That’s How We All Survive

Jackie Summers weighs in on the conversation about good men.

The strong protect the weak.

This is not romantic, or chivalrous. It’s not how things are but it’s how they should be.

Why? Because that’s how we all survive. 

In a military formation, it is always strategically unsound to separate the strong from the weak, the experienced from the inexperienced. You mix ranks, so the brave don’t leap ahead and the timid don’t fall behind. You survive together, or you don’t survive at all.

Eons ago we had to defend ourselves against things that would sup on us. Because nature–in her infinite wisdom–saw fit to assign testosterone distribution disproportionately in favor of men, they were called to task. Procreation in and of itself was insufficient to ensure your DNA continued; it was your job to protect and provide for your woman and your progeny.

Based on this all manner of rituals of manhood developed. Did men want to do this? Who knows? Maybe some did. As a species we all did what we had to in order to move forward. In any case, masculinity was measured by your ability–real or perceived–to care for others.

The pattern for abuse was set and the paradoxes established. The ability to protect became the capacity to dominate. Power has been and continues to be misused.

Flash forward six or ten millennia and the same motifs permeate the marrow of these arguments, although how strength is defined has–rightly–become more nuanced. My best friend is a hundred pound blue-eyed blonde who–as a teenager–was a nationally ranked figure skater. I’ve had to (reluctantly) admit: by every quantifiable measure, she’s a better athlete than I. She’s faster, more agile, more flexible and–pound for pound–stronger than me. I however am a big scary black guy with bowling balls for shoulders and tree trunks for thighs. If for some reason physical protection was necessary, I’d be the obvious choice. Her net worth, on the other hand, is equivalent to the GDP of a developing nation.

Chances she’d require protection by me or someone like me? Slim to none.

In the world we live in strength has many definitions. Emotional, mental, financial, and empathic strength count now as much as physical strength did ten thousand years ago. The fact that this has–thank god–changed permanently–has left many struggling for definition, for identity.

Which is why we ask the question: why attempt to define what a “good man” is?

♦◊♦

Bad men exist. This is undeniable.

This is because bad people exist, and men are a subset of people. The world has always had bad men, because the world has always had bad people. Men who hurt. Men who maim. Men who kill.

Good men exist. Also undeniable.

This is because good people exist, and men are a subset of people. The world has always had good men, because the world has always had good people. Men who heal. Men who protect. Men who would sacrifice their lives and limbs for the greater good.

Neither goodness nor badness are gender specific.

There is–historically–one tried method of defeating bad men: good men.

As we will likely never inhabit a world devoid of moral polarity and every shade of moral complexity, we explore the nature of goodness so we can pose a response to badness, in its infinite manifestations. We learn to heal those who are hurt. We attempt to prevent harm if at all possible. We define the world inside us, that we can influence the world outside us.

This is not romantic, or chivalrous. It’s not how things are but it’s how they should be.

Why? Because that’s how we all survive. 

We will always be mixed ranks. We will rarely share the same ideology. The choice to leap forward or fall behind will always be that–a choice–but we can survive together, or we won’t survive, at all.

image by jikan / flickr

This column was written as a response to Paul Elam’s post All This Goodness is Killing Me.

Read Tom Matlack’s response  “What is a ‘Good’ Man” here. 

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Jackie Summers

Jackie Summers is an author and entrepreneur. His blog F*cking in Brooklyn chronicles his quest to become a person worthy of love. His company, Jack From Brooklyn, Inc. houses his creative and entrepreneurial enterprises. Follow him on Twitter @jackfrombkln and friend him on Facebook

Comments

  1. Tom Matlack says:

    Jackie thanks as always for setting us all straight and telling the truth. I find it riveting and clarifying.

  2. Peter Houlihan says:

    Well said, thanks for writing :)

  3. This is excellent writing. The analogies are great and brought the ideas and points full circle. Thanks for the simplified history and clarity of how things came to be.

  4. Regarding protecting and providing for women, you’re right that its not happening as overtly as it was but men, even men that have nothing to do women cannot, not protect and provide for them so long as they are paying tax and being in the same vicinity as them.

    Chivalry and protecting and provide for women is alive and well in the form of a huge structure of special programs and laws in every sphere that put ladies first, men put more into this welfare and state system than they take out, while the reverse is true for women. A man is also expected to be the unpaid body guard of women that he does not know that are in his vicinity.

    So the whole protecting and providing for women thing is alive and well, its just that “the man”, “ze patriarchy”, the “1 %” or whatever you want to call it is managing it.

