Psychology professor Dorothy Dinnerstein only wrote one book before dying tragically in a car accident in 1992. But that book caused quite a stir. In The Mermaid and the Minotaur, Dinnerstein claimed that all men, in some respect, are like the fearsome Minotaur: “…the gigantic and eternally infantile offspring of a mother’s unnatural lust; male representative of a mindless, greedy power that insatiably devours live flesh.”
According to Greek myth, the Minotaur was a gruesome monster with the body of a man and the head of bull. It was the progeny of Pasiphae, the wife of Minos, and a snow-white bull sent to Minos by Poseidon. When the monster was born it was shut up in the Labyrinth, and every nine years seven male and seven female virgins were sacrificed to it to be devoured alive. When the third such sacrifice came around, the hero Theseus volunteered to go into the Labyrinth and, with the help of Ariadne, slew the creature.
Dinnerstein claimed the Minotaur was the perfect symbol for the masculine stereotype of perpetual childishness — the needy, desperate, unfeeling monster that devours virgins and lives in darkness.
If you’re a man and feeling triggered right now, The Mermaid and the Minotaur also upset a lot of female readers. Dinnerstein not only explored male overconfidence and authoritarianism, but also women’s hesitancy and diminished participation in the public sphere, tracing it all back to the mental wound caused to children by having women be their primary caregivers. Her view was that if babies could see that both male and female participation are integral to keeping them alive and happy, the idea that one gender has greater dominion over life itself would wither. Without such equality in the raising of children, men were condemned to continue to become controlling, dominating, over-intellectualizing, under-feeling, defensive, withholding, workaholic, narcissistic and disconnected.
A lot has changed since Dinnerstein wrote her book. But her axiom that “it’s easier for women than for men to see what’s wrong with the world that men have run” still intrigues me. Are men like the Minotaur? Immature, insensitive, and insatiable?
As I mentioned, in the Greek myth, Theseus agreed to slay the monster, but could only do so with the help of Princess Ariadne who supplied him with a sword and ball of thread so that he could retrace his steps back out of the labyrinth. It could be read that men need women to help them slay the monster inside. At least, I think that’s what Dinnerstein was suggesting.
I’m no expert in Greek mythology. Nor in second-wave feminism. But I’ve studied a lot of Christian theology, and the idea that inequitable marriages and absent fathers create juvenile men is recounted time and again in the Old Testament book of Genesis. From Abraham to Isaac, from Isaac to Jacob, and from Jacob to Joseph, we see the pattern being repeated, and usually the monstrous effects occur to the central characters’ brothers – Ishmael, Esau and Joseph’s half-brothers.
From a Christian perspective, the Minotaur could represent not merely a mental wound, but our commonly held wound of the spirit. We are broken. All humankind is marred by sin, by fallenness, but societal factors create the conditions in which male sinfulness is expressed chiefly as the senseless, ravenous need for control. Of course, it is Christ who slays the Minotaur. His sacrifice sets us free. But I agree with Dinnerstein that men often need women to help them see what’s wrong with a world that feels normal to men.
In one of my earliest books, Longing for Love, now long out of print, I argued that redeemed humanness included both the capacity to nurture and attach (stereotypically female traits) as well as the facility for confidence and agency (stereotypically male traits). In other words, discipleship or spiritual growth involves balancing both sides of that old stereotypical equation in each human being, both male and female. This balance is something we see modeled in Christ so magnificently in the gospels.
As I said, things have changed since Dinnerstein described the hesitancy and smallness of women in the 70s. Women have been embracing their agency for decades. But have men been slaying the Minotaur? Are men more expressive of their feelings? Are they more sensitive, caring about relationships, willing to make commitments, prepared to admit limitations and ask for help?
That said, I’m not proposing men abandon their drive for agency and achievement. Maybe part of the discipleship process for men involves redeeming those existing so-called male traits they currently express negatively. That could include converting drivenness and competitiveness into a healthier form of devotion and commitment. Controlling behaviors could be reshaped into more honest forms of solicitous caring. Withholding practices can be redirected into a more realistic caution about granting ultimate loyalty to those people or things that don’t merit it.
I’m inspired in this area by Yale professor James Dittes and his book, Driven by Hope: Men and Meaning where he attempts to show that many so-called masculine traits are in fact religious yearnings. As the title suggests, Dittes believes that hope is the prime motivator for men. He says, “Men are expectant. Men live a life that feels chronically destined, ever on the verge — intended for something that is never quite arrived at, an unending not-yet, the perpetual pilgrimage of almost.”
It is this affliction of being chronically destined that explains so much of what we usually identify as male behavior. Dittes continues, “Something beckons and promises a man but also eludes and teases — something hinted at in the life he knows but something unmistakably beyond, just beyond naming, ever beyond grasping, intimate and sure, yet elusive — that life which is truly his and yet never his.”
To be sure, men can express this yearning in destructive competitive ways, in chasing his dreams at the cost of relationships with those who love him. That’s the Minotaur. But the redeemed man can still be driven by hope. The journey of discipleship is the development of the skills of pursuing goals in ways that are inclusive, generative and relational.
“In religious terms, men are afflicted by hope. Hope means living a life that awaits, longingly, a fulfillment that must come from beyond the everyday domain, since it doesn’t seem to come from within that domain. Life is lived — and is meant to be lived — in a kind of inbetweennness. Life is not (yet) what it is meant to be; life is meant to be what it is not (yet). A man lives in the kingdom of God but also knows himself separated from that kingdom. Life is in between, on the way, not yet there, destined.”
The Christian man is one who has heard the longings of heart, who has been enlivened in his hope for something more, but who has heard the call and follows the example of Christ.
Faith in Christ, then, becomes both the satisfaction of one’s deep yearnings and the arousal of even deeper hope. But now our energies aren’t dispelled in a frantic search for significance or personal victory. Instead, the Christian man is filled with hope, a future orientation that infuses life with meaning and purpose, and offers a quest for tomorrow, one that involves partnership with others, and an integration of both so-called male and female traits.
As St Augustine of Hippo once prayed, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”