Sharing the gold

Posted 8/11/21

When I played baseball as a youth and young adult, I heard that a tie was like “kissing your sister.” I didn’t have a sister, but the same male coaches and fathers made sure to tell me that …

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Sharing the gold

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When I played baseball as a youth and young adult, I heard that a tie was like “kissing your sister.” I didn’t have a sister, but the same male coaches and fathers made sure to tell me that “running like a girl” and “throwing like a girl” were the worst insults.

This ignored the fact that, even if their games occasionally ended in a tie, the athletes on the women’s soccer team ran longer and harder than the baseball players!

I remembered this example of sexism from my childhood after reading “The Men We Long To Be” by Stephen B. Boyd of Wake Forest University. He says American society socializes a boy into becoming a “lonely warrior.” Our society’s “masculine conditioning” is characterized by “toughness, dominance, repression of empathy and extreme competitiveness.” A “real man” wins at all costs, even at the expense of the well-being of others. This attitude is not a game. It can mean life and death.

Masculine conditioning can lead to violence like domestic abuse. More often, a lonely warrior feels restlessness and longing, isolation and unfulfillment. Some men cope through addictive behaviors; many more push themselves until they break down physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Boyd cites the story of a man named Ralph. He was a highly successful corporate attorney who fought his way to the top of his profession only to find that he was alienated from his loved ones, especially his wife and sons. Ralph tearfully confessed, “I feel like I spent 40 years of my life working as hard as I can to become somebody I don’t even like.”

I’ve reflected on my own masculine conditioning as I’ve followed the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi are the best high jumpers in the world. In this year’s Olympics, these men immediately vaulted to the top of the competition. But once they were tied, Barshim and Tamberi failed for several rounds to out-jump the other for the Olympic record. Journalist Bill Chappell of NPR wrote that “this duel … seemed destined to end in tears.” That is the narrative arc of the struggle between lonely warriors. But a different story is possible.

Boyd’s book is subtitled, “beyond domination to a new Christian understanding of manhood.” The Apostle Paul used athletic metaphors for the spiritual quest, such as “running the race” (1 Corinthians 9:24; 2 Timothy 4:7) and “pushing on toward the goal … striving forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:12–14). There is value in competition as well as working hard to achieve your personal best.

But Paul’s theology does not support the idea of a lonely warrior. His goal was not to dominate others or win at all costs. He articulated a metaphor for a supportive community as “one body” (see 1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12). When one member of the body suffers, then all suffer; when one member rejoices, all rejoice together (1 Corinthians 12:26). This summer, the two Olympic high jumpers exemplified this life-giving idea.

After several failed attempts to best his opponent, Barshim said to the official, “Can we have two golds?” According to the rules of high jumping, the answer is yes! Even before the official announcement of their first-place tie, these two men fell into each other’s arms for a huge hug.

Those who claim that a tie is like kissing your sister may also see Barshim’s question as a sign of weakness. But we would all be much healthier and happier if mutuality and respect were the gold standards in our society.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His newly-published book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”


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