    • ADD

      There is also the largely unappreciated under class of mainly male workers that do all the dirty and dangerous jobs that keep everything going.

      So yeah, the system of men protecting and providing for women is still there and going strong, it just looks different.

      • Male, the argument could be made that people pay tax and people do dangerous jobs.

        JFB

        • Sure, and its would be politically correct to make that argument but it would gloss over the fact that the people that are doing the underclass jobs and putting more tax in the than they take out are men (as a class) and the people that aren’t doing the underclass jobs and taking more tax out then they put in are women (as a class) – the system of men protecting and providing for women hasn’t changed all that much, it just looks slightly different.

          • Forgottenname says:

            I just want to second this point. 90 percent or more of the dangerous, dirty jobs are done by men. Even if you are the only male in an office full of women you will feel this effect: guess who gets called to pull heavy boxes off shelves and take out over-filled garbages.

            • Forgotten, to be clear, I’m not disagreeing with this point. Nature still assigns men a disproportionate amount of testosterone. Do men want more dangerous jobs? Maybe some do. Is this fair? It never was or will be. The point I make is: based on what whatever gifts we’ve been given, we’re also given the capacity to choose to move forward together, or not. As someone who worked in magazine publishing–a field 95% dominated by women–I was often the person asked to (in addition to my regular workload) pull heavy boxes off shelves. My willing cooperation only made my female co-workers and subordinates that much more cooperative when I required their assistance with some unpleasantry more suited to their skills.

              JFB

            • Forgottenname says:

              Could you name a significant unpleasantry they helped with?
              I don’t accept the line that it will “never be fair”. That is always uttered by the people championing the side with the advantage. I worked in an office full of young, healthy women, and yet always got dragged out of my workspace by my manager to do the heavy lifting, that is SEXISM. I have seen it in every workplace ever in my life. If it is ok for men to be 90% of the garbage collectors, it should be ok for men to be 75% of the elected officials/doctors/etc.

            • I could cite dozens of examples, but here’s one: as a Director of Production it was my responsibility to compile a weekly status report, gathering data from every department on every essay, piece of artwork, and the status of their completion. This was tedious, detail-oriented and time-consuming, often distracting me from other responsibilities. My second-in-command–a woman–gladly took extra time (at no extra pay) to compile this for me, as it played to her particular strengths.

              How advantage is determined is relative: each of us has different propensities. We all exist as a melange of abilities which–through nature or nurture–we exceed or are deficient at. Only by working together can we compensate for the gaps in our collective weaknesses.

              A final note: the people responsible for cleaning the many offices I’ve worked in have always been women. This includes taking out over-filled garbage.

              JFB

            • An"Entitled"Man says:

              So you delegated work that was in your rough job responsibilty to a subordinate, and that is comparable to being the one called upon to do physical tasks that aren’t a part of the job? I don’t see that as comparable. I also didn’t get any such trades in the workplaces I was in, just constant interruptions from my work. I actually remember my manager giving me shit for putting files into smaller boxes. When she told me that it was a waste of time/space I asked her if she was going to be the one getting 40lb boxes off the top shelf and she disciplined me!
              The cleaners for most of the work spaces I have worked in have been immigrant men, who clean late nights (midnight on). However we are seperated by an international border and thousands of miles so that may be the reason for the difference there.
              Working together is great, I just think that there needs to be some serious balancing if one group (men) are going to be last on the lifeboats. There is no reason that people can’t be fairly treated no matter their genitalia, other than other people don’t want to let go of the advantages they were unfairly born to. Just my two cents!

            • As a Director specializing in team dynamics, I assigned people tasks best suited to their strengths. As a CEO, I defer to my Operations Director or Director of Brand Development when the subjects of their expertise arise.

              As far as the lifeboat goes, my woman was a competitive swimmer from the age of seven. If we’re on a boat it starts to sink, I want her on a lifeboat before me because I love her

              JFB

            • Julie Gillis says:

              I love that you focus on the dynamics of teams, and playing to the strengths of the participants. That’s something every director should do. Heck, families should. Sometimes what “strength” is is the question isn’t it? And it can shift. If I’m better at something than a fellow in my office, why shouldn’t I be doing it? So forth and so on.

              I can’t imagine having to deal with the lifeboat issue. I suppose I’d wind up drowning trying to convince my husband to get on the boat. I swim much better anyway.

