We’re not wracked by guilt, Tom Matlack writes, we’re amazed by the men who made something when nothing was left.
Was The Good Men Project was born out of some deeply rooted sense of male guilt? I’ve been asked that question more than once. People ask me whether the unstated goal has always been to confess our sins and try—in vain—to stop feeling like we always need to atone for something. Most of the people who ask this question happen to be women.
However, the GMP is the exact opposite. It’s born out of the idea that men need to talk about everything—sex, relationships, fatherhood, work, sports, race, class, prison, and war—and do so in the most personal terms possible.
If tone is too often redemptive, it’s because those are the kinds of guys that other guys find inspiring. They are our heroes. The guys who show courage in the face of adversity, who don’t lie down when they lose a wife or get locked up. He’s not apologizing; he’s changing every cell of his body, trying to build a better man and prove all that is possible.
I met a man who committed murder in a drug-induced blackout and, as a result, will never leave prison. He had visits with his wife and held his baby son only during visiting hours. As his boy grew into a teenager, he had to accept that his son didn’t want to come to see him as much, not because the boy loves him any less, but because he has a life to lead on the outside.
I met a talented artist whose wife came down with the flu on Easter. She started getting better and then, all of a sudden, she got sicker. A lot sicker. He took her to the hospital. Within 24 hours, her lungs shut down from a rogue infection, and the mother of his young daughter was dead. There was nothing he could have done; yet he still has to deal with the understanding that if he had been able to somehow see the signs earlier, the outcome might have been different.
I met a man stricken with drug addiction throughout most of his adult life. His eldest son often broke into his locked closet to score drugs. That eldest son died of a drug overdose. This man’s only remaining child, another son, overdosed as well. He watched as a medical team brought him back from death with a heart defibrillator.
I met a man who worked as a medic for the army in Iraq. He lost many of his comrades, but one day a civilian town was hit with mortars. Whole families were killed. Mother’s brought their wounded children to the army hospital and begged him to save them. His job was to decide which of these children could be saved and which could not. Deciding the fate of one particular child stuck with him for years after he got home, causing profound post-traumatic stress and threatening to ruin his marriage and his life.
I met more than one proud father and husband who lost his job in the most recent economic downturn, had to allow the bank to foreclose on his home and, at least in one instance, declare personal bankruptcy.
Bad shit—truly bad shit—can happen to good men. But that’s not the point. That is life. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s a sonofabitch.
No, the point isn’t the tragedy; it’s what happens next. That’s where the real story is. That’s the whole point. When our manhood—our humanity—hangs in the balance. It’s way beyond any sense of guilt. Guilt doesn’t mean shit when the chips are really down. The real question: How am I going to make something of myself and of a life that has gone profoundly off course?
While inside, the inmate got his high school, undergraduate, and graduate degrees, trying to be the best father he could be to a son he would never see outside. The artist raised his daughter on his own and, in time, remarried, gaining a son and building a new family without ever forgetting his first wife. The father and remaining son both became and stayed sober; now they smoke cigars as they look out over the beach where they lost a son and a brother. The medic sought treatment for PTSD and, when he had recovered, took a full-time position coordinating outreach to other soldiers suffering from post-traumatic-stress and combat-related brain injuries. The guy who declared bankruptcy had to move his family more than once but ultimately found a job and went back to work.
It sounds simple, but in each case it was not. It took guts, and a lot of it. Blood, sweat, and, yes, a lot of tears. Each of these men cried in front of me—not out of guilt, but out of pain. Out of the desire to live a different and better life. They all found a way to achieve that goal.
The point is that by hearing these stories, and dozens like them, I was changed. I didn’t feel any more or less guilty about being a man. I felt inspired by the men who had faced down real adversity and done something positive in response. They weren’t paralyzed by some imagined man-guilt. Instead, they realized something else: what matters is what you do with your life when the chips are down.
—Photo by Stephen Sheffield