Men Are Alright (sermon; 110306)

The Men Are Alright

Service celebrated at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent, Ohio; on 06 March 2011

We gather here this morning to create meaning together. Among us are straight men who enjoy sports, and straight men who hate sports. There are gay men who love sports and there are gay men who consider sports a waste of time. In Unitarian Universalist congregations, across the country this morning, there are some women and some men and some intersex persons; there are a wide variety of gender expressions, including feminine and masculine and transgender; there are lesbians, heterosexuals, gay men, bisexuals and there are asexual people, who are not interested in sexual relationships.

Gathered together, in Kent, Ohio, and around the world, we co-create one strong body. This morning, and every day, may we feel the deep worth in ourselves and see the sacred in every person. So may we be.

Please join me in the spirit of prayer.

Father Sky and Mother Earth; Sister Moon and Brother Sun; Our Father who art in heaven; Grandmother Spirit who spins compassion and unsentimental love for all her children; Spirit of Life, which inflates our lungs and pulses in our throats;
we are grateful to be alive this day.

We join others, around the world, to celebrate International Women’s Day; we join them in celebrating a Rachel Sabbath, that fewer women should die in childbirth. We pray that fewer people, of all sexes and genders, die while caring for their families. We desire that all children grow up in homes where they know they are loved.

We know that every person has some yin and some yang to their personality; every person has some feminine energy and some masculine aspects in the ways they live in the world. We desire that all people find respect and appreciation for the particular balance of yang and yin they embody. We desire that, however we are perceived, our energies be healthy and life-affirming as we think and feel and speak and act in the world.

We desire enough food, and shelter, and peace of mind for all beings today; we pledge ourselves in pursuit of this goal. Praise for living.
So may we be.

Our first text this morning is a musical one:
          {Men Are Good by Joe Jencks, performed by male ensemble w/Hal Walker}

FIRST READING                  
A Day at the Beach by Peter Schmitt

If he had been paying more attention
to whatever my mother was saying
from under her hat beneath the umbrella,

or watching more closely over my brother,
off playing somewhere with his shovel and pail,
or me, idly tracing my name in the sand,

if he hadn’t had that faraway look,
gazing out to where the freighters crawled along
the horizon – so that when he suddenly

pushed up and off, sand in his wake, visor
taking wing behind him, you could believe,
as he churned toward the glassy water,

that it had just come to him to chuck it all,
this whole idea of family, and make
for those southbound freighters and the islands –

then he might have never seen the arm heaved up,
the lifeguards running just as my father
was lifting the old man out of the surf

and bearing him ashore, the blue receding
from his cramped limbs. And as a crowd closed around
the gasping figure struggling to his knees,

my father turned back to us – sheepishly,
almost, back to the endless vigilance
of husband and of father, which was all

he had ever asked for in the first place.

from “The End of Men” by Hanna Rosin (The Atlantic July/Aug 2010)
Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. For years, women’s progress has been cast as a struggle for equality. But what if equality isn’t the end point? What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women?

How many of you have ever remarked, about the characters on some television show or other, that such a slovenly, selfish, boor of a man would not stand a *chance* of marrying such an attractive, wise, and self-possessed young woman? How many have noticed that there are a lot of movies recently starring unkempt, under-employed, 20-something-year-old males who still live in their parents’ basements? How many of you are at least a little concerned that these movies reflect a reality where a whole generation of young men are not, as their parents might say, “living up to their potential”?

If so, you are not alone. Quite a few books and articles have been written about “slacker males” and their “extended adolescence.” Our second reading was from the cover story of The Atlantic magazine, last summer, entitled “The End of Men: How Women Are Taking Control—of Everything.” There was also a side piece published, which asked, “Are Fathers Necessary?”  More recently, Kay Hymowitz just published a book asking whether today’s slacker males will *ever* be ready to hold down a good job, parent a child, or serve as a good spouse or partner.

Now, before we get too far into this, let us remember that not too long ago, we were all worried that young girls were not being educated as well as their male classmates. Now, women and girls are out-performing men and boys in most educational categories.

