Daniel Kerr, founder of St. Martin’s Academy, discusses the loss and necessary finding of hard won experience.
A recent TIME magazine edition was dedicated exclusively to dispelling its readership from the gloom of finding themselves awake in a world they didn’t like. Apoplectic and growing increasingly bewildered by the glow of a Trumpian dawn, it seemed the editors of TIME had called an emergency meeting of sorts to reassure themselves and their gentle readers why things weren’t so bad after all. For an extra measure of confidence in this assurance, they had assembled an impressive cadre of luminaries: Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet and Bono chief among them.
Buffett led the charge. His primary reason to be optimistic about our future? We are no longer farmers. And it’s true.
Prior to the industrial revolution, 80% of Americans were farmers, the vast majority as small-holders continuing the legacy of their father and their father’s father before them. Today, the family farm is dead and only about two percent of Americans farm mostly in highly mechanized commercial operations. Mr. Buffet observes how this exodus of men away from their family’s farm swelled the ranks of manufacturing, resulting in significant strides in the devel-
“Effeminacy… [is] a shying away from doing hard things because it means giving up one’s comfort.”
opment of technology, wealth and medicine. The end result: more stuff and longer lives. And Mr. Buffett, ever the astute observer of economic cycles, is pleased to report that we are still in the “early innings” of this game and assures us that even more stuff and even longer lives are ahead. We should be giddy! I was just thinking yesterday that what I need is more stuff in my house and how much I look forward to teasing out a few more years at the end of my life, in and out of hospitals and by the permission of Big Medicine.
In fairness, I’m grateful for many of these advances, particularly in medicine. Neither my Mother nor I would have survived my birth and, if we had, we would have lost my Dad when I was 8 years old to a heart-attack. But to quantify happiness as an equation where wealth plus health equals contentment is so absurdly shallow it hardly warrants a response. The truth is that material prosperity has made most people quietly miserable and longevity has merely lengthened the duration we have to endure the approach of death.
What is striking about Buffett’s particular article is that the very phenomenon he cites as leading towards more happiness, that is the extinction of the family farm, has in fact been one of the most potent efficient causes of the true crisis we face, which has nothing to do with health and wealth and has everything to do with a crisis in masculinity. Men are increasingly effeminate and the results are disastrous. St. Thomas Aquinas defined effeminacy as the inability to put aside pleasure in pursuit of the arduous good. That is, a shying away from doing hard things because it means giving up one’s comfort. It’s a species of sloth, a spiritual sadness or acedia that innervates the will and impinges one’s progress in virtue. The word effeminacy today is often conflated with a certain kind of physical softness or affected feminine manner, but that’s not what St. Thomas meant by it (although those visible signs could be indicators of the underlying vice). It’s something much deeper and its manifestations are boys who never become men because they never learn discipline or how to deny themselves anything. As men we are meant to pour ourselves out in service to others: our wives, our children, and our neighbors in need. That continual pouring out is itself the arduous good we as men are called to and which Christ as Son of Man continually gives us by His example. But when we can’t or won’t pour ourselves out, when we lead lives of continual distraction and dissipation and pass the time with frivolous entertainment, pornography, overeating, and intoxication we abdicate our vocation as men. And deep down, we know it and we are miserable in our abdicatio, no matter how much stuff is in our house or how long we live.
Back to the family farm. The family farm was and is the ideal place to grow in authentic masculinity. Bishop Sheen once observed that man matures principally because of two things: suffering and responsibility. The farm offers plenty of both. Tough sod, recalcitrant animals, inclement weather; a constant barrage of challenges that require persistence and mortification of the will. And, lest a boy lose heart, the living example of his father and grandfather who he works beside and, despite his occasional protests, deep down wants to be like when he has sons of his own. Virtue is attractive, and boys, despite whatever ironic distance some wish to maintain towards it, are compelled by it and yearn for greatness.
Our society once populated with the farmer and his friends (the butcher, baker and candlestick maker) has become a technocentric workforce where men leave behind their families each day to go to “work” at an office. Meanwhile, we’re forced to outsource the leadership of our boys to industrial model, one-size-fits-all, factory schools where quick-silvery lads in the vigor of their youth are asked to do abstract mental work at a desk all day. If they’re not compliant with this sedentary mandate, they’re scolded and perhaps a pharmaceutical is recommended.
Now, not many of us can drop what we’re doing to buy 40 acres and a mule. But what we can do is look for ways to invest our children with responsibility and to resist the temptation to shield them too much from hardship. Who else is going to do this? In a very real way, by introducing them to these things we are truly educating them in ways the world can’t and won’t. Living longer with more things—the Buffet buffet of comfort—is the literal opposite of this type of education. Education is much more than mental abstractions, but it’s a forging of character and grit that is a necessary part of being a man. To find hardship that is educational in its nature is to form virtue. We seek that education for ourselves and our sons because the resulting effeminacy of its absence is not a matter of acting girly, but of failing to be manly.