June 04, 2009

H is for Hobson's choice

My sister wonders why men are driven to such incessant philosophizing about the existential facts of life that otherwise seem painfully obvious.

Well, as Tim Allen observes, from childhood on, the average man faces a binary choice in life: get a job or go to jail. Everything he dreams of or aspires to rides on this choice. Moreover, he is not guaranteed that the work he does will be "fulfilling." In fact, he will often be warned against nurturing that expectation.

So about the time the pragmatic fruits of this Hobson's choice have been exhausted--middle age or so--it is hardly surprising that he should initiate a cost-benefit analysis and come up short. Religion steps into the gap (and gurus like Wayne Dyer simply repackage religion for SWPL sensibilities).

A German study recently found that "A man's chances of dying early are cut by a fifth if their bride is between 15 and 17 years his junior." This makes sense. The age difference means that at middle age, a man's traditionally-defined role will still be operational. And when completed, he can step right out of that role into retirement.

Thinking reductively, I think this is a primary attraction of sports and technical publications and "business heroes," as a male analogue to romance: it offers to men the idealization of the "perfect job" and "fulfilling" work. Men dream of financially-rewarding work they enjoy just as women dream of Prince Charming.

Religion also offers a justification for the third unmentionable option: doing nothing. Bum-hood. But in religion it's called being a priest and makes not earning a living and raising a family acceptable. The appeal of the "lone wolf," of Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter and Kurosawa's Yojimbo, is the secular version of being a monk.

The arts and academia make for good substitute religions, hence the grudging respect (and envy) for the "starving artist," though only so far as he's not actually starving. Lone wolves are more attractive conceptually than in practice (which is why single men can't get tenure at BYU).

Religious and secular priesthoods also offer accessible hierarchies to hierarchy-hungry men, who at middle aged will be resigning themselves to the fact that they will be beta males forever. Although I have no interest in them myself, I'm not sure that, long term, invading all of these domains is a wise thing for women to do.

The anime series Kanon similarly argues that the one effective way to work through your "issues" is to do good by others. The teen protagonist, though, is a lone wolf type disengaged from social politics and hierarchies, much like the sadly-departed David Carradine's philosophizing warrior monk in Kung Fu.

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
6/04/2009 3:27 PM   
This argument makes a lot of sense! I classified Siddhartha as a mid-life crisis novel because, unlike C.S. Lewis in his autobiography, Siddhartha doesn't seem naturally content to spend his days contemplating life, reading novels, and living with his Spock-like tutor where he can go on hikes followed by tea and rational arguments about literature. Rather, Siddhartha has to come to terms with this type of life style towards the end of his life (and after dealing with his completely rebellious son) when it isn't his natural bent. His spiritual insight is equivalent to Lionel's insight in As Time Goes By: I've decided to enjoy life slowly. (Only Siddhartha wants more praise for it.)

Interestingly enough, Susan Pinker recently wrote a book called Sexual Paradox all about women in hierarchal, Alpha power-positions walking away from those positions as being unfulfilling. Instead, they take jobs where they can spend more time with their children or, often, with other people's children even if said jobs involve a pay-cut.

The difference between men and women doing this walk-away stuff is that when women do it--although it is considered a kind of feminist betrayal--their behavior is often accepted as "maternal": in line with their evolutionary biology and cultural past. Men, however, are still expected to, well, go out and bonk bison on the head. And, moreover, men seem to expect it from themselves. So society hears more about "dead beat" dads than about "dead beat" moms. And, as an inner-city phenomenon, dead-beat dads is more of a problem. (I'm not sure referring to "dead beat" moms is considered politically correct although, according to my Working Women in America students--male AND female students--women who have too many kids on welfare should be CUT OFF. "Yes," I say, "but what will you do with the kids?")

Personally, I think well-functioning patriarchies have a lot going for them, but any system, patriarchal or matriarchal, is going to bypass degrees of individuality. I go to a totally motherhood-oriented church, and I have no kids. But I still think Mother's Day shouldn't be Women's Day. (Besides, they hand out flowers; I kill flowers. I give mine to Mom. BTW, those green genes just weren't passed down!)
# posted by Blogger Joe
6/08/2009 8:50 AM   
Seems to me that the German study (of Danish men) is pretty clearly mixing cause and effect. Even the article concedes this point. A man able to attract a woman 15 years his junior is a) likely already quite healthy and b) very likely wealthy and thus can 1) afford good health care and 2) not have to work in a physically or mentally stressful job.

I suspect there is also quite a bit of selection bias going on here.