Chase Kimball asked fellow students at Carleton College what being a good man meant to them. The future of manhood looks bright.
(Last summer, Chase Kimball—then a student at Carleton College in Minnesota—solicited essays by male students at the school about manhood and goodness. Over the next few weeks, we will publish some of the best responses he received. First, though, we are delighted to run Kimball’s essay about his project. Chase, you are a good man.)
What does it mean to you to be a good man?
Some may argue that we need not concern ourselves with being “good men” so long as we are “good human beings.” The qualities of goodness associated with one should overlap almost entirely with the other, so why bother with the distinction?
The reason is this: We discover our humanity through the particular identities we inhabit. Because I identify not only as a human being but also as a man, I must consider what it means to be good in the context of my manhood, as well as all the other contexts and identities through which my humanity manifests itself.
And, in the absence of critical dialogue on the subject, men can develop warped understandings of manhood that too often lead to chauvinism, domestic abuse, and sexual violence. Some men get so caught up in “being a man” that they forget to consider what it means to be “a good man.”
Last summer, I began soliciting essays from male students at Carleton, asking them to respond to the question, “What does it mean to you to be a good man?”
My idea was to engage men in a thoughtful reflection about manhood, and to promote an important dialogue on campus by publishing the essays in the school newspaper.
Each man approached the question differently. Some focused on gender relationships, others discussed the evolution from boyhood to manhood, and still others explored the impact that fathers have. The fatherhood essays were my favorites, perhaps because they were so personal.
Jared Evans, ’10, wrote: “When I think of a real man, I think of my Father. Since I was nine years old, my father stayed at home and took care of the household duties after being laid off. He was a pillar, and a true leader in our home, but he did so with humility and quiet strength. His capacity for kindness seemed limitless. We didn’t always agree, but we always loved each other, and this bond meant more to me than I may understand in this life.”
“A good man,” he continued, “is one whose inward beliefs match his outward actions. It is strength of character and integrity that define him, and lend him dignity and power in his daily work. This coupled with humility and an eye towards the wellbeing of his fellowmen makes him more than just a man. These are the kind of men the world needs.”
Many essayists initially hesitated to define a “good man,” worried that doing so would imply that other kinds of men must be “bad.”
Sam Ritter, ’10, argued that our definitions of masculinity should be as inclusive as possible: “What if a good man was one who was able to include other men? What if, rather than subscribing to traditional definitions of manhood—definitions that are important and meaningful to many men—he could recognize that there are other men who find other things meaningful, and that those differences don’t make them less good as men.”
One man’s goals need not dictate another’s. The original question, remember, was “What does it mean to you to be a good man?”
Others hesitated to define what manhood is out of concern that doing so necessarily implies something about what womanhood is not. Again, this doesn’t have to be the case.
John Vigeland, ’09, explained: “Just because my life has led me to believe that a certain attribute is masculine doesn’t mean that it can’t be feminine. I think an attribute becomes masculine or feminine when it is embodied by a good woman or man, it is not innately gendered. It’s important to allow our men and women a broad vocabulary with which to define themselves. Let women be the providers, let them be independent, let them change their own oil. And let’s let men be graceful and nurturing. Let them be beautiful, if they so choose.”
By setting aside attempts at a universal or absolute definition of manhood, men are free to write about the specific qualities of character that matter most to them. It’s a rare opportunity (one I’m trying to make more common through this project) to put into words the kind of man you hope to be, and to do so is empowering. In almost every essay I received, at some point the prose broke down into a simple list of ideal attributes:
“A good man is one who is willing to sacrifice, and who exhibits enormous yet subtle intellectual strength while recognizing his own flaws. A good man is faithful and reliable. A good man takes responsibility for his actions and decisions, and accepts whatever consequences come along” (Justin Jake, ’12).
“Is a man a loyal friend? A loving spouse? A patient father? Is he kind and courageous, fair and generous? These are the marks of a good man” (Will Cole, ’08).
“A good man would show respect towards all women, children and elderly. He would be a man of service, always seeking to help those who stand in need of it. A good man would lead by example, he would take the initiative to get the task done, while uplifting and encouraging those around him. Above all, a good man would be a family man” (Eric Hitimana, ’11).
“A man is not a tyrant. A man is not abusive. A man is not uncaring. A man is not superficial. A man is not dishonest. A man does not seek to destroy” (Alsa Bruno, ’12).
“A good man should guard something inside of himself that is calm and still and observant in all moments, even when the rest of him is moved. He should love deeply and forgive quickly, and be completely present to those he loves” (John Vigeland, ’09).
What patterns of behavior must you establish in yourself in order to become the good man you hope to be? Determining what it means to you to be a good man is a crucial first step in living an answer to the question “How do you become one?”
Life, after all, is about pursuit of goodness. And “growing up” or “becoming a man” can simply be other names for that pursuit. As Drew Chambers, ’10 writes, “Maybe manhood begins when we start to understand the complications of being autonomous human beings—struggling with self-realization and decision-making, trying to do right by others, learning what drives us, or guides us, or tempts us. Becoming a man isn’t getting it all figured out, it’s accepting the responsibility to keep trying to figure it out yourself. Manhood isn’t a title so much as a lifelong pursuit.”
In many ways, the process of trying to become good is just as important as goodness itself. And while I am not fully good, the more I give of myself and diligently strive to love another, the more I feel myself grow. The struggle itself is sanctifying.
Here, in conclusion, is Will Cole ’08, whose father struggles, as we all do, with goodness: “My father suffers from depression, and on some days it’s difficult for him to get out of bed, to brush his teeth, or to pour a bowl of cereal. But he works through it—he struggles to be good. He lives now with his aging parents, caring for them because they can’t afford in-home help. My grandmother spends most of her time watching the backyard from her kitchen window. My father, seeing this, designed her a hummingbird feeder. He hung it ever-so-carefully so it would draw the birds to hover near the glass. Sometimes when I visit, I’ll spot her from another room. And she’ll be sitting there as she always has, but now smiling, watching the birds sweep and swoop, dipping their long noses into water thick with sugar.”
This essay first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2010 issue of The Lens Magazine at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
photos by: Stephen Sheffield