One of the greatest virtues in the character of Men (on average) is their capacity for self-sacrifice in service to the things we care for and admire. A man who dedicates himself to a cause or a group can put out incredible energy, creativity, and leadership in service to that group. Levels that, compared to a man without that same sense of dedication, seem herculean.
All virtues that are not carefully and conscientiously applied can turn into vice, however. Men crave a sense of dedication and purpose, and there are plenty of people, causes and organizations that specialize in preying on this need. They convince men (in particular young men, or men with little guidance or father figures) to throw as much energy as they can muster behind the group. These groups are vampiric – they use up the men that they draw in, putting their health, mental wellbeing, reputation, and sometimes even their bodies on the line. These groups give back almost nothing in return – no genuine gratitude, no real respect, and no compassion. Eventually the men who get used up by these groups end up worn out, embittered, cynical, and often mean.
The obvious examples include gangs, cults, and Social Justice collectives. Less obviously, many churches, big volunteer organizations, MLMs, and large charities can also fit this bill, but it wouldn’t be kind to tar them all with the same brush. Self-help groups are prone to degenerating into these sorts of vampiric groups, too if they lack good leadership.
It has fascinated me for years how a man can keep going back again and again to an organization that takes him for granted, uses him up, and at the end of the day, simply expects more of him again the next. It fascinates me precisely because it is a virtue that has turned into a vice. Dedicating and giving of yourself to a worthy cause is a beautiful thing that is as beneficial to you as the people you help. It is what Immanuel Kant called “beautiful acts” – they are not unto themselves right or wrong, good or evil – but they ultimately make the world a better place for everyone involved. It is potentially one of the most admirable qualities of the everyday man. And yet, if it is done without careful judgment, it can lead to absolute ruin. Devotion given to someone or something who doesn’t deserve it is an atrocious waste that likewise makes the man and the world he helps create a more miserable place.
And this isn’t just true of groups; family and romantic relationships, if we really throw ourselves into making our loved ones safe, secure, and giving them every chance to be happy, it can elevates us. If we pick the right spouse, or have healthy relationships and boundaries with our loved ones, we get back every dram of energy we put in, magnified.
If, on the other hand, we spend our energy trying to please abusive manipulative people, we end up burnt out and wretched. Abusers give men back nothing, and are never happy, but somehow manage to persuade many men that it is their job to make the abuser happy, and there is something desperately wrong with a man who can’t make them happy. A man can work himself into an early grave or withstand unbelievable abouts of violence and derision if he devotes himself wholly to the wrong woman, or the wrong parent.
Of course, we live in a society that leaves most men feeling unwanted and unloved most of the time. And one where finding a sense of meaning can be abysmally hard. Many young men are so desperate for guidance and meaning that they will throw themselves at the first group of people that treat them with a simulacrum of respect. Or they will give themselves body and soul to the first woman who will make love to them sober and seem to enjoy it. They are so thirsty, they don’t care if the well is poisoned, so long as someone is willing to quench their thirst.
We had powerful metaphors for this in the language of courts and chivalry through the Middle Ages. A man was said to have a Troth, a “holy oath” that represents his bond to God and his will to do God’s work. A man can dedicate himself to a land, church, or lord by his Troth, and if he chooses well, and does a good job honouring that, God will bless him and see that he succeeds. If he gives his Troth to the wrong liege, then he will be damned and miserable as a result.
We all have a special form of devotion to give, a singular gift of ourselves: whether it is a Dragon to slay, a Legacy to build, a promise to keep, a change to make in the world. That devotion, when given, can elevate us in incredible ways,or it can kill us slowly by measures.
And we have a duty to ourselves to make sure that we don’t give it up unless the cause, the person, the parent, or the woman is worthy of it; that they treat us with respect, observe our boundaries, really appreciate what we have to offer, and don’t ask of us more than it is reasonable to give. We have to prioritize ourselves by being choosy with the people and groups we associate with.
This may be a radical notion to many young men. Those of us who grow up in neglectful or abusive environments can be so desperate for anything that comes along that the idea of waiting to make sure we will be treated right seems like a torturous delay. Others are raised with a belief that they don’t have a right to choose; that God or Country have a plan and a need for us, and we owe it to them to take on whatever burden is put in front of us, however poor the return.
Some men believe so much in their unlovableness that the first sign that some other, be it a woman or group, might look beyond what they see as their glaring flaws, and love (however conditionally) what they see beneath, they give themselves to that other immediately. Some older lonely hearts think of the latest lover as their final chance for a happy relationship that they ignore what the price of that “happiness” is.
This is your life to lead and yours alone. You have a nearly infinite number of options in front of you, and a gift to give of your devotion and masculine power. Be sure that you are not fooling yourself into giving it to an unworthy other because you don’t hold yourself as being as valuable as you really are.