Crafting a Healthy Masculinity (Part 2): Ending Martyr Culture

Don’t do this without good reason. Painting is  The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian  by Andrea Mategna (1480)

Don’t do this without good reason. Painting is The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by Andrea Mategna (1480)

To build a Healthy Masculinity, we need to think about where traditional masculinity went wrong. There are a lot of pieces written on the ways it goes wrong and on the particular horrors of rape culture. Many of them quite good, and I don't want to seem like I'm just dismissing them. I, however, want to start somewhere different.

I want to look at what I call “Martyr Culture.”

Now, Martyr Culture is not particularly masculine, but it is endemic in American masculinity. It's the mindset that says you have to sacrifice everything to have any worth. In that way, it's sort of at the crossroads of capitalism and toxic masculinity.

It took a long time for me to see the shape of Martyr Culture as clearly as I do. I first saw it as something pathological near the end of my time in high school, where I witnessed its effects on a friend.

Now, I'm not going to name this young man because I don't want to call him out. That's not the purpose of this piece. He had enough difficulties growing up and I'm not going to add to them. To whit, when he graduated, his former guardian split town, leaving him the house and everything associated with it. This included a mountain of bills illegally wracked up in his name.

This was a bit of a scandal in our neighborhood, and all of our parents got together to try to help him fix it. Or, at least, to blunt the worst of it.

In my recollection, he refused every offer of help.

To hear him tell it, the good and honest thing – the manly thing – to do was to bear this burden alone and succeed or fail under his own power. I saw him far less after that: we drifted apart as I headed off to college.

Maybe it's cowardly to hold someone else up as an example when I marinated in this for years. I thought that when I dealt with people, especially those I esteemed highly, I had to take the short end of the stick.

I thought that I needed to give everything to be worth anything.

What I mean is that instead of trying to connect with people I wanted to be closer to, I thought I needed to sacrifice for them. This presupposes that anything I had to sacrifice was something that another person would want, though.

It ignores the fact that sometimes people just want your company. They don't want you to give them a pound of flesh you carved out of yourself just for them, just a bit of time to have a drink and talk. It's exhausting to be around someone trying to empty themselves of everything worthwhile, and it took me many years to learn that. If someone had wanted to stick around, I'd have eventually become a husk, a burdensome presence.

I like to think I've broken these habits, but the foundations are still there. I have to stop myself from engaging in this behavior, because it leads to a lot of grotesque perversions of civility. Those psychological machineries may be cold, but Martyr Culture is still there. It's going to be there until enough people tug it out by the roots.

Trudging to work. From  Metropolis  (1927), dir. Fritz Lang.

Trudging to work. From Metropolis (1927), dir. Fritz Lang.

It's important to identify it. So let me explain:

Martyr Culture is being proud of how little you sleep.

Martyr Culture is bragging about how ruined your body is by work.

Martyr Culture is believing, in short, that you can empty yourself into fullness.

Anyone can fall victim to this, but in America men, especially working-class men, are fed this line from childhood. We're told that our honor doesn't come from who we are but from what we do. Our actions define us, and a real man is defined by hard work to support his family.

People brought up with the expectation that they'll grow in to women are forced to run a different gauntlet: first our culture tries to shape them into sex objects, and then tells them that they need to empty themselves out to perform emotional labor instead of physical labor. There's been a lot of insightful stuff written on that, which I will let stand on its own, as it's beyond the focus of this piece.

Let's refocus – here's the question I want to explore: If we're told we have to give up everything that makes life worth living, what does that do to our relationships?

I think this is where the “Nice Guy” comes from. We're told that we have to give everything away, that it's the good – read “nice” – thing to do. We're told that we have to slave away to support a family, and some men try to use generosity as a trap. Perhaps obviously, it's a bad tool for this.

Allow me to explain: as someone who has been handed trash by children or particularly child-like friends, just because someone gives you something doesn't mean you want it. A person shouldn't be expected feel gratitude for trash.

Photo from Unsplash, taken by Dan Carlson.

Photo from Unsplash, taken by Dan Carlson.

I want you to imagine someone walking over hot coals and broken glass to hand you an empty Mars Bar wrapper, and then imagine that they are furious that you don't treasure it. That's the “Nice Guy.”

Oftentimes, the act of generosity isn't even particularly well-aimed at the person from whom gratitude is expected – it's just random acts of sacrifice tossed into the ether, with the feeling that the world is going to pay them back for it. Is it any shock that this mindset leads to resentment? If this is what you thought you had to do to be happy and it didn't work out, you'd be pissed off, too.

Trust me when I give this evaluation: I used to be that guy (not to the point of wearing a fedora or ever saying the word “m'lady”, thank god,) and I'm grateful for all the patient people who helped me stop.

So let's say you read the above and you felt like you were reading a bad parody of the wayback machine archive of your Xanga. Let's say you're still that guy but you don't want to be. What do you do about it? You may think you should just stop being generous and turn jaded and cynical, expecting the world to kick you in the teeth.

That's not the issue. You want the world to be just, and we need that, but you're looking at it from the wrong angle. Here's the thing, a secret I'll let you in on: generosity is good.

But if it's part of a transaction the other person didn't agree to, is it generosity? Or is it manipulation?

Perhaps the most honest thing would be to come out and say this. Not just to women, but to anyone: “I'm driving you to the airport because I want help with my taxes.” “I'm helping you move because I want to have sex with you.” That sort of thing.

Does the thought of that fill you with terror?

If so, perhaps you're doing it for the wrong reason.

Consider, again, Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, from  Mad Max: Fury Road  (2015) — his goal when introduced is to sacrifice himself for his own glory; at the end of the film, he sacrifices himself for others’ safety. When you remove yourself from the center of the equation, interconnection becomes possible.

Consider, again, Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) — his goal when introduced is to sacrifice himself for his own glory; at the end of the film, he sacrifices himself for others’ safety. When you remove yourself from the center of the equation, interconnection becomes possible.

Human interaction isn't transactional most of the time. We go to work, we tolerate selling chunks of our life away, so that we can enjoy the hours we're not at work. Ideally. Hopefully. If you're making all of your relationships into transactional ones, you're just being awful.

So let's focus on the good, and cut away what isn't. What I'm getting at here can be put forward as an aphorism: “Healthy Masculinity isn't transactional.”

More can be said, especially about how Martyr Culture contributes to suicide rates, but this is where I’m going to leave it for today.