Carlos Andrés Gómez challenges the myth of the “perfect man” in the first of his series of “Man Up Monday” posts for The Good Men Project.
Confession: I had Superman sheets on my bed until I was fourteen. Yeah, it’s embarrassing but true—the same ones from when I left the crib stuck with me until just before I started high school.
Looking back now, maybe those bed linens were the perfect metaphor for my journey to becoming a man: a boy clinging to something from his past, aspiring to become something he couldn’t. Many of the nights under those covers, with Superman cradling me, I would fall under the spell of one of my many recurring heroic dreams where I would have superhuman strength, sight, and, of course, the ability to fly. As boys, we find out early that mere men are too ordinary to be admired or emulated, so we learn to worship cartoon superheroes or iconic Supermen. My childhood heroes ranged from He-Man to Gandhi to Dr. King to Michael Jordan.
Each, a beacon of moral righteousness and transcendent of human flaw, embodied everything I aspired to become. In my mind, none of them ever fell short or said the wrong thing or were too weak or lost their temper or stood silent when they should have spoken up. They never let people they loved or themselves down.
None of my heroes were so different from Superman—brave, unbeatable, poised, invulnerable to pain, and (figuratively or literally) “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” I, on the other hand, was the polar opposite of Superman: I was scared of everything. So much so that each night I’d battle the demons in my imagination (and in the shadows of my room) until fatigue would mercifully carry me off to sleep. I had flat feet, horrible vision, food allergies, and wore braces. And, worst of all, I was anything but poised—I could barely speak up in public without choking up, stuttering and feeling my eyes well up each time I’d talk in class. But it wasn’t just because I was afraid, it was because there was a vast ocean of feeling quivering inside of me. It was screaming to come out, which made me fear it even more. I could not accept this unheroic version of myself, riddled with human flaw—complex and frequently contradictory and sometimes fragile or unsure—so I fought against it and tried to hammer myself into a different person. I tried to chisel this masculine ideal into my frame.
I found ways to manage how I expressed my voice and my emotion. I got a bench press and weights for my sixteenth birthday. I’d spend hours doing sit-ups and lifting weights and blasting DMX’s “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot.” It was a tumultuous time in my life marked by divorce, three different high schools, unexpected deaths of people close to me, and deteriorating health, and all I wanted to do was bench press the world. Be like Superman, except I wanted to gather up all of the pain in my life and toss it out into space.
As I grew older, I noticed more and more men around me dealing with the pain and struggles in their lives the same way. I’ve since realized that it is caused by the same affliction so many of us struggle with: a Superman complex. It is what demands us to play hurt and risk paralysis or traumatic brain injuries in sports, stand stoic and unmoved at funerals, makes us chuckle and laugh as we drink and smoke despite high blood pressure or cancer in remission, why we drive fast in the rain and don’t wear seatbelts, ridicule our girlfriends who remind us of our intrinsic human frailty. But we favor the caricature, the myth, the inflated ideal we create in our own minds – an identity devoid of the complexity, vulnerable nuance, and depth of an actual human being. You see it play out in popular culture and with public figures, whether it’s Lil Wayne calling himself a “Martian” or President Obama being coined a “savior” or a supremely gifted athlete being called “the machine,” “king,” or “god.” It’s all coded language for that person epitomizing masculinity, being the supreme alpha male, anything but human.
I try to advocate for men to ask for help when they need it, to respect the healthy boundaries of their emotional and mental health, yet I am often a complete hypocrite myself. I fight to set necessary boundaries while often struggling to take a hand offered to me when I need it most.
Some days I still try to be Superman, even though I know it’s a road with only one destination: self-destruction. My hero in high school, the star of our basketball team—the most popular guy in school, an All-State standout center, with multiple Division I scholarship offers – had a nervous breakdown at the beginning of his senior year. It happened a couple of weeks after his long-absent father abruptly appeared one day, after being out of his life for nearly thirteen years. He refused to reach out for help or admit he couldn’t handle it alone, and then finally snapped one morning, a collapse that started with incoherent sobbing and transformed into a catatonic state. He left school for a while and was never the same when he returned. There was an eerie sadness cast over our student body that fall, as we came to terms with the fall of our Superman.
For the past five and a half years, I have made it my work to fight these kinds of destructive cycles in which so many men are entangled. Often times, after I speak about the need to humanize and complicate our ideas about the men in our lives, to encourage them to acknowledge and even celebrate their human vulnerability, I have ironically been placed on a pedestal. I have been lauded and complimented and singled out and called a “model man” or some derivation thereof. It’s not a long jump from “model man” to Superman, the exact pattern I am trying to fight.
No one needs Superman. We need real guys, like those who read The Good Men Project and my buddies in the White Ribbon Campaign and my dad and my little brother and my best friends and my cousin who’s about to become a first-time dad. We need men who are striving to grow and learn and ask questions and risk being wrong and be humble and be better today than they were yesterday. Men who are willing to ask for and seek help, admit they are fallible and weak, are willing to step back and play a supporting role and do their part, who know they cannot carry the burden of the world on their shoulders alone.
Let’s bid farewell to our notions of Superman or the Perfect Man. For years I felt daunted by the prospect, which made me want to embrace the polar opposite identity. And that’s the trap.
It took me recognizing the messy, beautiful, human complexity inherent in this life, to finally realize that I could be a “good man” without having to be Superman or the Perfect Man. That there wasn’t anything contradictory about me being emotional and sometimes passionately shortsighted and overly sensitive and fiery and foolish and well intentioned and flawed while also being a “good man.”
Because that’s what we need: good men. Supermen do not exist.
Image of superman courtesy of Shutterstock