—Synonyms for “good” according to Thesarus.com
…morally excellent; virtuous; righteous; pious: a good man
—Definition of “good” according to Dictionary.com
I often think that “good” is an impossibly large and unwieldy concept to get my arms around. I analogize it to the crystal clear blue of the sky on a sunny day. Yes, I was once told the scientific reason that light passing from the sun through our atmosphere turns that unimaginably large expanse into a heavenly shade of blue. But the science does little to explain how it makes me feel or to reveal why such a sky and such a color are part of our everyday life.
Quite a few times I have been on horseback in some remote section of Montana, off by myself, and looked up and had what I can only call a spiritual experience based purely the miracle of sunlight bumping into gas particles where the high-frequency blues are absorbed in Rayleigh scattering. It’s more about God to me than science. But then I can no more explain it than I can explain watching my kids grow or the twinkle in my wife’s eyes when she looks at me.
Good makes sense to me only as an adjective connected to a noun. Good in the abstract is meaningless. So a good cup of coffee is brewed extra strong, a good basketball player is on the Celtics, a good car is reliable and not too expensive, a good friend calls me names as a way to show how much he loves me, a good movie makes me think, a good book is one I can’t put down, a good story makes me cry, a good day is when I go to bed with no regrets.
Note in all these cases that the concept of “good” is purely subjective. It is, I suppose, in contrast to bad (a bad cup of coffee looks like tea only it’s not). But I’m not so sure good and bad are really opposites. Good is, to me, what I love about a thing, that which makes me feel happy and fulfilled. Bad is something different, and sometimes, as we will see, good and bad are connected in a peculiar dance where bad is a precursor to the state of goodness, a stage you have to go through.
So we come to that dreaded and crucial question: What is a good human? A good woman? A good man?
We are not afraid to dive right into the most difficult questions possible here on GMP: rape, makeup, prison, male privilege, addiction, divorce, and the like.
In the middle of a heated Twitter conversation recently, a male feminist (I assume) asked me the following:
Before trying to answer Tom Head’s perfectly rational question, let me step back and talk about goodness as I see it in terms of humanity in general.
We try to divide male goodness into roles: What does it meant to be a good dad? A good husband? A good worker? A good friend? A good son? Each one of those roles has a certain set of challenges that are smaller than the all-encompassing good man. Of course, part of the challenge of 21st-century masculinity is balancing the competing expectations outside and inside the home, whatever the family configuration (and less than half of men live in traditional nuclear families).
But in this case, dividing a problem, while helpful to foster a more focused blog discussion, doesn’t really get us off the hook of splitting an atom that is already way too small to see.
Certainly some of us will point to the concept of “character” and “honesty” as key attributes of male goodness in any form. I do buy off on the idea that self-deception makes appraisal of your own relative goodness challenging. But how am I to know how honest I am being with myself or, more difficult still, how honest you are with yourself?
One of the things that I have found over and over again when listening to men tell their stories, and when writing about men from all over the world, is that we are all very imperfect. We all fuck up—some bigger and worse than others. But no one is born into this world with perfect self-knowledge and an ability to navigate life with Christlike humility and love every moment of every day.
Here’s the seeming contradiction: the more we talk about how we have made mistakes, even very profound mistakes, the more we are free to act and do things that feel good. And when we share that gut-wrenching truth about ourselves, it changes not just the teller but the listener too. That, in a nutshell, is the whole goal of The Good Men Project: to foster a frank conversation about what each of us has done right and wrong in hopes of crafting some self-definition of authenticity and goodness that allows us to live more fulfilling lives.
Let’s get back to Tom Head’s question about unrepentant rapists and anti-feminists. (He mischaracterizes men in blogs we have published with the latter term, but that really doesn’t matter since the question on its face is a valid one.)
Feminism is a movement and a mode of thinking about society that has had important positive impacts on women and, as a result, how men and women interact. That said, at this point feminism, like goodness, means a different thing to every person who utters the term. So, if someone is anti-feminist, that doesn’t have a clear single meaning that I can hang my hat on to even respond. We have seen that someone can be profoundly pro woman’s rights, pro gender equality, and still be called by some “anti-feminist.”
But a rapist is a different thing entirely.
Sexual abuse of any form is something we write about a lot. It is one of the most damaging ways that human beings interact with each other, topped, I suppose, only by outright murder. So someone who rapes another person is either mentally ill or extremely far away from any workable definition of goodness that I can imagine.
That said, just for me personally, I don’t write off any human being as damned to hell for eternity. I totally accept and support that criminals should be punished, and sometimes punished extremely harshly for crimes in which pain and suffering are inflicted on others. But damning acts and punishment aside—and not overlooking my own experience doing profound wrong—I think all men, all humans, are capable of a level of redemption.
My actual response to Tom was to say that my first stop after we first published our book, The Good Men Project, was inside Sing Sing prison. I sat around a table with a dozen lifetime inmates, most convicted of murder, and told my story and then listened to them tell theirs. They cried about going to see their mother on her death bed in shackles and many other things. I cried with them and for them.
In my experience, sometimes you find the brightest lights in the darkest places. This is not meant as any kind of excuse for murder or rape. Or any comment on the appropriate punishment. It’s more about human compassion and the morality of allowing human improvement even amongst the supposed worst of the worst. I started the conversation in Sing Sing by talking about my turning point, the moment when I decide to try to live my life differently and for the better. And then asked each of them to do the same. Since we were in a master’s level religious seminar, these guys weren’t there because they had decided to keep stabbing each other. Each had a story of struggle and reflection and determination to tell.
In my view its that struggle that strengthens our own moral compass. Sometimes we don’t even know we are trying to do better, but we are in a heck of a lot of pain, and at the other end of it we come to some conclusions about what we have done wrong and what we need to change. Goodness is a thing that we each have to define for ourselves and set out for with an open mind and a strong heart.
I was very clear then, and still am today, that no one—not even a convicted murderer—is excluded from any conversation we are having about what it means to be a good man. Wherever we are and whatever we have done wrong, it’s never too late to talk about what we could do better. The ironic thing about leaving Sing Sing was that I felt like a better man for having witnessed the courage of a bunch of convicted murderers struggle with what they had done and what they could possibly do about it given their circumstances.
I don’t buy this idea of ultimate goodness or badness as an adjective to describe human beings. Self-righteousness in which one person criticizes another as being evil to the core is, to me, a form of arrogance that gets in the way of productive dialogue and human progress.
I suppose we could have called ourselves the “Men Making Progress Project” but that seemed like too much of a mouthful.
Good is not an end state. It’s an aspiration, a work in progress, an individual quest with as many different pathways as there are men. We collectively share a vision that knits together masculinity and lifts us up as a group in a way that would be impossible if left to our own.
Maybe, just maybe that how we come to see the blue of the sky for what it really is. A thing of pure beauty.