Leaning In

The articles inspiring this discussion:

 “The Challenge of Leaning Out”  By Olga Khazan, The Atlantic,

“Recline! Why ‘Leaning In’ is Killing Us” By Rosa Brooks, Foreign Policy,

 “The Uselessness of Hating Sheryl Sandberg” By Rebecca Traister, New Republic.

Recently, I had a female friend—strong, professional, very successful, successful kids, attractive, civically active—tag me in a post on Facebook. She was interested in my response to Rebecca Traister’s recent article in the New Republic responding to Rosa Brooks’ criticism of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s philosophy of “Leaning In.” My friend works in a very male dominated context, a “good ‘ole boy club,” plus, she’s a woman, so right away, I gots those 2 things preventing me from identifying more holistically with her perspective. Nevertheless, having (in Ulysses Everett McGill’s words) “the gift of gab,” I couldn’t resist offering a male perspective into the discourse. One of her, very sensitive, initial concerns (out of respect for me) was that Traister was “man-bashing” at the tail end of her article. Here’s what I wrote in response to da whole male bashing and “leaning in” conversation:

“I didn’t think there was any “male bashing” in here at all. In fact, she’s on target in many ways- men in our culture aren’t men at all, but “dudes,” “guys,” over grown boys who’s lack of maturity shows up in perpetual boyish self-centeredness, both in the home, professionally, and culturally. Reminds me of that scene from “Say Anything” where Joan Cusack tells her brother- “don’t be a ‘guy,’ the world’s full of ‘guys.’ Be a man.”

The problem is, guys don’t know what “manhood” is, and our cultural moment and history sure isn’t helping with this journey. Most male authorities our generation was raised under are those baby boomers raised under the tutelage of the world conquering “greatest generation,” who, while making the world “safe for democracy” and establishing ‘merica as an economic powerhouse (see Madmen), also neglected deeper questions related to masculine identity and calling. And in so doing, they failed in honoring women, developing enough emotional and spiritual maturity themselves to actually develop relational intimacy within the home and see that their masculine identity does not, should not, and cannot rest on their outward successes (politically, economically, familially). The “greatest generation” contributed to the emotional insecurity of their own families, and then passed on to their emotionally insecure progeny—the baby boomers—an impossible ideal for self-actualization (borrowing from Maslow), one where one’s identity, value, worth, where a human’s glory is generated, is solely contingent on what one produces.

As the boomers sought to claim some sense of identity for themselves apart from their emotionally distant parents, they ultimately sought to reject this entire identity-constructing-via-success paradigm through the counter-culture movement, yet they themselves eventually bought into this worldview themselves. Though now instead of just men buying into this impossible ideal, call it the “idolatry of self-actualization via success,” 20th and 21st century American women are now liberated to center their lives and identities upon this very same thing that has held a broken masculinity enthralled for so many thousands of years: a drive for power (well summarized in Nietzsche’s übermensch)- accomplished through economic, political, sexual, and familial dominance at all costs.

My pushback on Sandberg is not that she’s a strong, talented, accomplished woman (I’m married to one myself), and I don’t see her as the one person to blame in all of this (she is one prominent public voice in a tidal wave of cultural discourse), rather my area of hesitancy and caution has to do with the spiritual causes and implications of all of this “leaning.” I love to see and work alongside women (and men) of strength, our culture needs to grow in making room for such people, yet I am concerned that the result will be the perpetual reinforcement of our human obsession with power at all costs, and for men this cost has been the loss of any clear sense of a healthy masculine identity. Our tendency toward simplistic black and white thinking, or lack of desire and effort in thinking through more meta-physical causes and implications to cultural shifts and personal decisions can lead us to being reductionistic about any issue, certainly an issue as significant as male and female identity and roles? Again, I respect women of strength and gifting, yet I want to challenge the rising tide in our culture which so quickly tells women to assert this strength and gifting as the basis of their self-worth, their value, their identity. This stereotypical male idol has destroyed masculinity in our culture, and has thus even contributed to the abuse and dehumanization of women (as men have sought to use women in any number of ways to compensate for their insecurities). I’m not saying that Sandberg is doing this, but I wonder if we are culturally moving in this direction: that women are being told to drink the same kool-aid that has left men hollowed out. As one who’s calling is to the business of seeking restoration for the human heart, this is precisely the thing I’m seeing.

Power is a tricky thing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, or being in positions that require greater degrees of it, and we need both men and women in roles that require us to responsibly steward the delegation of it. It’s when power moves from being a good thing to being the ultimate thing when we (men and women) become endangered to being used by it in order to propel ourselves forward, or assert the self over another for the sake of compensating for our own sense of powerlessness and insecure identity, rather than for the benefit and good of others. Both men and women have been guilty of this in the past, in both the public and private spheres.

A question I’ve learned to reflect on when I’m in a position to assert any form of power is: why? Why do I need or desire this? What are my root motivations here: benevolence?, self-aggrandizement?, mercy?, justice?, acclaim?, fear? When I honestly get into this motivational matrix, things get very cloudy and I don’t see myself quite as righteously as I did before- Nietzsche scholars call this “looking squintingly” or seeking to see the hidden and self-centered motivations that are driving our exercise of power. I’m not a nihilist (far from it!), but I think we can learn from this in looking squintingly at ourselves when it comes to personal ambition, especially when the product of that ambition (success, autonomy, political and social prestige) is what many of us (including myself) can mistakenly lean toward resting our sense of identity, and thus personal meaning, in.”