I am not prepared to panic quite yet, but it is worth a closer look. Is there really a generation of young men whose only real accomplishments are the high scores of various video games? And, if there is such a generation, what might that mean, for our society and our Unitarian Universalist tradition?

Our text for this discussion will be the movie, The Kids Are All Right, written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, and directed by Lisa Cholodenko. How many of you have seen The Kids Are All Right? For those who have not seen it, I’m going to give away a lot of spoilers, but it is still worth seeing. Virtually all of the actors do a great job. Plus, there are parts of the movie which I will not discuss, since we are focusing on contemporary masculinity *through* the film, rather than talking about the film itself.

Nevertheless, there is one aspect of the film which I will mention. In a film with five main characters, five more secondary characters, and a few bit parts, there are only three people of color—and all three are treated unjustly, at some point in the movie. I loved the film; I thought it deserved its “Best Picture” Oscar nomination; and it does reflect our cultural unconscious racism. If you would like to explore that part of the movie more, please talk to me later.

The “kids” in the film’s title are Joni and Laser. Their parents are Nic and Jules, two lesbians who have been together for a long time. Laser is Joni’s half-brother, because Nic and Jules used the same sperm donor, both when Nic carried Joni and when Jules gave birth to Laser.

As the movie starts, Joni has recently turned 18, and Laser has asked her to contact the fertility company, so he can meet his biological father. Laser is only 15, so he cannot legally request the information. Joni is afraid it will “hurt moms’ feelings” if they find out, so she swears Laser to secrecy, and finally makes the call.

The sperm donor’s name is Paul, and he is now a 30-something single restaurateur and organic farmer. When they meet, Laser is not impressed  but Joni is surprised to find that she really likes him.

The moms *do* find out, of course, but they respect the kids’ curiosity, so they agree to meet Paul, too. Eventually, every member of the family has their own relationship with Paul: he passes on fatherly wisdom to the kids; he becomes the first customer of Jules’ fledgling landscaping business; and he even bonds with Nic over their love of Joni Mitchell.

Unfortunately, as with many relationships, time and inattention have taken their toll. One night, after Nic’s medical practice has come between them, yet again, Jules feels lonely. The next day, Jules kisses Paul. They have an affair; Nic discovers the affair and Jules ends up sleeping on the couch. Joni and Laser are mad at her, and at their father. All of the main characters go through some soul-searching.

On the last day before Joni goes off to college, the still-uncomfortable family is having a final dinner together. Paul shows up to apologize to Joni, and to ask to see her again, someday. She is unsure, and tells him, “I wish you could have been…better.”

Then Nic intercedes, and tells Paul to leave: “This is not your family. This is *my* family…If you want a family, go make your own!”

That night, Jules apologizes to Nic, Joni and Laser, saying that relationships are hard, and she begs their forgiveness. They all take Joni to school the next day, and they each take a step that shows they will be “alright” in the long run.       

Alas, there are no 20-something males in the movie, so it does not speak directly to the issue. Laser may be on his way to being a slacker; Nic believes he is not living up to his potential. However, he is only 15, so his future is still pretty open. Joni’s friend, Jai, is right at the cusp of slacker-hood. We get the sense that Jai could be Joni’s boyfriend, except that he wants nothing to do with sex or romance. At one point, Jai remarks that he feels sorry for another of Joni’s friends, Sasha, because “she has to sexualize everything.”We don’t know how competent or successful Jai is in other pursuits, but he is clearly not eager to take the next step along *that* path.

Paul appears to have been a bit of a slacker, in his 20s, as he dropped out of college and earned money by donating bodily fluids. He now owns his own business, but still, he has no family, and apparently, no long-term relationships, either. We’ll talk a little more about whether Paul is a slacker, later; for now, we’ll assume he was a slacker, when he was 20-something, a decade or so ago.

A decade or so before *that*, I was a slacker. In the spring of 1988, I had dropped out of college, I was planning to follow a girl to California—where she was moving, to be with her boyfriend!—and I was working part-time at a local bookstore.

