The craven gubernatorial race in my home state of New Jersey, with its nasty allegations of marital infidelity on the part of both candidates, the public pain of Jon Corzine's ex-wife who lashed out at him as having abandoned his family, and the spectacle of men being prepared to humiliate each other - and themselves - in the quest for power, has reinforced for me the contemporary brokenness of the American male, and how it is undermining the American family, which is rotting from the head down.
The American male is broken, and in his own brokenness, he is compromising his marriage and crippling his children. Immersed in a culture which is obsessed with success through competition, he is trained to forever feel like a failure. Rather than peering inside himself to discover his own unique gifts, he stares in front to see who has surpassed him, and behind, to see who is gaining on him. He reads magazines, like this week's Time, whose very cover story is titled "Ambition," with the unbelievable headline, "A surprising look at what separates life's go-getters from its also-rans." Get it. You're one of life's losers. An also-ran.
The modern American male has little self-esteem and is a muddle of broken dreams. He lives in a society resembling not a circle, in which all are treated more or less as equals, but a pyramid, in which only a tiny few are perched at the top and the overwhelming majority are made to feel that they are at various stations of the bottom.
He is painfully aware that the recognition and respect of his peers will not come from assisting his children with homework, or remaining faithful to his wife. All around him, the culture glorifies men who have built businesses even as they have abandoned wives, like Jack Welch and Donald Trump. Treating his co-workers with dignity will never bring him into the Forbes 400. Reading his children a bedtime story will not get him an invitation to the White House. He is painfully aware that only money brings prestige and power brings respect. Since he has limited amounts of each, his tragedy is to look upon himself as the inferior of men who may be far less moral. His children do not make him feel heroic, and his wife struggles, but fails, to massage his macerated ego. For if he is a big zero, then, to his mind, the woman dumb enough to marry him is a zero squared.
IN HIS distress he turns to various forms of escape, designed to make him feel better about himself and numb his pain. Becoming a sports fanatic allows him to live vicariously through his favorite team and feel heroic. Through workaholism he convinces himself that one more hour at the office will bring him the success for which he is desperate. The attentions of another woman makes him feel like a winner. Alcohol numbs his heart even as it poisons his soul. And pornographic addiction, which is becoming an epidemic among American men, allows him to experience a similar numbness, the non-feeling of emotionlessness, which is the real reason that so many men masturbate, for the bliss that follows sexual climax. He wishes not to feel because when he does feel, all he feels is pain.
He comes home a shell of a man, a defeated creature whose modest surroundings reinforce his permanent feeling of failure. Because he doesn't love himself, he cannot love his wife. His marriage is coldly functional, bereft of warmth and intimacy. Since he doesn't believe in himself, he treats the comfort his wife offers him as patronizing. Later he will complain that his wife does not lift him up when he is down, even as he has pushed her away on countless occasions. He wants sex with his wife, not because he loves sex, but because it relieves him of tension and helps him fall asleep. And in his lifelessness, he further alienates the wife who feels used and discarded.
BEREFT OF inspiration, he fails to inspire his children. He does not parent them so much as admonish them. So they are reduced to searching for substitute heroes, and like him, they become TV addicts. The company of friends soon becomes far more fulfilling than their father's company, further isolating parent from child.
The great tragedy of this daily scenario is the fact that all along this man was a hero, only he never saw it. He got up every day to feed his children. He struggles with temptation yet came home to his wife. But that never made him feel good about himself, because he bought the lie that a man is only important if he is rich or famous.
Such are the consequences of the current epidemic of soullessness in America, an epidemic so widespread that the greatest heroes of all - our brave soldiers who risk their lives for our freedom - have some of the highest rates of depression and spousal abuse. It is said that this is so because of the horrors of war, and no doubt this contributes. But the real reason is that no one treats them like heroes. They come home to their small houses and piles of bills and they feel like failures too.
The brokenness of the American male is what is most responsible for the unhappiness of women, the delinquency of children, and the high rate of divorce. The family doesn't have a functional head. The ancients regarded the man as the sun and the woman as the moon. He shone his light which she reflected, and together they illuminated their children's night. Daddy came home and lifted everyone's mood. But it is not happening any more.
Unless we can create a culture that makes men feel like they are not merely achievement machines, measured solely by how much money they make, we risk a generation of broken men married to lonely women raising insecure children. The self-esteem of each successive American generation seems to be diminishing, such that each becomes more dependent on external accoutrements to make them feel valuable.
Capitalism and competition must be complimented by the religious message that, whatever a man's assets, his real greatness is acquired through moral choices rather than friends in high places. We must drill it into the hearts and minds of today's men that what makes them special is being a child of God rather than the governor of a state.
The writer recently won the American Jewish Press Association's Award for Excellence in Commentary.