet, we do not think of ourselves as mimickers. We are not like them, those other living things. We are “very good”, not merely “good.” Our notion that we are not just different from but actually better than provides a foundation that allows stewarding dominion to become arbitrary abuse. Sharing becomes hoarding. We often are unthinking and selfish in the way we relate to natural resources, but some of us justify our abuse of the earth as somehow embodying the role given to us by our Creator. But we are not exceptional. We are part of the whole. We are one of many. 

The earth’s cycles speak of humility in the very sharedness of our neighborhoods.  We cannot live apart from the earth. We cannot live apart from other people. We are not self sustaining. In fact, we can only sustain our own lives when we acknowledge our dependence on and place in the whole.  A responsible ethic of living and stewardship must be rooted in recognizing that we are part of an ecosystem, and that our notion of community must expand to include the earth and all that is in it.  It is singularly terrible that in America, those who identify as Christians seem most likely to ignore the fragility of the earth and the people trying to live in it. Giving ourselves the mantle of ‘exceptional’ in our ecosystems has led to privileging our perspective, our needs and our wants over every other stakeholder in our environment. If we do not see ourselves as an important part of the fabric of sustaining life that God created then we will indeed, become exceptionally destructive, vulnerable, and, ultimately, unable to flourish in the world we were given, and then destroyed.

This Earth Day, might we each take a moment to recognize our dependence on the earth and those with whom we share it? Dependent humility, not exceptional arrogance, is the posture best suited for those of us trying to love our neighbors well. Sharing, rather than hoarding. How can your actions (in your very neighborhood) add to the flourishing of your environment (human and natural), rather than making sure you get what you want in the short term? Together, let’s do the hard work of expanding our thinking about neighboring to also include the animals and water and earth and food with whom we share the task of sustaining life.

on Easter

At Radnor, a State Park in Nashville, tiny buds and opening blooms sprinkle the ground and sky. I cannot scan any part of the landscape without being accosted by the green. New growth is nearly neon, glowing in intensity, while the maturing buds settle into a deeper, less pretentious green. It is gorgeous, but feels particularly aggressive on an early spring morning when the temperature is so low that such signs of life feel out of place. Walking in the cold, seeing my breath, surrounded by dead things, new life assaults the eyes.

My favorite thing about the Torah is the way God chooses unexpected people to lead and become heroes of the story. Jacob, a greedy liar who doesn’t understand family, becomes the selfless Father of the nation of Israel. Joseph, a self-centered jerk, given to hyperbolic delusions of grandeur, is mistreated terribly as God teaches him to embody patience, forgiveness and restraint as he saves a nation from starvation. Moses, adopted, a felon, and not great with words, is chosen by God to speak up to Pharaoh and lead Israelites out of slavery and into freedom.

The trend continues in the New Testament of Christians, as a random group of diverse and disagreeable men are united by Jesus to change the world through love. Jesus consistently elevates unexpected folks, from having dinner with greedy traitors, to often telling stories where the hero was a person shunned out on the street. Indeed, Jesus regularly invested in women, teaching them as if they had the intellect of rabbis, charging them as if they had the courage of warriors, and trusting them as if they had the loyalty of a close brother in a time when women had little to no legal or cultural standing.

Jesus consistently found value in folks overlooked or ignored by others. Like God in the Old Testament, the Christ saw value where others did not. It seems to me that the modern American church has lost sight of this core consistency strung through Judaism and Christianity. Most of us seem to have traded the God who crafts a story around a person usually pushed to the margins by making her the hero, for a God who backs the biggest, strongest, meanest guy in the room. Rather than going into the world with nothing, depending on our Creator to meet our needs, our Father to guide and comfort us, and our Messiah to justify and protect us, we horde wealth, blame others with fear, and pretend like God hates all the same people we do. We are, I’m afraid, terrible at bearing witness to the life and passion and purpose of Christ as the embodiment of the Holy Scripture.

This is why I love Passover and Easter. The central holidays of the Jewish and Christian calendar are about hope existing in the midst of death. For Jews, Passover reminds us that even when all seems lost, God will somehow provide protection. It reminds us that the way to be in the world is not to shout louder or to get a bigger gun, but to huddle close with those you love, share a fabulous meal and pray that God will protect you. Likewise, Easter reminds Christians that the way the God of the universe decided to take care of God’s people was through sacrifice. In the Christian story, pain and suffering are not meaningless, but are shared with hope. Death is not the end, but a natural part of a cycle always leading back to life.

The natural world reveals to us that there is no birth without rebirth. We do not live independently, but as part of vast ecosystems that follow a pattern: death and decay leading to nourishment and life. This Passover and Easter, I am thankful I follow a God who doesn’t ask me to win. Instead, God reminds me that getting low, being overlooked or betrayed, feeling wounded beyond repair, hurting deep in my secret places, is not the end of the story. In God’s telling, these places of pain and death are inhabited by the God who made us, and whose very world is predicated on the idea that death leads to life.

Easter, for me, is not about victory, or winning, or power. It is about a God who sends a tiny bud of neon green to light up a death-ridden forest floor. It is about a God who chooses a hero from a group of outcasts. It is about a God whose death destroyed his closest friends, but whose miraculous resurrection soon gave them hope, as he fed them a meal and gave them a communal purpose, inviting them deeper into the mysterious ways of God than they thought they could go.

This week, when the ubiquitous green catches you off guard, or when an overlooked colleague finds recognition, or when you find comfort in a painful moment, or when you feel solidarity with an ostracized person, I hope you will remember the arc of the story of the Judeo-Christian God is actually a cycle, where death is never the end, but a pathway to new life.