During my lunch hour at that book store, I was allowed to “borrow” books to read while I ate. I was pleased and encouraged to read about a then-new phenomenon of teenagers and young adults taking longer to {gesture} “begin” their lives. The author suggested that these youth, having gone through identity crises early in their lives, would be less susceptible to mid-life crises, later on. That made me feel good:  I was no longer behind my peers; I was actually *ahead* of the game!

In the year 2000, around when our fictional film father would have been slacking, Sharon Daloz Parks published a book about the phenomenon. Her Big Questions, Worthy Dreams was subtitled “Mentoring Young Adults in the Search for Meaning, Purpose and Faith.”

Professor Parks proposed a new life-stage between adolescence and adulthood, approximately 17 to 30 years of age. She called it “Young Adulthood,” describing it as a time of testing, deeper than adolescent experimentation but far more wary and ambivalent than the firm commitments of later adult life.     

According to Parks, young adults need mentors and mentoring communities to help them grow into mature adults. She did not see this as a gendered issue, but more recent authors do. Hanna Rosin’s statistics in The Atlantic do seem to show that young women are advancing where young men are not. Perhaps the women are not experiencing the Young Adult phase, as described by Parks, or maybe they are getting mentored more quickly through it.

Or perhaps, according to Kay S. Hymowitz, maybe the females are to blame for the males’ lack of success. Her new book is titled Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys.  Her descriptions of confused young men, uncertain about their roles in a feminist world, do match some of the statistics from Rosin’s article. Hymowitz seems to sympathize with this “generation dropped onto…the stage without scripts.”

I agree with some of her analysis. Our culture does lack appropriate coming-of-age rituals, and there are few truly good masculine role models. However, while I agree with some of her findings, Hymowitz is way off base when she blames the phenomenon on women. Correlation does not imply causation.

Furthermore, testosterone is built for challenge. If young men were not already opting out of competition, then they would *enjoy* competing with women. I believe that Hymowitz has it backward: young women are not pushing young men off the playing field, the men are abandoning it, and leaving it to the women to excel.

Please note: I am not saying that women can only win if men allow them to. I am saying that women and men are basically equal, and since men are essentially giving up, women are surging ahead.                                  

So why are men giving up? My hypothesis is this: the slackers of today are like the flappers of a century ago.

Not quite 100 years ago, “flappers” were young women who experimented with their yang, masculine energy. They left behind traditional notions of “femininity” and instead, took control of their sexuality and smoked, drank and drove automobiles. Nowadays, the pendulum is swinging the other way, and young men are experimenting with their yin, feminine energy. They are abandoning outmoded understandings of masculinity, competing less and relating more.

As I sat in a coffee shop, recently, there was a group of five young adults sitting near me. There were three boys and two girls, chatting and laughing and otherwise passing the time on a Saturday afternoon. They flirted a little, but mostly they seemed to be platonic friends. They discussed topics like movies, and video games, and gossiped about other acquaintances.

Then, the two girls and the most handsome boy went outside to smoke a cigarette, leaving the other two to guard their seats. One boy was slightly overweight, with one of those big spiral earrings in the ear that I could see, and a bit of acn; he wore a baggy T-shirt advertising some band or game or something. The other boy seemed under-weight, scrawny and slump-shouldered, with unkempt hair and a leather jacket attempting to make him look more formidable.

The boy with the pierced ear was talking to the skinny one, and he said something like, “You’ll be fine! You don’t have a job, but you do have direction. You have goals, you just don’t have a way to implement them, yet. Hang in there!”

The bigger boy continued, “Look at me—I don’t have a job, but I stay home and watch after my little sister. I make dinner for my family every night. So I guess I *do* have a job, I just don’t get paid for it.”

The others came back in, about then, and the two quit their conversation. I had been slightly annoyed by the group, but I found myself sympathizing with the young man. He babysits, and cooks, and he helps his family to cope with the challenges of 21st century living.  *AND* he reaches out to his buddy, trying to help him come to grips with *his* situation.

The male role was once defined as protector and provider, the “endless vigilance of husband and father,” from the poem in our first reading. The female role was defined in terms of nurturing, relating and comforting. The young man in the coffee shop was demonstrating more of the latter, than the former, and I absolutely celebrate that fact!

