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Val Farmer, Published April 22 2011

Val Farmer: Myths of heroism skew meaning of masculinity

St. George went out to slay the dragon and men have never been the same. His story became everyman’s story.

A knight ventures forth to conquer supernatural forces and overcome daunting perils in the name of his glorious quest. He vanquishes the foe, wins against impossible odds and ultimately is victorious. His bravery in the face of the enemy is unflinching. In triumph he returns and is accorded accolades, honor and distinction. He is justly rewarded for his heroic deeds.

His song is a celebration of self. He longs to be a hero and fulfill a heroic destiny.

He expects the love and admiration of his lady. It is by his manly deeds he wins her love. When it comes to his quest, women and children are along for the ride. They are not to interfere with his quest – the task, the goal, the “big” life he hopes to lead.

Women have changed. Their fantasy is no longer to be Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty waiting for Prince Charming to carry her off to his castle and a life of “happily ever after.” They have shed some of the driving myths in their own lives: beauty, youth and the pursuit of perfection. Those goals left too much to fate and chance.

Women have noble causes. Their dreams and worthy goals drive them. Achievement is important. They face the same competitive forces in the workplace. Their income is just as important for family survival. They are breadwinners in their own right. Her knight’s quest is important, but she has achievement needs of her own to fulfill.

So what is the difference? Men, in their quest to prove themselves in “great and glorious combat,” are willing to sacrifice their personal relationships. Women are not. The myths of the anguished artist and the principled but lonely gunfighter do not serve men well.

Notable women describe their lives in the context of relationships and professional achievement. Even highly successful women whose personal lives are in shambles openly lament and acknowledge that failed relationships and family tragedies are an unacceptable price for fame. Their badge of glory burns brighter when they describe career sacrifices for the sake of their family relationships.

Feminine identity isn’t caught up in the “quest.” Friendships, motherhood, marriage and family are as important as a career. A woman feels good about herself when she has continuity of many goals along with personal achievement. Some sacrifices are not worth it. She becomes a heroine in the eyes of the people whose lives she touches.

Advice for men. Individualism is taking a modern-day toll. Marriages suffer. Children aren’t getting the parenting they deserve. There is so little limelight to go around. The quest is elusive and hard to define. Paying the bills in a two-income economy is quite a dragon in its own right. How do we judge what we do to be worthwhile?

A mid-life crisis is often the result of attempts to come to terms with the hour glass as our quest starts to run down. “Was it noble enough? Could I have done something different? Do I have the time or energy to start over again? What do I really want to do? What price am I willing to pay for the satisfaction of being a hero in the eyes of others?”

We need a purpose, meaning and direction for our lives. We need worthy goals to energize us. The quest is important. How we spend our time is important. But how important is it? Group effort and cooperation have their own rewards. It is not as dramatic as the limelight of the star, but it’s just as significant and far more likely.

Some of you might be thinking, “Are you telling us to back off from our dream?”

No, I am not saying that. I am saying that the “quest” as an overriding goal has the potential for creating much mischief in our lives. The quest needs to be put in its proper place as an important part of life – but it is only one dimension of a balanced life.

Do we have to be so hard on ourselves? Can we keep our work in perspective? Sometimes it is not more success we need but more time to smell the flowers.

As men, we need to adopt a page from the lives of women. Relationships are as important to a good life as work. Men and women can do both. It is not one gender with the quest and the other gender with the hearth. It is both genders doing both. Family ties, loving relationships, children, grandchildren and friendships count. They count even more as time passes.

Someday we will all have to lay down our gauntlets, relax and let others continue in the cause. We can genuinely get to that point where we can say, “What I have done I have done and it was good enough.”

Hopefully we will have also tended to the home fires enough so that there will be a loving companion at our side and children, grandchildren and good friends to share the joys of life. There will still be plenty left to do – scaled-down “quests,” but quests nevertheless.

St. George, spend some quality time at home between battles. Make your song not a song of self but one of unselfish love.

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website, www.valfarmer.com.