            • Julie Gillis says:

              At my place of work the custodial staff is primarily female as well. They work quite late and I often work late and see them and wonder about the fundamental fairness of any of it. Class stuff comes up for me more than gender these days, though often there are gender lines that things seem to fall on.

              I take your point below Jackie, that this isn’t so much a first world issue at the moment, that collaboration between those with various strengths and weaknesses is more important on a global level than it is thinking about who is taking care of women who can’t pick up boxes.

              If I can’t pick up a box by myself, I get a co-worker who may or may not be male, depending on the office schedule. Most people try to be pragmatic about day to day work, or at least that has been my experience. I have no doubt there may be offices split by traditional gender roles, but I’ve not been exposed to those in a long time.

    • Men may have more brute strength and and are asked to perform more heavy labor, but let’s not forget that way more women than men are the primary caregivers when it comes to raising children. One of the toughest jobs there is, but one that is still not considered “work” because they are not drawing a salary. But I would say it takes all the strength in the world to be a full-time hands-on parent.

      • This was meant as a reply to responder Male’s first comment, don’t know if that was clear. Jackie, I think it’s an excellent article.

      • Amy, an excellent physics reference would be: how heavy is a rock? The question is faulty; you can determine how much a rock weighs, but how heavy it is depends on how long you have to carry it. I’ve often seen mothers carry babies that weigh anywhere from 8-20 pounds–with one arm–seemingly indefinitely. From this I conclude that, while I may possess a greater ability to raise a heavy weight, the ability to hold a (relatively) light weight aloft for an extended period of time is equally challenging.

        JFB

      • AmyR

        Saying being a mother is the hardest job in the world is a mainstay for marketing to women by flattery, but is it true or is it a factoid that has been repeated so many times we believe it it be?

        This conversation reminds me of this Bill Burr routine

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLHjvQJ9y_w

  5. Mixed ranks as a desirable trait is a very nice way to frame it. And it not need be for altruistic reasons that we help those that need help – as it’s near guaranteed that those we help will end up saving us in return. The whole reason for diversity and mixed ranks is one of hedging our bets. Not only is it good for them, but it’s also good for us.

  6. Great job, Jackie, as usual in presenting the plain, simple truth.

  7. What a truly awesome post. All I can say is thank you, Jackie.

  8. The Bad Man says:

    Is a weak man also a good man? While I would like to believe that the “strong protect the weak”, this has traditionally only applied for women and children. Weak men aren’t protected by anyone, they are marginalized and ignored by women and strong men.

    • No, they just become geeks and then they make lots of money and aren’t ignored anymore. ;)

      I’m kidding, sort of. :D I do agree that’s a sucky situation, but a lot of guys who are weak and bullied when they were young do come out the better for it later in life.

    • Bad Man, I think we’d need to address weakness in order to answer that question adequately. Like strength, its definition has become nuanced over the centuries. Take Professor Stephen Hawking for example. Although his body is atrophied because of his medical condition, his intellect makes him one of the most influential men on earth. If influence equals power, this also makes him one of the strongest people on earth.

      For the sake of argument, in this instance we are defining good as that which willingly and actively resists bad. This can be done physically, intellectually, financially, spiritually. Physical frailty didn’t impede Mandela or Gandhi.

      Last, as someone who was bullied–A LOT–as a kid, I can tell you for sure: I got into plenty of fights standing up for kids who got picked on. Like I said, this isn’t always how things are, but it is how things should be.

      • I love that you give our strengths equal footing. The mom who carries her 8-20lb baby for hours is strong, as the guy lifting the heavy boxes. Steve Hawking is strong, Gandhi was strong. This is refreshing. I am a mother and I have one on the way. Anyone who goes through the hell of the first trimester, (really, why does it have to be so bad?) the pain of childbirth, and the challenge of motherhood is a warrior as far as I’m concerned. Just as the warrior on the battlefield is just as much of a warrior. There are all kinds of warriors!

        • “challenge of motherhood is a warrior as far as I’m concerned. Just as the warrior on the battlefield is just as much of a warrior. There are all kinds of warriors!”

          Well, if you’re going to call mothers warriors, then call warriors mothers respectively.

          In recent news:
          I have re-named my cat as a Parrot,because the challenge of being a cat is definitely parrot-like.
          Sheesh!

          • This is the essence of the modern disease afflicting western civilization though; we are awash with intellectual dishonesty. This is where we cease to give words definite meanings, our very language becomes debased and it becomes impossible to properly discuss anything since whatever you say just comes out as a torpid slurry devoid of substance.

