If you haven’t noticed yet, these posts usually end up dealing with something that comes up in my daily conversations. When I begin hearing about issues from friends and relatives and not just online sources and media, I realize that maybe throwing my hat in the ring could help someone navigate an issue, or at least help someone think through something. And today I am going to lay down on the metaphorical hand grenade that is gender.
I have a little girl on the way. I cannot tell you how excited I am to raise a little girl. I already know she will be the light of my life and that even though we haven’t touched directly, she’s already wrapping my heart around her finger. I have gotten the question posed to me several times, “Aren’t you worried about raising a little girl?” Honestly, no. I have seen so many amazing women role models in my life that are in my family or go to my church that raising a girl seems like a natural thing.
Recently I have come across a slightly worrying trend in parenting that involves letting a child pick their own gender. For one, the effort involved in raising a gender-neutral child seems enormous to me, if for no other reason that making a decision of language that might feel unnatural to most. From an educational perspective, I question whether it is helpful to allow a child to grow without that helpful structure. Consider that the human brain isn’t fully formed until a persons 20s, and the idea of letting children decide something as monumental as gender seems less than ideal. Even if we all end up some day with the position that gender is a societal construct, gender, and other societal constructs, do help to create order and smooth interactions between persons and groups. Dismissing something because it is a construct is akin to dismissing city planning or architectural plans as inconsequential. Sure, we can build a city without those things, but it won’t be nearly as organized or substantial.
I think one of the biggest issues facing society today in gender issues is the falling out over what masculinity is. (Yes, of course the straight, white male would say masculinity’s the problem.) Basically, masculinity fashioned itself as the anti-femininity for so long that once women began to step out and fill those roles, men found themselves trying to develop a philosophy on a negative. Instead of hearkening back to the positives of ancient masculinity – courage, curiosity, grit, loyalty, etc – society fell back to the negatives of primal man – aggression, anger, greed, hunger for power, hard-headedness – and in return we got the rise of machismo culture and what some call “toxic masculinity.” Considering that the male role models in my own life have none of these traits, it does beg the question, how do we then define masculinity?
For me, it comes down to the argument between traits and roles. I will argue for one and against the other. Roles are expectations set on a person either by themselves or society. Both genders have these roles, and when a man or woman is incapable of filling that role, he or she finds a gap, a hole, a chasm filled with disappointment and disillusionment. Suddenly, a stay-at-home dad who works his tail off taking care of a home and kids, hardly getting time to himself gets unfairly labeled as a failure and lazy because he isn’t out making money. Or maybe a woman who isn’t a mother and wishes to focus on her career is unfairly characterized as cold, calculating, uncaring because of her desire to put off or forego motherhood. These, and many other roles, often come with unfair expectations, and I am completely ok with some of these roles getting the “gender neutral” treatment so that it won’t matter which gender fills them, as long as the family continues to function.
Traits, on the other hand, I will argue for all day. There are, in my view, masculine and feminine traits. And, in agreement with Eastern thought, I see each person as having some traits from both columns. Personally, I understand how I come off to others even in my own field. I am a Children’s Minister who dresses well, enjoys cooking and writing, is not exceedingly athletic, and who is compassionate, thoughtful, and polite. I have been asked by fellow children’s ministers, after some strange looks, whether or not I was using children’s ministry as a pathway to being a lead pastor. I would often smile, say, “No, I really enjoy building the next generation,” and watch their minds try to wrap around that thought. I can be a man, with all the virtues of manhood, and yet still have feminine traits that allow me to care for my family and my kids at church. Consider that God, who is most clearly shown in Jesus, exhibited both masculine and feminine traits. He was remarkably firm, showed tough love, and suffered through immense pain with a perseverance and toughness that many of the strongest men might shrink from confronting. He was also kind, compassionate, and unwilling to harm those who were vulnerable. He sat children on his knee, he allowed women to care for his needs like shelter and food, and taught indiscriminately using words that still speak to us today. Instead of throwing out gender entirely, let’s instead do the hard work of developing a concept of manhood and womanhood based on traits rather than roles, allowing men and women to inhabit their God-given character traits without judgment.
From here on out, I will be assuming a Christian perspective, that I hope is at least fair and well-considered. How often do we hear people and not listen? I am beginning to realize that as often as I hear people, I am not really listening. Sure, I can probably tell you exactly what you said, and how it applies to the conversation. I might even understand some of the inside jokes or allusions you put in your sentences. Yet, when I hear a complaint or a criticism, I may not listen for the underlying issue. I am beginning to listen for the underlying questions and concerns involved in this gender discussion. The questions underlying everything else is, “Who am I?” It’s one of the most basic human questions along with: “Why am I here?” and “How, then, shall I live?” The question is one of identity. As our Western way of thinking has become more and more individualistic, we have begun to lose the sense that society is a good. Instead, the instinct is to go against society, to hole up within ourselves and find a small segment of society that allows us to feel comfortable and safe. This further fragmenting of society creates smaller and smaller cells which see one another as, at best, loose associates or, at worst, enemies. Our political discussion nowadays seems a great example of how neither side can have a discussion because both sides feel threatened by the other. Relative truth creates a scenario where discussion breaks down because neither side can even agree on facts. The individual is supreme, and society is an evil to be avoided for all of its rules and expectations. So what happens when, instead of interacting with society, we demonize it? We create generations of individuals who value themselves over family, over groups, over society – and without those support structures, identity is… difficult to construct. Another idea that I ran into from Eastern media is that an individual has no sense of self unless confronted with an “other.” In other words, we define ourselves against someone or something else. Our identity builds itself off of accepting or rejecting what we see in the world around us, and society, at its best, is the historical accumulation of “best practices” in identity and group construction.
So at the end of the day the problem will not be solved with any magic bullet solution, but rather hard work, compassion, curiosity, love, and patience. We must learn to live with a more complex manhood and womanhood that has a place for traits, but that still celebrates the differences between the genders. The godly life is lived in tension. We live in a tension between male and female, between the individual and society. When we attempt to erase complexity, a dangerous simplicity arises. That tension comes from accepting who we are, who God made us to be, and then collaborating with those that are different from us. The greatest picture of God we have is when men and women are working together. God created each of us to inhabit a piece of the picture of God, and we can only share the full picture in a collection of others who have different traits, ideas, and talents.
I know I don’t often land on solutions, because I think simple solutions to complex problems often turn out to be disingenuous and lack long-term effectiveness. If we are going to continue to live and work as the church, we must begin the process of giving up ourselves and submitting to our King, Jesus. We must die to self, set aside our own desires and pride and find our identity first in Christ.
How have you handled gender in your own home? How do conversations about how God made each of us tend to go in your house? What can you do today to better show God’s love through the traits, talents, and relationships you have?