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in: A Man's Life, On Manhood

• Last updated: September 28, 2020

Are the Suburbs Killing Your Manhood?

Men sitting on chair and talking with each other illustration.

Editor’s Note: This article is from new Art of Manliness contributor Cameron Schaefer. Check out Cameron’s blog at Schaefer’s Blog.

Ever gone on a man trip? When I graduated from high school I went on a man trip, backpacking and ice climbing in Southeastern Alaska for 10 days with two friends of mine. It was part boyhood dream, part silent protest against the post-graduation-Mexico-binge-drinking-sex-fest that most of my peers were engaging in.

Before I left, everyone had to give me their two cents, even if their greatest wilderness adventure consisted of a weekend in their grandparent’s Winnebago. I remember sneering in disgust as people would tell me how dangerous it was (most recounting stories of a very distant relative that got maimed by a blood-thirsty Grizzly then finished off by torrents of pony-size mosquitoes) and how silly my parents were for letting me go. Danger was exactly the reason I wanted to go.

It was epic. A white-haired, green-eyed bush pilot dropped us off 80 miles into the Wrangell-St Elias wilderness and we spent the next week exploring, climbing, shooting, throwing large rocks off cliffs, getting scared after seeing foot-long Grizzly tracks and yelling, “Hey Bear!” for the next 2 hours. We never saw another soul. For 10 days we were three guys alone in a wilderness much larger than ourselves marking our passage into manhood by the amount of times we cheated death. We were kings of men.

Now I live in the suburbs.

I show my dominance by the length and complexity of my drink order at Starbucks. Life moves at a predictable pace, just as my neighbors and I have designed. Sometimes the amount of control I have is suffocating. A Vine Maple shrub exactly one foot from the left corner of my garage like all the other token shrubbery in our neighborhood, expensive fencing approved by the homeowner’s association so everything is uniform, trash on Monday, recycle bin every other Friday, and enough “Children at Play” signs to make even a school of blind orphans feel safe. Everything is under control.

David Goetz, in his book Death By Suburb, points out why people flock to the suburbs:

“…many ‘burbs are arguably organized around the provision of safety and opportunities for children and neat, tranquil environs for the homeowners. Suburbs and exurbs have grown to dominate the American landscape precisely because, most of the time, they fulfill those promises in spades.”

There’s nothing wrong with safety or “tranquil environs.” In fact, they are both very good things. I love that my 6-month-old daughter will grow up in a place where she can play in the yard without concern. Or that due to our strict covenants I don’t have to worry about my neighbor turning his yard into a parking lot for old, rusty cars.

The problem comes when our environment begins dictating our behavior and thereby stripping men of the very things that feed our manishness.

In the introduction to Crabgrass Frontier, sociologist Kenneth T. Jackson writes:

“The space around us–the physical organization of neighborhoods, roads, yards, houses, and apartments–sets up living patterns that condition our behavior … the environment of the suburbs weathers one’s soul peculiarly. That is, there are environmental variables, mostly invisible, that oxidize the human spirit, like what happens to the metal of an ungaraged car.”

The danger that living in the suburbs is simply that there is no danger…it’s completely safe. Constant and complete control is a silent, but deadly killer.

Vintage view of suburb development.

Now, I don’t want you to think I’m complaining because I’m not. I love the suburbs and my life. But, maybe we’ve built the idea of being a man on some false logic. For as long as I can remember, I was under the impression that being a man meant being in total control of your surroundings. Ruling your job, family, and social life with an emperor-like authority and dominance. No surprises, everything on cue.

But maybe the truest calling of man lies in the wilderness of life; in learning to thrive in the environments where complete control is not possible.

Think about every man you looked up to as a kid. Chances are they continually faced environments outside their complete control. Environments in which there was no guarantee of safety or success. Where one can only hope to influence rather than rule. Firefighters dueling with fire, soldiers battling the fog and friction of war, explorers traversing foreign territories, pilot’s pushing the boundaries of flight, or even the missionary working in inner-city New York. Each is learning to thrive without being in control.

I know what you’re saying at this point. “Great, but I am a web designer and father of twins, not GI Joe or Vasco de Gama.” But, placing yourself in an environment outside your control does not necessarily mean changing jobs or even leaving the suburbs. It could be as simple as mentoring a troubled youth, working a few weekends each month at a homeless shelter, learning a hobby that has always seemed daunting to you, or starting the business you’ve been secretly planning during your work breaks for the past 6 years. Something that requires you to leave your comfort zone and step into unexplored territory. No guarantees of success. The hard way.

The suburbs convince us that the pinnacle of life consists of comfort, safety, and control. And the man that finally succumbs to this deadly logic is a miserable creature forced to live off the exhilaration of other men’s feats.

As George C. Scott so eloquently said it in the movie Patton, as he addressed an auditorium full of soldiers on the eve of their deployment to Europe, “Thirty years from now, when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you, ‘What did you do in the great World War II,’ you won’t have to say, ‘Well… I shoveled sh*% in Louisiana.'”

The path to keeping your manhood intact while living in the suburbs is not the one of least resistance. Instead, it consists of willingly placing yourself in situations outside of your complete control, with no guarantees, and deciding to continue on anyway. These situations do not have to consist of killing a large animal or spending a week in Alaska (though each of those would certainly help), they simply require not giving up on the adventures right under your nose.

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