          • There are these things called metaphors.

          • So, if I were to say volunteers are saints, your logic concludes I must mean all saints are volunteers respectively?

    • Kirsten (in MT) says:

      Neither goodness nor badness are gender specific.
      Yes, precisely! Thank you, Jackie!

      WRT The Bad Man’s comment, well, I have a very personal counter-example. My ex-husband lost his father when he was 10 years old. His dad was wheelchair or lounger-bound for most of his life due to severely debilitating and extraordinarily painful rheumatoid arthritis. I believe he died to due to complications related to the RA. My ex-husband’s mom not only stuck by his side, but provided for the family, and cared for her husband until the day he died. She often affectionately told stories about him, often funny ones about how they dealt with his condition, but I never once heard one word of resentment or bitterness over the tremendous impact it undoubtedly had on their lives or the stress it must have put on her. I have no doubt she’d have much preferred to shoulder all of those responsibilities and stresses for decades more just to have him still today.

      Another counter-example. I highly recommend Dan Shapiro’s book Mom’s Marijuana. He battled through two major bouts with brain cancer. Before he started chemo, he informed his mom that he was going to smoke pot to get through it. Overnight she went from insisting that would not be permitted in her house to-the very next day- scouring head shops for an appropriate bong for him. She had his chemo postponed when she found out the potential effects on his fertility and arranged for him to bank sperm before starting so that his future choices would be preserved. She and her husband would go on to grow pot in their backyard for their son, and she even packed it up in a bag that she checked on an airplane to deliver to him personally in Florida when his brain cancer returned. And I can’t even begin to tell you how amazingly protective was his wife who met him after his first round with brain cancer, dated him against the advice of friends who warned her of the burden and heartache they thought she was setting herself up for, married him, and then cared for him through another major cancer recurrence.

      Of course, both of these men were intensely strong in certain ways. I once asked my ex-husband if he asked his dad what the RA was like. His dad’s description was that there was not a moment of his life for years on end when he wasn’t in extreme pain. To bear that for so long, but beyond that, still be a partner in a marriage and a parent to four kids, and do that well, requires intense strength. But the vast majority of the stress of living fell on his wife from providing for the family, to most of the physical responsibility for care of the kids, to taking physical care of her husband, and eventually to caring for her mother-in-law who came to live with them in her later years. And, of course, going through chemo once, let alone twice, plus a bone marrow transplant, is an immense feat of strength, but it requires all the strength that person has and leaves him decimated and physically frail for some time.

      When both of these men were at their weakest, people were there to protect and care for them, and yes, those protectors included strong women.

      • Kirsten (in MT) says:

        Correction. I just looked it up which I should have done before posting. It was not brain cancer. It was Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

  9. Jackie, your writing is always top-notch.
    You have such excellent ethics, clarity of thoughts, and you convey them through effective wording.
    Chapeau!

    I have only one little disagreement with your post: nowadays is – mostly – not about survival (it certainly was).
    I’d say that now our collaboration as a species is more about quality of life, prosperity and fulfillment: and, as you said, those goals can only be reached together.
    United we stand; divided we fall. ;)

    • Crescendo, thank you. I’d agree 100% that–in the First World–the issue is largely a quality of life issue. This is the argument made by the Occupy movement: live simply that others may simply live. In many underdeveloped nations, where running water, sanitation, communicable disease and hunger are still an issue, I’d wager that collaboration–not just within your community but without, with global neighbors–is more crucial than ever.

      JFB

  10. “Because nature–in her infinite wisdom–saw fit to assign testosterone distribution disproportionately in favor of men, they were called to task. Procreation in and of itself was insufficient to ensure your DNA continued; it was your job to protect and provide for your woman and your progeny.”

    You’ve been reading your Stanley Fish, haven’t you? You know, arguing for naked preference in lieu of equality because said equality cannot exist–but don’t let people know that this is what you’re doing!

    I’m tired of feminists and their sympathizers embracing essentialism when it suits them and an ardent and obfuscatory social constructionism when it doesn’t. It all amounts to fudging truth to argue for compulsory chivalry and calling it gender egalitarianism. Well I for one ain’t buying it. Also, “mother nature (in her infinite wisdom)”? We’re back to female=good, male=bad and therefore in need of “improvement” in service of the “good” (i.e., female). Screw you, and screw white knighting.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] answered her, in his post “What is a ‘Good’ Man?“. Jackie Summers answered here. And here’s my [...]

Speak Your Mind