Who taught me how to be a man?
The list is long. My dad, of course. But also my mom, my high school History teacher, Atticus Finch, Teddy Roosevelt, the school director I worked for in Oakland, and so on.
Learning to be a man is a constant work-in-progress. Whenever you think you’re done learning, you’re just fooling yourself.
Despite the fact that I don’t know who taught me to be a man and my own ongoing evolution, I know what a real man embodies. And (surprise!) it is very different from the mainstream definition we see in movies and magazine covers.
A real man must be:
I’m not talking about the old west, Jeff Bridges with an eye-patch type of grit. I mean the kind of resilience that comes from walking through fire and wrapping up your burns and going at it again.
Life will test your mettle. It’ll pounce on you when you’re not totally prepared (which is always). A man is never completely, thoroughly ready to be a dad. A man is never completely, thoroughly ready to see his grandmother pass and kiss her for the last time. And yet, he must. He must try his best to endure, and keep his spirit alive. That’s grit.
There’s the traditional sort of humility, where you brush off praise and avoid boasting. And that’s fine. But the more powerful–the more manly!–sort of humility involves being vulnerable.
It comes when we realize we don’t have all the answers. It strikes us when we look within and find a gap. We either embrace that gap and do something about it, or ignore it out of sheer pride. A real man is never afraid to say, I don’t know; a real man actually relishes saying, Teach me. All males are ignorant of one thing or another, but being humble enough to learn is what separates the men from the boys.
Being the man of the house is an outdated concept. But that does not mean men are without responsibilities. If anything, our responsibilities are greater than ever.
Our duties no longer come from a pre-determined list culled from tradition. They are dynamic and fluid. Maybe we need to pay the rent, or maybe we need to sacrifice our careers for our partner’s success.
And while he can still be the bread winner and provide financially, that’s not enough. He must provide emotionally, spiritually. Our work goes beyond what we’ve been told. It goes beyond laying down a paycheck on the kitchen table. It involves supporting the success of those we love, in every way we can do it.
Most people still expect men to be quiet with their feelings, and sterile with their wounds. To be a man is to show no quivering, no self-doubt. The CEO who doesn’t sweat. The dad who never cries in front of his children.
But that’s just a caricature drawn by people who’re long dead.
The notion that just because you are a man you are no longer prone to human emotion is ridiculous. A real man embraces everything that he is, especially during the most vulnerable times. He sets an example for everybody by showing up without pretense.
Yes, it’s incredibly hard (and courageous) to do this, for society is still hung up on the stoic man with a cast-iron stomach…but the tide is turning, and common sense is turning the page.
All human beings, regardless of sex or gender, are fragile and broken. That’s our communal bond.
The caveman didn’t have to deal with many other cavemen. He spent most of his days chasing deer or doodling on his cave. But we are not cavemen anymore. Acting out of complete self-interest can’t be tolerated.
This sounds like such a simple idea, but look around you. How many people, men and women, do you know who treat others as a thought, as they plow through to the prize?
These are today’s cavemen. But some still consider them the “real men.” They are macho. Rugged. Self-made, or whatever other euphemism we want to use for neanderthals.
Real masculinity is not measured by what you get, but what you give. It’s measured by how you treat those who are worse off than you, or could use your help.
This is another form of strength. It may be the most courageous form of strength, because you may get nothing in return. To be this strong requires thoughtfulness, the kind that reminds you of your place in this world: a tiny piece in an immense puzzle that binds everything and everyone together.
The past contains enough horrors to persuade anyone that we’re meant to act and live like brutes. It also contains many wonders where humanity is at its best. Some men focus on the former, using it to justify their own savagery (“eat or be eaten”), and say that’s just how the “the real world” works.
But they are just selective with their memory. They only recall what will excuse their behavior, not what will inspire them to do good.
A real man, one who contributes to society rather than pillages it by using his nihilistic bullshit, inspires hope and wonder. He wants to heal and lift his part of the world. He see and seeks the best in others–“the better angels of our nature.” Not for praise, but because it’s what human beings have the natural capacity to do.
Money is boring. Work is not everything. Achievements are momentary. But the love you give others, through empathy, caring, and sacrifice, will outlast all of it.
Loving your family, your community, and your fellow man, is the greatest legacy you can leave behind. This is what great men do often and well.
It’s also the hardest thing to do, for your efforts may go unrequited. You may also be called “soft,” or have your masculinity questioned, since you are putting love ahead of money and awards and, you know, the “real” stuff.
But take a second and think of the most influential man in your life?
Did he change your life because he gave you money? A nice vacation? A new car?
Or did he change your life because he was generous with his time, and cared for you and your well-being and growth?
Strive to be that man.
Previously published on Goodmenproject.com