We’ve been reading the Little House books to our oldest daughter of late. If you’re not familiar with them, the books detail the life of the author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her family when she was a child in the late 1800’s. We are currently reading The Little House on the Prairie and it is about their experience settling near Independence, Kansas after journeying west.
In reading these stories I have been struck by the father, Pa, and specifically by his industriousness. He is constantly busy doing something for the family. As they choose a place to settle, he immediately begins preparing a place to build a home, then cutting down logs, building the house, and so on. He is constantly hunting food, preparing fur to trade, even making deals with traveling ranchers. He is constantly busy, his purpose being to provide for and protect his family.
Throughout human history it has been essential for men to work constantly to ensure safety and security for their family. Throughout history this trait had defined a “good man.” A lazy or unmotivated man would have been looked down on by others. It likely wasn’t until after the agricultural and industrial revolution that this began to change in America.
We now live in a much different time, a time where we can walk down the street and buy fresh produce, or eat at a restaurant; where most of us don’t have to worry about wolves and bears, but need to protect our family against other threats (predators, scammers, violence); where working for 8-10 hours a day in a job that has no direct connection to providing food or shelter to our family (besides monetary compensation) is enough to keep us comfortable; where much of our focus is around leisure. We live in a time where I think we have forgotten what it means to be industrious, and as a result we have lost a bit of what it means to be a man.
What is Industry?
I want to take a moment to define what I mean. One of Webster’s definitions of “industry” is this: “systematic labor especially for some useful purpose or the creation of something of value.” I would like to break this down and add a little emphasis by defining industry as directed work for a clear purpose or goal. Pa, in Wilder’s books, was constantly working for the good of his family. All of his efforts were directed towards the purpose of providing for and protecting his family.
It is this purposefulness that I believe men have lost. Because we no longer need to constantly find food, shelter, and water, because there aren’t constant immanent threats to safety, we have lost purpose in our efforts. What I see happening is men will work to provide income to their family to meet needs. Their work gives them purpose this way, but they have very little purpose outside of work. As a result men will pour themselves into their work because that gives them meaning (i.e. workaholics), or they find things to distract themselves outside of work so they don’t think about their lack of purpose (i.e. videogames, television, YouTube videos, etc.).
I think this lack of purposefulness is a big contributing factor to men “not feeling masculine.” I believe that industriousness is meant to be part of the fabric of men and we’ve lost that. In order for guys to reclaim masculinity they need to regain purpose.
Let’s talk for a moment about purpose. I want to be clear that I am not advocating for working in a job all of the time. That is not healthy for one’s self or one’s family. What I am saying is a man needs to clearly define for himself a purpose toward which to strive in and outside of work. Everything a man does should be directed toward a goal or purpose which is meaningful. If I am resting it should not just be for the sake of resting, but for the purpose of renewing my energy to work; when I am at my job it should not just be for working, but for the purpose of providing for myself and my family, for pursuing something else about which I am passionate; if I am with my family it should be because I want to grow in knowledge, intimacy, and experiences with them, not because my wife or kids asked me to; if I am pursuing a hobby it should be because I want to create something beautiful or learn a new skill, not because I’m bored and want to be distracted/entertained.
I believe that part of a man’s purpose remains the same – to protect and provide for his family. However, since that no longer requires the vast majority of a man’s time like it did in the past, men need to have further purpose and goals in order not to stagnate. This is where there is room for a man to define for himself what specific flavor his masculinity takes on. What will his efforts be directed toward?
Conclusion and Caveat
There is no longer a physical/environmental need to constantly work towards a clearly defined purpose like there was in the time of the Little House books and throughout much of history before that. As a result we have lost a part of how to be masculine. Because the purpose of survival no longer dominates a man’s time, in order to remain industrious he must now identify other goals for his life and pursue those as well. If he does not he will likely stagnate and see himself as less than masculine.
* A note that I’ve already made, but which bears repeating is this: in defining industry as an essential characteristic of men, I am not eliminating it as such for women. I do not think it is my place to define what it means to be truly feminine, but I would not be surprised if industry is one of those attributes. One of the things that I most admire in my wife is her tireless work to complete work that needs to be done for a number of purposes.