Humankind cannot gain anything without giving something in return.
-Principle of Equivalent Exchange, Fullmetal Alchemist
People are different from things. This pretty much goes without saying, but for the purposes of this series of posts they’re actually kind of similar. After all, men don’t just test their things to the breaking point, they put themselves under the gun, too. Of course, in many respects the things I said last week about the importance of testing limits and knowing more about stuff applies to people as well as things. The difference comes in a willingness to take on sacrifice as a part of growth.
Now there’s a lot of talk about the evolution of gender roles, men as gatherers and women as allocators, feeling vs. thinking and what have you when modern people talk about men and women. I want to say that I’m not going to try and address any of that. Here’s what I do know: In my experience, men are far and away the more likely to face a situation where they want something and immediately ask themselves, “What do I have to do get that? Do I have to give something up? I’ll give up (fill in the blank) for that.”
And they’ll immediately be warned of the consequences of their decision by their sister/girlfriend/wife. Now, as with many of the things I’ve talked about in this post, this kind of behavior is by no means restricted to men. Women can, and do, make these kinds of tradeoffs all the time. Sacrifice is not gender specific.
The difference is, men tend to get excited about it. Men are objectively driven thinkers. They want to get somewhere. This is how they define themselves. What’s often missed in this equation is how much a man wants to get somewhere. The man who wants to own his own business, the man who wants to get the girl, the man who wants to get revenge, these are a few of the faces of the man with an objective. He cuts himself to the bone to get there, and he measures the importance of the goal by how much he’s willing to set aside to get there. As sacrifices pile up obviously he’s getting closer to where he wants to be, right?
Sacrifice is one of the ways men express themselves. It’s a sign of devotion, of value and of respect. Men sacrifice with a single purpose in mind. They know they’re going to pay for it, that there may be unintended consequences, that they’ll hate themselves later. But that (for whatever value of that) is worth the cost. For a man, the widespread consequences of laying something aside pale before the sheer excitement of the change they believe they’ll create.
In an interesting corollary, don’t be surprised if a man drops a goal if he finds he’s not willing to sacrifice to get to it. There’s a sort of know-thyself revelation in these things. Don’t want to pay the price for something? How much did you really want it? How does it stack up to all those other objectives you had?
Men are creatures of sacrifice. They have to be, it’s part of how they’re wired. As with all other aspects of manhood, this is neither a positive or a negative. I hammer this over and over again but this is one place where it particularly stands out. Society today tends to think of sacrifice as a negative, when we think of it at all. I think this has something to do with being a consumer society, we just want more we don’t think about cutting back very often. The one exception is in dreams and the future. People are often told to settle, that what they can get easily is enough. Enjoy it and don’t look for more.
And there’s nothing wrong with that advice in some situations. There are plenty of self-destructive kinds of sacrifice out there. The man who spends eighty hours at work every week so he can get to the top but never sees his family. The athlete who totally destroys his body in five years of competition and is a virtual cripple for the next forty years of his life. But can you really get anything worthwhile if you don’t give something up?
The alternative is to over glorify sacrifice, something that was more common in the past but isn’t talked about as much now. It does seem noble to set aside something you want to strive more totally for something else. These days we gloss over those kinds of costs but once upon a time that kind of devotion was highly praised. But if you’ve traded time with your family to slave away at a job that you’ll ultimately retire from totally alone, was the sacrifice really a good thing?
Objectives are in the future. Many of them cannot be reached without sacrifice and, as I’ve already said, sometimes when they’re called into doubt men give them up. But should they?
The American Civil War required that over 600,000 men sacrifice their lives. People still can’t agree over what they sacrificed for. But no one who’s been born and raised in the United States would disagree with Lincoln when he said they offered their last full measure of devotion. Even when we’re not sure what that meant, the fact of it still move us.
When writing men, then, the questions are these:
What will a man sacrifice?
What does he expect go gain from his sacrifice?
What will he actually gain?
How will the sacrifice change him?
Will it be worth it?
At the end of the day, the sum of a man is not measured in what he gave up and what he gained from it. Character, once created, cannot be destroyed. But as a man builds up and sacrifices, as his circumstances and mindset change over time with new frameworks for thought being set up, tested and cast aside, a man grows. Let that growth be the measure of him.