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Do Men Need Purpose More Than Respect?

Hadley’s Intro:  How much should a man’s self worth

depend on gratitude and respect of others?  Discover

how respect and purpose impact happiness,

courtesy of a NYTimes guest post

By David French

This month, the popular conservative podcaster Matt
Walsh tweeted a thought that rapidly went viral,
with approximately 18 million views. “All a man
wants,” he wrote, “is to come home from a long
day at work to a grateful wife and children who are
glad to see him, and dinner cooking on the stove.
This is literally all it takes to make a man happy.
We are simple. Give us this and you will have given
us nearly everything we need.”

The message was obviously trollish and intended to
generate outrage. Bringing back “Leave It to
Beaver” is not a serious strategy for renewing
American masculinity. But it touched on an
important question: How much should a man’s
self-worth depend on the respect or gratitude of
others?

I raise this because an overwhelming amount of
evidence — from suicide, to drug overdoses, to
education achievement gaps — indicates that
millions of men are in crisis. And simply put,
while many men demand respect, what they need is
purpose, and the quest for respect can sometimes
undermine the sense of purpose that will help make
them whole. To put it more simply still: What men
need is not for others to do things for them. They
need to do things for others: for spouses, for
children, for family and friends and colleagues.

Many Americans — especially in evangelical
circles — are familiar with the saying, “Men
want respect while women want love.” They may
need both, but they sometimes want different
things. The concept was popularized by a writer and
pastor named Emerson Eggerichs, who wrote the book
“Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The
Respect He Desperately Needs,” but it’s hardly
an exclusively Christian concept. Eggerichs
interviewed men and women and found that — in
times of conflict — men overwhelmingly felt
disrespected, not unloved, and if forced to choose,
they would choose respect over love.

The demand for respect is a hallmark of much
right-wing discourse about masculinity. In this
narrative, too many women don’t respect their
husbands and the culture more broadly devalues men.
Parts of this argument have merit. As the Brookings
scholar Richard V. Reeves notes in his
indispensable book, “Of Boys and Men: Why the
Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What
to Do About It,” the phrase “toxic
masculinity,” for example, is counterproductive.
It teaches men there is “something toxic inside
them that needs to be exorcised.”

Yet there is a danger in the quest for respect.
Finding happiness in another person’s regard is
elusive and contingent. After all, we have little
true control over how others perceive or treat us,
yet when we’re denied what we demand, we’re
often filled with helpless rage.

More important, a demand for respect or honor
should be conditioned on being respectable or
honorable. When a man demands respect without being
respectable, that often looks like domination and
subordination. To elevate himself, he must belittle
others.

But is respect a key to happiness and meaning?
Let’s consider veterans. They form one of the
most respected communities in America. The military
is the second-most respected institution in the
United States (barely behind small businesses), and
many Americans perceive vets as “more
disciplined, patriotic and loyal than those who
have not served.”

Yet as The Times reported in 2021, the suicide rate
for veterans is “1.5 times as much as the rate
for civilians.” For younger post-9/11 veterans,
the suicide rate is 2.5 times the rate for
civilians. Men I served with have died by suicide.
That’s a staggering toll for one of America’s
most-respected populations. Clearly, even profound
familial and national respect is not enough to
immunize men from deaths of despair.

Yes, the trauma of combat accounts for some of this
terrible toll, but not all. If you speak to
struggling veterans, many will tell you that they
have respect, but they don’t have purpose. That
lack of purpose is often exacerbated by the loss of
fellowship. My own experience helped me understand
this powerful reality. Every person endures dark
nights of the soul. One of the worst of my life
took me by complete surprise. It was at the end of
my deployment in Iraq, where I served from 2007 to
2008, the first evening after I departed Forward
Operating Base Caldwell in Diyala Province to begin
my long journey home.

I was a reservist, so I didn’t return with the
unit but by myself. I’d longed for this moment
— I was returning to my wife and children! —
and yet I felt bereft. Empty. After almost a full
year of having a very clear, decisive and
delineated mission (with life and death often at
stake), I was returning to a more complicated,
confusing reality of often conflicting
responsibilities — one shared, I think, by most
American men and women alike.

I was confused by my feelings at the time. Now I
understand. My mission was over. My brothers were
gone. They were returning to Fort Hood in Texas. I
was in Tennessee. Our relationship could never be
the same.

Veterans’ groups are supremely aware of this need
for fellowship and purpose. “Next mission” is a
common phrase in the veteran community, and it’s
explicitly intended to help veterans find purpose
in their lives. And the need is great. I’ll never
forget the friend who told me, shortly after his
deployment, “I’m not even 30, and I’ve
already done the most significant thing I’ll ever
do.”

While his despair was genuine, he was fundamentally
wrong. As a husband, father and entrepreneur,
he’s forging his own path and leaving a new
legacy. I rediscovered my own sense of purpose in
my family and in a different cause, defending civil
liberties in courtrooms across America. But it took
time. Nothing at home was comparable to the sheer
intensity of my deployment abroad.

One does not have to join the infantry to find
purpose in life, and a man can and should find
immense meaning in the simple yet profound daily
rhythms of fatherhood, friendship, healthy romantic
relationships and an honest day’s work.

The true challenge to American masculinity is far
upstream from politics and ideology. It’s not
fundamentally about what ideological combatants say
about men — that they have become “toxic” on
the one hand, or “feminized” on the other.
Rather the challenge is much more about a man
finding his purpose, and there are few better
purposes than helping the people you love walk
through life.

Virtuous purpose is worth more than any other
person’s conditional and unreliable respect. It
is rooted in service and sacrifice, not
entitlement. And those qualities bring a degree of
meaning and joy far more important than the gifts
that others — the “grateful” spouse who cooks
dinner, the implausibly reverential children —
can ever offer. What we do for others is infinitely
more rewarding than what we ask them to do for us.

*****************************************

Purpose is rooted in service, not entitlement.

Can you imagine a better purpose than helping

people you love grow though life?

Hadley Finch

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