Detail of Fallen Angel
Detail of Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabanel, 1847
*The following contains discussions of suicide and may be triggering to suicide survivors or anyone bereaved by suicide.

When Wellington Lytle checked into a Milwaukee hotel after the 1929 stock market crash, he was down to his last four cents and emptied of hope.

But before he put a revolver to his head, he took out a pen and left the following note:
"My body should go to science, my soul to [Secretary of Treasury] Andrew W. Mellon, and sympathy to my creditors."
Even in his last moments, Lytle wanted his corporeal remains and soul utilized by the world he was leaving. A century later, men still carry this burden — their self-worth is tied to their usefulness.

Today we call these utilitarian men "good providers." And while society ties itself in knots, defining what it means to be a provider, for many men, it comes down to feeling useful.

Unfortunately, when men are asked to lie down in this Procrustean bed, many respond in one of two dangerous ways.

A. They work themselves to death, clearing hurdle after hurdle in a relentless pursuit of some bogus hegemonic definition of masculinity that eventually kills them earlier than women.

B. They emotionally withdraw and quietly stew in depression, resentment, and the fear that their contributions will never be adequate. (Or at least never enough to attract a life partner or obtain societal status.) This withdrawal partially explains why sex rates have dropped in young men but not young women.

So given the confusing state of masculinity, it probably won't surprise anyone that when researchers studied the last words of suicidal men, they found the two most common words used were "useless" and "worthless."

We should all know the statistics by now. Although depression rates are higher in women, young men die by suicide at four times the rate of young women.

Unfortunately, men are also indoctrinated to suffer silently. A recent study found men who die by suicide were less likely to have been diagnosed with depression.

Then there is the education gap. In his latest book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It, Richard Reeves outlines some alarming statistics. Women outnumber men in colleges 4 to 3 and are more likely to graduate high school. This drop in educated men spells trouble for their future employment options. 1 in 3 men without a high school diploma has dropped out of the labor force. (Not unemployed, not working.)

But what is truly frustrating about the education gap is it didn't happen overnight. Men's education levels began dropping in the 1980s. Why are we finally addressing it now?

Reeves' solution is to "red shirt" boys — have them enrolled in school a year later to address developmental delays. When I first heard this solution, I balked, but Reeves makes a valid point. We adjusted STEM programs to attract more women but never changed the education system to address the boys who lag in emotional intelligence. (Statistically, they catch up to girls.)

Reeves also points out that this "men as providers" belief endures despite the closing wage gap within marriages. According to a 2021 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study, 30% of wives now earn more than their husbands. But as Mad Men masculinity is left behind with poodle skirts and bullet bras, many men are not rejoicing. Households in which the wife is the breadwinner are 50% more likely to end in divorce, and husbands who make less than their wives are more likely to cheat.

Hardcore feminists scold men for not evolving fast enough. But why should men's beliefs change when society constantly reinforces anachronistic ideals of masculinity? Case in point. A 2017 Pew Research Center study found that 71% of Americans believe "it is very important for a man to be able to support a family financially to be a good husband or partner." (Only 32% felt a woman's financial contribution defined her as a "good partner.")

Unfortunately, 81% of men with a high school education or less subscribe to this provider mentality, while only 61% of men with a bachelor's degree believe the same. Consequently, the men who most believe they should be breadwinners will also be the most likely to feel like failures.

In a perfect world, manhood would be equated with authenticity. Being a man should be defined by being your true self, as long as your journey toward self-actualization doesn't harm others. (Read: Don't be a douchebag to get ahead.)

But another Pew Research Center study shines a harsher black light on masculinity. Researchers asked women and men where they found meaning, fulfillment, and satisfaction. They found women found happiness through multiple sources, but men did not.

Psychologists describe those who find meaning through different social roles as having high self-complexity. And women are the ultimate shapeshifters. We find meaning through our roles as mothers, bosses, best friends, and wives. For example, 43% of women said children and grandchildren gave their life meaning, but only 24% of men said the same.

Men find meaning in one role — provider.

Liberals' solution is to castigate men as having "toxic masculinity," while conservatives want to turn back the clocks on women's rights as if equality is a zero-sum game. Neither approach works.

But here's the real problem. We dismantled masculinity and didn't leave a blueprint to build the new digs. Or, to put a finer point on this debate, therapist Jonathan Decker posited that "limiting masculinity," not toxic masculinity, is to blame for this mess. In other words, how we define masculinity is too narrow.

Trapped by these impossible ideologies, it's no wonder that young men turn to harmful influencers like Andrew Tate, Joe Rogan, and Jordan Peterson. These carnival barkers hock their version of masculinity as magical elixirs. Or, even worse, they frame masculinity as aggression, risk-taking, violence, and sexism.

Comment: If the author had spent any time actually listening to what Peterson and Rogan have to say, she would find they are not anything like Tate.

Whenever a group becomes disenfranchised, the void will be filled by the loudest and often ugliest voices.
"Only women, children, and dogs are loved unconditionally. A man is only loved under the condition that he provides something."
— Chris Rock
In researching this piece, I polled over 20 male friends with the following question.
"What does it mean to you to be a good provider?"
Many of my friends shrugged off the question and gave evasive replies about being gainfully employed and wearing clean underwear. But some of my friends are deep thinkers.

Julius is such a man — a mass of paradoxes that would confuse most women. He is artistic, poetic, sensitive, and composed. Silent at moments. Talkative at others. He is what women would call the "dark and mysterious" type.

Julius also served in Iraq. Today, he is a suicide survivor who battles PTSD.

(Note: Julius asked me to use his real name. He counsels ex-military suffering from PTSD and is very open about his battle with depression.)

Julius smiles an insouciant grin when I ask him how he defines being a good provider and replies;
"Men play this game of appearing confident, headstrong, and apathetic, while women must appear the opposite — demure, vulnerable, and empathetic. It's ridiculous that society accepted this sexist way of thinking even though everyone states on their dating profile.... 'I'm looking for an honest, caring, intelligent man'... these are qualities that we see in women, not in men, and yet the hypocrisy lives on."
Sadly, many men do not survive this hypocrisy. But if we don't teach our sons that there is more than one way to be a good man, some may choose to be bad men. Others will harm themselves.

We can do better. We owe it to our sons to at least try.