Tom Matlack finds that defining goodness is not science, it’s art.
The further I get into this good men thing, the less I feel like I know. For quite a while now I have been committed to the idea that being a good guy is a purely personal issue. Universal morality falls short when it comes to how to parent your kid or how to make your spouse feel loved or how to do your job or take care of an aging parent. I’ve been inside a prison and tried to imagine what it is like on the battlefield enough times to know that I have no right to judge others’ conclusion about how to be good.
My only real conclusion from all that listening and talking and thinking is that the attempt to be good is a bitch. All the platitudes about honesty and intimacy go out the window as soon as you are living a real life. It’s a bitch and it’s specific. What do I do about this kid? About this wife? Losing this job?
For a while now this question of male goodness has appeared in my mind’s eye as a kind of collage, including voices of real men but also fictional characters from art and film and men I have only read about in books. Reading Thoreau on walks with my dad at Walden Pond. Watching The Godfather flat on my back when I was in my 20s with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Interviewing classmate Matt Weiner about his show Mad Men. Reading about John Belushi in the biography Wired and just feeling so damn sorry for a guy with so much talent who was so incredibly unhappy with himself. Studying Shakespeare with my favorite English teacher in high school. Listening to a favorite new album this week. Listening to my favorite old song by a rock master. Reflecting on perhaps the best speech on morality in history.
None of it amounts to a single one-sentence definition of male goodness. This is not science, it’s art. I think of it more like looking at a masterwork of paint and canvas. It inspires, it leaves more unsaid than said. The lines and colors are often obscured. But the more deeply you look at it, the more you understand. Like the innocence in my son’s eyes.
“I keep going to a lot of places and ending up somewhere I’ve already been.”
–Don Draper, Mad Men, “Out of Town”
Being a “good man” means getting to cry while singing along with Christopher Cross.
Being a “good man” means getting off the stepstool, walking to the front of the cow, and kissing it a few times on the mouth during intercourse.
Being a “good man” means I get to pee in the sink.
“Don Corleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your daughter… ‘s wedding… on the day of your daughter’s wedding. And I hope their first child be a masculine child. I pledge my ever-ending loyalty.”
–Luca Brasi, The Godfather
“I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, and she said, “Life is a marathon, not a sprint.” Like a marathon runner, a good man is steady, and draws on deep reserves to stay the course: when dealing with an aging parent, dealing with a marriage going through a tough time, dealing with an adolescent child who is angry and confused. He is there, like a rock, without regard for his own hurt feelings; he is there for the long haul.”
A 21st century good man has humility, humanity, humor, and uncontrollable alliterative urges when prompted by philosophy.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
–Henry David Thoreau
Being a good man is being accountable: Doing what you say you will, and if that turns out to be impossible, being strong enough to admit you made a mistake.
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.
–Hamlet, ACT I Scene 3
Treating people well, and always striving to improve.
“I’m not claiming that my experience is representative of all sex workers, or even all sex-working women, but I know my experience is not entirely anomalous. I don’t regret selling sex for a variety of reasons—one of which is that it’s allowed me to meet many good men. And in doing so, it’s forever changed me for the better.”
A good man is one who serves humanity and acts with absolute justice in every matter.
“Black people can’t talk to white people about race anymore. There’s really nothing left to say. There are libraries full of books, interviews, essays, lectures, and symposia. If people want to learn about their own country and its history, it is not incumbent on black people to talk to them about it. It is not our responsibility to educate them about it. Plus whenever white people want to talk about race, they never want to talk about themselves. There needs to be discussion among people who think of themselves as white. They need to unpack that language, that history, that social position and see what it really offers them, and what it takes away from them. As James Baldwin said, “As long as you think that you are white, there is no hope for you.”
–Steve Locke, “Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race”
Now I’ll be bold
As well as strong
And use my head alongside my heart
So tame my flesh
And fix my eyes
A tethered mind freed from the lies
–“I Will Wait,” Mumford & Sons Babel
A good man knows when to tuck ego in his pocket. This enables him to listen, not hear, to observe, not see. He is vigilant that his life’s work, at the least, doesn’t further weaken those most vulnerable and, at the most, allows their good to shine brighter than his own.
“One day (during my fifth year in Sing Sing), after I started going to the seminary, I was walking toward the chapel when up ahead of me a guy got stabbed really badly. Everybody just kept walking. “It ain’t none of your business,” someone said. Guys were jumping over the body and the pool of blood. When I got to the man he was bleeding out onto the floor and, I swear to God, I could not walk over that blood. It was like something was pushing me to look at this man, look at what was happening here. Guys were like, “Yo! Yo!” But I could not move. All I could do is say, “This shit has to stop.”
–Julio Medina “Blood Splattered”
Being a Good Man means more than opening the door, or paying for someone’s dinner. It’s all about showing consistency in your integrity and humbleness.
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
–MLK, “I Have a Dream”
Being a good man is being cognizant that you are still going to fail, but having the reason & will to always learn from it.
There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now,
the hour is getting late
A good man is someone with the imagination of youth, compassionate wisdom of struggle, and deliberateness of the undeterred. And is willing to forfeit himself to protect others.
Being a good man is about recognizing that we can always be better. It’s about being committed to personal and global transformation, not accepting the status quo. It’s about challenging other men to change. And it’s about being as loving and present with our families, friends, and communities as possible. Good men balance self-acceptance with an ambition to always be better. We should always aspire to more.
Being a good man means being very present in your kids’ lives and BEING the kind of person you want them to become.
A good man is someone who is constantly growing and always seeking out the best in himself and all those around him. He is not perfect, but he is always willing to be accountable, vulnerable, communicative, loving, and humble.
I owe it all to little chocolate donuts.
Self portraits by my son