Getting and Giving: Manhood and Service

November 10, 2020 Updated: November 10, 2020

“We make a living by what we get,” Winston Churchill once said, “but we make a life by what we give.”

Unless we are fabulously wealthy or living in a monastery, we men are interested in making a living. As I wrote earlier, work has a special meaning for men, and part of that meaning has to do with making an income. At the least, we want to earn enough money to supply our needs and the needs of those depending on us.

Because we live in a culture that judges a man not by his worth as a human being but by the amount of money he makes, some of us also want the big bucks. That teacher of English literature may win the praise of students and parents, but his income is a fraction of his neighbor who is a stockbroker. 

So getting counts for men.

But what about giving? What does Churchill mean when he writes that “we make a life by what we give.”

He means service to others.

Roots

In the West, we have a long tradition of men serving the polis, the public square. Athenians required its male citizens to undertake certain duties such as participating in elections and serving in the military during times of war. Like the Athenians, the Romans of the Republic regarded such participation as a duty for all male citizens. 

During the Middle Ages, service was at the heart of the feudal system, with kings, lords, knights, and serfs linked one to the other by specific obligations. Because they were required, however, these obligations fail to meet our modern concept of volunteerism, of giving our time and energy to others free of charge. If we look instead at the monastic orders of that time, however, we do find men and women who made it their business to shelter travelers, care for the sick, feed the hungry, and provide aid for the poor. 

Because of the hardships faced by its pioneers and settlers, and because of its limited government, America might well be called the birthplace of volunteerism. Benjamin Franklin, for example, founded an all-volunteer fire department, the first in the United States. French diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville believed that such groups formed the backbone of the new nation. In “Democracy in America,” he wrote, “When you allow them to associate freely in everything, they end up seeing in association the universal and, so to speak, unique means that men can use to attain the various ends that they propose.”

Like Churchill, there are many other proponents of service in our modern world. Albert Einstein, for example, once stated, “It is every man’s obligation to put into the world at least the equivalent of what he takes out of it.” Though Muhammad Ali is about as different from Einstein as is humanly possible, the famed boxer took a similar stance on giving. “Service to others,” he once said, “is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

Making It Personal

Men in all walks of life give of themselves by caring for their families. 

Every morning before dawn, my 34-year-old neighbor, Sam, sets off in his pickup truck to go to work. A self-employed contractor and builder, he puts in long hours at the worksite five or six days a week, laboring not only for his own gain but for his wife and his two young daughters. 

Another young man of my acquaintance, an attorney, frequently makes supper and entertains the children on his return home from the office, all to allow his wife a brief vacation from her household duties and the kids. 

A grandfather I know in North Carolina has spent hundreds of hours in this past year helping his daughter and her family by overseeing and directing the builders of their new house. 

To help his loved ones in such ways is the most vital form of service for a man. It takes precedence over recreation and pleasure, and is an integral part of that foundation stone of civilization, the family.

In the Public Square

Though public volunteerism has declined in recent years, Americans still give of themselves on average more than any other nation in the world, and men are a part of this phenomenon. 

Younger men tend to take a part in the activities of their children. They become soccer coaches, Scout leaders, and Sunday school teachers. My doctor coached my son in basketball because his own sons were on the team. As a result, Jeremy developed into a fine player and also found Coach a mentor to be admired. For similar reasons, I long ago served as a Cub Scout leader and taught youngsters in Sunday school at my church. Of course, lots of other dads did the same.

Older men can also make a difference in their community. The leader of the Boy Scout troop my youngest son joined left that position after becoming an empty nester, but he was so effective and popular that the parents begged him to come back, which he did. Another man with whom I was acquainted, at the time in his late 70s, visited an elementary school two days a week to read to the children and to teach them chess. 

In “The Book of Man,” William Bennett writes: “The spirit of democracy lives on in more than just constitutions, laws, and court decisions; it is manifest in the lives of its people. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, ‘The life of a man consists not in seeing visions and in dreaming dreams, but in active charity and in willing service.’ It should be our privilege to come to the aid of our fellow man, a small price to pay for the freedoms we all enjoy.”

Benefits

The benefits of service to individuals and organizations are obvious. Without people stepping forward to offer their time and talents, the activities of youth groups, soup kitchens, libraries, and a host of other organizations would either become curtailed or cease to exist altogether.

There are also enormous benefits for the volunteer. 

In her online article “Volunteerism and US Civil Society,” Susan Dreyfus looks at a few of the gifts offered back to us when we give of ourselves. Volunteerism can help bring unity to a community, as people of all races and backgrounds pitch into a task. She cites studies showing that volunteering can reduce loneliness, isolation, and depression, and allows those involved to find a greater purpose in life. 

Volunteering may even have a physical impact. Research from Carnegie Mellon University suggests, “Older adults who volunteer at least 200 hours per year decrease their risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure, by 40 percent.”

Missing Men

Despite these benefits, men of all ages volunteer much less than women. In “Why Don’t Men Volunteer as Much as Women?” Dan Kopf opens his online article with this story: “When YCore, an organization that promotes volunteerism among young professionals, sent out its inaugural recruitment letters, the leadership was stunned by one aspect of who they heard from. Though the letters were sent out to a gender-balanced group, 95% of the responses came from women.”

As Kopf points out, this is an extreme case, but nonetheless, women volunteer at much higher rates than men. He cites different studies showing some possible reasons for this discrepancy—women working more in the home or part-time, for example, are sometimes more free to help at their child’s school or at church—but eventually, Kopf concludes that this gap remains a mystery.

To men of all ages, then, if you are lonely, or if your day job brings little personal satisfaction, or if you are looking to make a difference in someone’s life, consider finding a group in need of your services.

You’ll be doing good for the world and good for yourself. 

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.