After the flappers had their heyday, most of them moved back a bit, toward their traditional roles. They did not revert all the way back into conformity, but they found a sustainable balance between their old roles and their new-found freedom. If the same thing happens with today’s young slackers, then they will eventually resume some of their masculine pursuits of success and status, but they will also retain the nurturing aspects which they find fulfilling.

In a way, this is the culmination of the feminist revolution: it began by freeing women from their traditional, stereotypical roles, and now we are freeing men from *their* traditional roles.

Our film demonstrates this effectively: once a slacker, Paul is evolving into a more fully-realized adult, with both masculine and feminine characteristics. He runs a successful business, and he mentors both Laser and Joni into standing up for themselves; yet he also relates to them in a more egalitarian fashion, rather than a traditional, authoritarian, “Father Knows Best” style.

Paul also joins Nic in singing a soulful version of a Joni Mitchell ballad. After the song, Laser teases, “don’t quit your day job, mom” and Paul admonishes him, “Don’t say that…It’s hard enough to open your heart, don’t make it any harder.”

If Paul was indeed once a slacker, then that time has served him well. May all of today’s slackers be as successful in embodying both feminine and masculine traits in their full adulthood.

By the end of the film, all of the major characters have demonstrated both yin and yang, both traditional and non-traditional behaviors. If it takes a few extra years to develop that, then I suggest that it might be worth it.

What does this mean, for our culture in general, and for our UU tradition, in specific?

Regrettably, too many things to enumerate fully, in the time I have left. You’ll just have to invite me back, next year, and Max and I will present more on this topic. In just a few minutes, here are some things to think about:

First of all, I think we UUs can lead the charge in affirming slackers and slacker culture. I suppose we might want to find a different word, other than “slacker,” and we certainly want to challenge the judgmental statements—about young men and young women—of authors like Hymowitz.

Unitarian Universalists can offer safe spaces, such as covenant groups, to explore each person’s own unique gender identity, in whatever blend of masculine, feminine and neutral characteristics feels appropriate and natural. We can work to find mentors to help provide both challenge and support as our young people grow and evolve.

We can support healthy yang energy, and healthy yin energy, in every combination. We can speak against unhealthy behaviors without condemning an entire gender: we can discourage domination and alienation while still supporting healthy yang aspects like autonomy and strength; we can encourage yin traits like care and compassion while warning against losing one’s self in dependence or fusion.

How many of you know what an “OWL” program is? OWL is an acronym for “Our Whole Lives,” which is the sexuality education curriculum developed by our Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ.

It is a *spectacular* curriculum, which tells kids the scientific truth about sex and sexuality, without subjecting them to moralistic and harmful stereotypes and lies. Not incidentally, young people who have taken an OWL course usually have fewer unplanned pregnancies because good education helps to make better choices. In my own fantasy world, every UU church in the world would offer OWL training every year, to their own members and to every child in the local community.

OWL training will help our young people navigate their extended adolescence, and learn to unselfconsciously and proudly embody both their feminine and masculine sides.

We can offer more Coming-of-Age rituals; and offer maiden-mother groups and father-son campouts (with appropriate flexibility, so that we’re celebrating a type of energy and not necessarily specific biological parts)

Finally, we can learn to embrace conflict, and teach and practice disagreeing with love. This is something that virtually all of us can use; not merely our young people.

In Sharon Daloz Parks’ book, she notes that mentoring communities must offer young persons encounters with those who are different from them. A “like-minded community” is a good thing to experience, an oasis in a seemingly hostile world; but it can also lead to tribalism and unconscious self-censorship. We are stronger when we can name our disagreements publicly, and still engage with appreciation and respect those with opinions different from ours.

At the end of the film, Joni puts Paul’s hat into the car: she *will* take that reminder of her biological father with her to school. There is hope for them to maintain a relationship.

And in the car, driving away, Nic and Jules hold hands. Relationships *are* hard,
whatever our sex or gender or identity or orientation. Fortunately, we can continue to grow and learn and evolve and relate for as long as we are alive.

So may we be.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote, “human beings are not born once and for all…but…life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” May we do so with love and hope and a balance of compassion and competition.

So may we be.

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