These first few pages of Wild at Heart set out the basic thesis: that man—as opposed to woman—is undomesticated and adventerous: in a word, wild. Even before encountering this book, I’d quip that women are a domesticating influence on men,1 so I get where he’s coming from.2 And although that’s a bit of snark and a bit of a dig at my own gender, there’s some truth in it, too: one of the more interesting insights from my research into the science of fatherhood was that dads tend to advance vocabulary and motor coordination in young children, because they are more likely to use language the child doesn’t know and more likely to engage in roughhousing. Boundary pushing (exploring, in Eldredge’s terms) and challenging (battling, in Eldredge’s terms) do seem to something that dads offer in a unique way.3 So this wild energy is something that I can definitely see playing out in the dynamics of my family of origin and in my new family.
I can also relate to Eldredge’s passion for adventure. He finds it out in the woods tracking elk, but I find it more on the highway riding my Night Rod Special. You can’t hear a cell phone ring over the roaring engine and the rushing wind, and that’s Heaven. There is a bliss in the merging of operator and machinery into a single unit, and a strange exhiliration in knowing that the only reason you will survive that upcoming curve is your Zen-like handling of this super-self. It’s confidence-building and reinvigorating when you have to be in the zone—or else. This kind of adventure is truly an amazing experience, so I get where Eldredge would say that he finds his heart there.4
But is he finding a uniquely masculine heart there? I know a lot of guys who have no interest in breaking out of their comfort zone with adventure. They would rather stay at home and work on software, play games, or “just hang out”. They don’t have an “insatiable longing to explore”, as Eldredge claims they do on page 4. And for the men I’m thinking of, it’s not “fear that keeps [each] man at home where things are neat and orderly and under his control”, but a general appreciation for creature comforts and intellectual pursuits. It’s easy to see where they’re coming from: I think back to my short-lived experience running men’s track in high school. The other kids in that sport were of the opinion that if you didn’t vomit at the end of the race, you didn’t run hard enough. I was of the opinion that I don’t like vomitting. They accused me of not being “man enough”, and I thought they were just crazy. I could easily imagine one of my friends reading Eldredge and think he’s just crazy with this outdoors stuff. So this enthusiasm for adventure that Eldredge and I share is hardly a universal male experience. Are these different guys not “really” men?
To put a sharper point on it, my friend Sarah, who takes credit for me getting my motorcycle, is an avid motorcycle enthusiast. Another friend admitted to me that she has dated guys (plural) longer than she should have because they had a Harley, and she loved the adventure of riding it. Motorcycling in particular and motorsports in general are certainly dude-heavy, but women in motorsports are hardly a rarity. And Camp Fire (nee Campfire Girls) has been going strong since 1910. My wife loves whitewater rafting. Are these women who seek adventure “really” dudes? I have every intention of raising my daughter to appreciate camping and outdoors adventures. Does that mean that I am raising my daughter to be a dude?
When I ask this of Eldredge fans, I consistently get one of two responses. The first is to say “Yes”, and then laugh and move on. But that is not an answer: that is using humor to dismiss and avoid the uncomfortable philosophical question, and I suspect there’s some bigotry—or at least discomfort with difference—hiding underneath that laughing. The second is to say that everyone has both masculine and feminine traits. Yet you can’t have it both ways. If you are trying to identify what makes a man, then you had best be able to point to something truly unique to men, distinctive from women. Not “in general” unique to men: truly unique. Otherwise, what you are talking about are personality traits. You’re now writing a book for people who share a personality trait, who may be predominently men but are hardly limited to them. You are no longer talking about “the secret of a man’s soul”, but “the secret of an adventurer’s soul”. Gender can fall right out of the conversation.
This introduces what will be a recurring problem throughout the book: although there are ways in which I agree with him and can find resonances between myself and his portrayal of “the heart of man”, I have trouble buying that any of it is truly uniquely male. For everything he wants to cite as uniquely male, I can find women who resonate strongly with it, and I can find men who don’t. Eldredge will go on to say that lady-adventurers aren’t actually adventurers but rather really just appreciate being along for the ride, and the male non-adventurers are emaciated shadows of who they should be as men. I don’t really buy either of those answers, because those answers don’t seem to hold up in my experienced reality.
I am pretty sure that I get that from Dr. Drew. Or maybe from my wife. If you wouldn’t mind, would you retweet my question to him to help me get it answered? ↩
Now is a good time to mention that, unless explicitly stated to the contrary, I’m never making ontological or prescriptive statements. I am not saying what a man or a dad or a woman or a mom is in essence (unlike Eldredge’s explicit stance), and I’m not saying what a man, dad, woman, or mom should be (unlike Eldredge’s implications). When I talk about men or women, I am speaking in generalities from my experience of men and my experience of women. My experience is, of course, within an limited context. And given that there are 3.5 billion men and 3.5 billion women on the planet, my experience is also of a tiny portion of the population of men and women. So I speak in generalities from my experience about how things seem to be, not in prescriptions about how things ought to be, nor in ontologies about how things are in essence. ↩
I’ve been very interested in the parellels and contrasts between parenting dynamics in heterosexual couples and parenting dynamics in gay couples. In particular, I wonder how closely parellel parenting is between fathers and the non-biological parent in lesbian couples who had a baby. I bet it’s strikingly similar, in which case these traits are not an inherently masculine trait, but rather a consequence of the role. But until someone actually does that research, I’m just guessing on that point. ↩
Of course, my “wilderness” in this case is a well-paved stretch of highway dotted with gas stations, which is hardly the primal isolation that Eldredge is fawning over. But it seems close enough. ↩