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I raised five sons, and two things I tried to convey to them as they grew up were that it’s easier to destroy than to create, and that it’s easier to be great than to be good.
The first point is pretty obvious. Boys want to have an impact on the world. More than girls, boys feel a need to impose their will on nature, on the environment, and on the people around them. In young men, that’s expressed as a desire to build things, break things, dam up streams, and cut down trees. As they grow older, that desire to affect the world becomes a wish to scrawl graffiti over it, knock it down, shoot it, or otherwise bend it to their will.
My late wife once approached me after she’d read a book by James Dobson on the topic of raising young men. She was skeptical of a claim Dobson made: that young men often thought of blowing things up. I answered “Honey, I often think of blowing things up. Not a month goes by when I don’t imagine launching a grenade into that old barn at the edge of our pasture.” Which was true. She said that she was surrounded by aliens, and started to cry. And I understood why she did.
Boys want to have an impact on the world. Once upon a time, not that long ago, they’d have been able to set off on their own by the time they were fifteen. They could fish, build a hut, find a wife: when one’s entire youth was spent in vocational training, being an adult was pretty easy.
Today young men need educations, credentials, and a bunch of skills that have nothing to do with surviving and a lot to do with getting along, with getting permissions and identification and jumping through all the hoops that adults have to jump through just to rent a home and drive a car and have a bank account. Their bodies are ready at fifteen, ready to change and populate the world. But modernity demands another ten years from them — ten years of yearning and frustration and banking the embers of youthful passion and the need to change the world around them.
It’s no wonder that they feel the tug of mischief and destruction. That’s a way to change the world that doesn’t require the world’s permission, that doesn’t require you to tick all the boxes before you can make a difference. I get it. I watched my boys go through it, and I think I understood their frustration. I’d felt it too, once upon a time. Some days I still feel it.
When you want to change the world and you know you can’t, when you know that the world is too complicated and you’re just not ready to go out and make a serious contribution, it’s tempting to pursue something nihilist but consequential. I think that’s a lot of what we’ve seen in the past year or two, in the riots and the protests and the seemingly senseless destruction. I think that’s a lot of what we see in our inner cities today. Young men want to matter, and it’s hard to matter, now, when you’re a young man. Violence is easy; creating something is hard.
My guys behaved themselves and are fine men today. I’m proud of them. But I know it wasn’t easy, for them or, some days, for me.
It’s different for young women. For young women, creation is actually easier than destruction. Girls can create the most precious and valuable thing in our universe with almost no planning or forethought: in fact, they have to be cautioned not to create it, and society throws up elaborate systems to help them avoid performing the one act of creation which women are uniquely gifted to perform.
And today, in a truly tragic example of good intentions gone wrong, the great creative act of womanhood is marginalized and devalued, as women are reinvented as inferior men, expected to live down to the level of their male counterparts, and told to sacrifice that which has always made women worth placing on a pedestal and shrouding with honor.
There is no greater act of creation than birthing and raising another human being. That needs to be said more often.
That other thing, about it being easier to be great than to be good, was more nuanced. It’s tempting to dream of changing the world, of doing something great and important. It’s harder to live each day as we should, to consistently do the small things that, in summation, make up most of our lives — the little acts of integrity, of responsibility, of service, of kindness, and of sacrifice that leave a lasting mark. There’s an interval, when young men are young men, when we imagine doing great things — and would like to ignore those more prosaic and quotidian obligations.
Dostoevsky addressed this more deeply in the character of Raskolnikov, but it’s a challenge for many enthusiastic young men who are eager to make their mark on the world. Dream big and ignore the small stuff. A lot of us who imagined we’d write novels fall victim to that, I think.Published in