Tom Matlack believes that good isn’t something we are, it’s something we do.
I’ve been watching with a heavy heart as the topic of rape has exploded on our pages, causing yet another round of bitterness among a few readers who see us as somehow doing quite the opposite of pursuing the stated mission of sparking a national conversation of what it means to be a good father, a good husband, a good worker and a good man. I am going to leave the topic of rape for others to discuss since it has been such a difficult, and painful, topic already. Suffice it to say that I join my colleagues in wanting to do everything in my power to eliminate sexual abuse of any kind.
But the very first article in the series that sparked so much controversy caught my attention for a reason other than the rape. The writer posed the question of whether a good man could commit such a crime. What caught my attention was not just the difficulty the writer had understanding how her friend could have in fact committed a crime, but her belief that he was a “good” guy in some absolute way that colored everything else she wrote.
For the last four years I have had conversation after conversation on this very topic. What constitutes male goodness? How do we know it when we see it in ourselves and others? Are some men good and evil in some fundamental way?
From our founding, The Good Men Project does not attempt to be prescriptive. We want to spark a conversation from as many diverse points of view as possible. Our form of goodness is a journey, an aspiration, not an end point. Any absolute judgment of human character is the realm of God’s, not bloggers on our site.
When I think about my own life as a dad, husband, friend, writer, son and man–and my aspiration to be “good” at all those things—I sometimes imagine my life as analogous to hitting in the big leagues. Ted Williams famously described the strike zone as containing a grid of 77 baseballs each with its own batting average.
The pitcher throws all kinds of junk–fast balls, curves, sliders, change-up, cutters, even knuckle balls–and as a batter your job is to anticipate which of those pitches will make their way into any part of the three dimensional strike zone. And if it is a strike, whether it’s in a location you can actually hit.
My kid is sick, my wife has a big meeting, my dad fell and broke his arm, one of my companies is facing bankruptcy… the list of “pitches” as a man is continuous and endless. Each one demands focus and consideration. What is the best course of action? The thing that will prove in the moment that I am a good guy? More important, how can I be of most service to the people I care about?
My reason for thinking about Ted Williams as I go through my day is that he was the greatest hitter of all time. He wrote a book about the science of hitting. And he reached base successfully less than half the time. I’d like to believe that my batting average in life is a little better than that. But sometimes I am not so sure.
I believe that goodness, male and human, isn’t something you are; it’s something you do. Intent counts for very little. Behavior counts for a lot.
Men are not good or bad to their core. They are a collection of actions assembled over a lifetime.
My profound hope is that we learn muscle memory in life like Ted Williams did as a batter. We get better and better at responding to the vicious fastballs and curves that come our way. And over time we manage to shift our hips to go the other way with the most difficult strike to hit of all—low and away—punching it into the opposite field for a hit. But more often than not we are going to strike out, ground to the short stop, or otherwise fuck up. It’s the nature of the human endeavor.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not implying that all men are rapists or criminals. I am just saying that more often than not, when my wife asks me to take out the trash I don’t jump up and do if without giving her that one sideways glance which we both know is my bad attitude coming out before I can control it. Progress, not perfection, is my goal.
It’s fair enough to ask “if there are no absolutely good men, are there absolutely bad men?” Using my little baseball analogy, there are those batters who charge the mound and beat the shit out of the pitcher. This is well beyond the question even of getting a base hit. It’s criminal.
But even the worst of men has a beating heart. They are human. They deserve to pay for their criminal acts but not to be given up on, in my view.
That’s why I did what some would find more than ironic: I started the “good” men project book tour inside Sing Sing with a dozen lifetime inmates, most convicted murderers. I told my story and they shared theirs. One told me about visiting his mother at her deathbed in shackles. He was unable to hug her goodbye. He cried and I cried. He said that was his turning point when he decided to “try to do the right thing by going to school inside, even though I may never get out.”
The part about the muscle memory of goodness that hits me most is that I am always so inspired when siting with another man listening to his story. It’s not linear. In that way it is profoundly not like hitting a baseball, which is learned gradually over the course of thousands of hours of practice.
With goodness you can be living the same way, making the same mistake year after year, and in a flash everything changes. Things slow down and you can see what before was invisible. A deeper truth is revealed that changes everything. It’s those turning points that are the guts of what we are doing here at The Good Men Project. It’s the idea that every man has a story to tell and all include profound failures that led to change and redemption of one sort or another. Goodness includes the concept that it’s never too late for redemption.
One of the things I have written about frequently is the way that popular culture plays a role in the negative stereotypes that have come to frame out any conversation about gender, both female and male. Women are sex objects and guys are Bud Light commercials, would be a neat way to summarize the messages shown over and over to us.
Here at the Good Men Project our passion is providing a platform for men (and women) to discuss manhood in all its many shades and colors. You cannot sum that up by saying all men are anything, because we are not. The assumptions one might make based on stereotypes is like muscle memory working in reverse. It’s a habitual pattern of behavior that makes it impossible to see the truth of that person’s individual being.
A guy gets into the car and you assume, simply because of his skin color, that he is a criminal. Little do you know that he is actually a famous poet and will soon be the love of your life.
Your best friend, a guy who you have witnessed to be nice and friendly and well-intentioned over the course of months and years calls you out of the blue to report that he has been accused of murder. And you quickly discover that he is guilty.
Appearances don’t mean shit. Batting averages are merely a collection of past actions. What matters is this at bat. This pitch.
The goal here is to provide a forum for us as men to collectively become more skillful at living our lives well, to being good dads, husbands and friends. But there is no way to summarize that up, to reduce manhood to its core elements, to judge us as anything but individual human beings capable of heroism and failing to take out the trash without an attitude.