“There are two questions a man must ask himself: The first is ‘Where am I going?’ and the second is ‘Who will go with me?’ If you ever get these questions in the wrong order you are in trouble.” –Sam Keen
Masculinity has taken many forms in many cultures, but the core of it is always the same. It is our job to provide and to protect. Women can take part in those responsibilities, particularly the first, and always have. But it’s also always been our primary responsibility. A woman can choose to be a caretaker or a stay-at-home partner instead and still be a person, but we can’t give up those duties without giving up something essential of ourselves as men – even as we give up something ourselves to protect and provide in the first place.
The instinct to protect and provide is naturally connected to other powerful male instincts – loyalty and territoriality. They flow from each other. If a man is required to spend sweat and blood putting food on the table, or to fight and die when necessary, we have to know who we are doing it for.
We have to know who our people are. This about knowing who you can count on, and who is supposed to be able to count on you.
We have to know who our people are because it is necessary knowledge to make effective decisions. How much work and risk will we take on for whom, and in what circumstances can we be called on to do so? Who and when are we allowed to refuse?
Who can we ask for help ourselves?
“And a man, a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.” —Breaking Bad
These vital questions lead to a concentric loyalty spreading out from the family. This is because time and effort are finite resources. In order to be effective at one thing you cannot devote inordinate time and energy to competing priorities. So this hierarchy of loyalty allows a man to make a decision appropriately. For example, if he is a good man he will be helpful and nurturing to children who need it. But he will put much more effort – years of work and advice and love – into his own children than into his nieces and nephews, who will themselves get more than unrelated children he knows from coaching soccer, who get more than the kid who asked for advice at the career fair.
This scale of obligation and boundary not only determines how much effort someone might get, but how quickly, and when they are allowed to ask. A coworker is allowed to ask for more than a stranger, and someone on your team more than someone in the same office, but unless you’ve developed some kind of relationship, the coworkers still can’t ask you for big favors in their personal lives. You are allowed to say no if they do, and you should be comfortable doing so.
“The man who is deserving the name is the one whose thoughts and exertions are for others rather than for himself.” –Walter Scott
The same hierarchy above translates to protecting – in the sense of situations where you would be willing to use violence. A man’s willingness to fight in the face of danger will depend on who is in danger, and how much. Most men would fight to death in the face of severe odds, or break the law and risk life in prison, for the sake of their wife and children. They might also do so for a brother, sister, mother, or very close friend. But as the relationship distance increases, the amount of risk they are willing to take declines, as does the amount of force they are willing to use. I might back up an acquaintance I know and like in a bar fight. I would be less willing to jump into a knife fight for them. And I might not help them in the bar fight if I knew they were in the wrong, but I would still prevent my brother from getting beaten up in a bar even if I knew it was his fault and I was going to have to yell at him later for being an idiot.
What is your list?
Every man’s answer will be different based on their relationships. But every man should know their people and what their boundaries are, and it should be based in part on what you can expect from those people in turn. You should never be willing to fight or sacrifice for someone who wouldn’t do the same for you.
Most lists will start with close family and friends and work their way out into more tenuous and abstract relationships. Wife, children, siblings, other family, community, country, religion, race, gender, ethnicity – the further from a personal and blood relationship the less predictable the order. While most people would put wife and kids first, the order of other possible obligations will vary much more widely depending on the values and identity of the man in question, or may not even be on the list at all.
The connections further down the list are also more qualified in terms of evaluating whether someone will receive support and protection. This is an ‘all other things being equal’ type of default leaning. I would be willing to back up my wife and children in almost anything, but I would be a long way from offering unqualified support for someone just for having the same skin color or speaking the same language without knowing more about the situation.
That said, most people feel an obligation to step in if they see someone in trouble who is like them, especially if the trouble is happening because that person is like them. Otherwise perfect strangers can be united in times of trouble on certain issues by race, creed, or nationality. But very few people will offer immediate and unquestioning support to any person in any circumstance for any issue, based only on these more abstract connections. The further away from your family you go, the more any one connection becomes one factor among many.
Make sure others feel the same way
That’s why you should also be sure of the loyalties of the people around you. You want to know what factors will influence people’s decisions. I’m especially speaking of inner rings here – family, friends, neighbors.
The practical side of this is above all, who can I count on, and who can count on me? That’s an unstable relationship unless you both know where you stand with the other and why.
You want to know not only who you have responsibility for, but who will be willing to help you. So if you don’t know who goes where in your concentric loyalty, or where you are for others, ask yourself questions like these:
What would I do if my friend/neighbor/coworker asked me to pick up their kids? Does it depend on how far? What If they needed cash? Does that depend on how much? What if they help with a pet or mowing the lawn or something while they are on vacation? Does it matter how much time commitment is involved?
Then turn those questions around and ask who would do what for you. Who would you call if you were away from home and needed someone to pick something up from your house, or help your wife or your kids? If you won’t think anyone would, or think the limits on effort are low, that’s a sign you need to put more time and effort into those friendships which would be reciprocated.
Everyone needs people on their side. Be that person for those who have the right to expect it from you, and expect it from those close to you as well.