My father was a Quaker pacifist who went to jail to protest war (“My Talk With My Dad”). My son is applying to West Point. Which one is the better man?
In Paul Elam’s recent piece, “All This Goodness Is Killing Me,” he challenges us at The Good Men Project to come up with any ways that goodness applies to men uniquely:
Please inform us of anything, one single quality, that you think constitutes a part of being a good man – that does not also apply to being a good woman.
“Goodness” is another one of those words that is so huge that it has different meanings to different people. “Good” is something that applies to human beings before it applies to gender. We are all on the quest to figure out how to be “good” no doubt.
In fact at it’s very founding, a small group of us fought over and over again about the name of our social movement. Our biggest fear is that the title would be viewed as condescending, like “hey look at us we are good and you are not.”
We all were clear that the topic we wanted to talk about was Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood, the subtitle to our book, but we needed to put a finer point on it. For a while we some of us liked “More Than a Few Good Men,” as a take-off on the famous Jack Nicholson film in which he shouts at Tom Cruise that he can’t handle the truth.
But in the end we came back to The Good Men Project because it not only was captured the idea of morality and manhood but also the sense of a “Project” which Paul seems to have missed. My co-founder James Houghton pointed out that to those who might criticize us for condescending we could point out that calling this a Project we were making the whole thing into an aspiration rather than a destination. The intent was never to dictate goodness but have a conversation about what it might mean.
That, in a nutshell, is how I backed my way into becoming a lightning rod for the modern masculinity (James has since moved onto other things).
Before addressing male goodness, I’d like to talk about male badness. In the three years since founding GMP one of the trends that has been most apparent to me is the way in which gender colors our perception of morality not in what people do right but what they do wrong. As I watched the national obsession with the Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer, Charlie Sheen debacles after we had founded GMP I became convinced that somehow those stories fit into a box we had collectively established about what manhood is all about. We seem to love to talk about men behaving badly a lot more than we wanted to have a conversation about how men might be good.
So what does it mean to be a “good” man and why is that even a relevant question? Paul, you are not the first one to ask me that. Generally, when I speak publicly I get asked that question at least once and usually repeatedly. And my response is, “I don’t know what a good man is. You will have to figure that out for yourself.”
I am not trying to be cute with the response. I am just trying to redefine what it is that I mean when I say “good.” I am not talking about some Biblical meaning. The synonyms that come to mind when I think of good in the context of The Good Men Project are authentic, truthful, rewarding, thoughtful.
By this I mean that goodness, in my view, is a self-defined concept. It happens in the context of a group–in the context of a discussion–but it’s something you alone can arrive at. There is no external judgment involved. You have to make up your own mind.
The reason that storytelling is so important to this process, or at least it has been to me, is that by listening to other men tell their stories I have been able to pick and choose those aspects which spoke to my situation. In my experience, the sharing of raw, honest truths of one’s life changes both the teller of that personal narrative and the listener. One man’s transformation can have a ripple effect on others in an inspirational, not judgmental, way.
And a hypothesis, which could very well be wrong but is a basis for what we are doing here, is that in general men respond to stories as the vocabulary of truth and goodness.
So what is so unique about male goodness compared to human goodness?
Our mission has always been to foster a national discussion about what it means to be a “good father, husband, son, worker and man.” I would argue that being a good father and husband is pretty different than talking about what it means to be a good mother and wife. Yes, being a good parent and good spouse has universal elements, but the challenges faced by dads in a world where stuff like The End of Men is the frame of reference is different than the struggle by women to be good mom’s in a world so heavily influenced by the feminist revolution. Similarly as a husband, whether gay or straight, our role as men are distinct from that of women attempting to figure out how to be a good spouse.
In the end, my path to trying to define and redefine goodness for myself has been tied to my identity as a man. I have made massive mistakes that are characteristically male. And I have sought out advice, counsel and inspiration from men who have done what I did and been where I was, and found a way to a better way of life. In my own case that meant getting sober, being as involved a divorced dad I could be despite unfair divorce laws, ultimately getting remarried, and learning how to love and be loved in an honest and intimate way.
My path was certainly about human transformation but I found it important to lean very heavily on my identity as a man, to lean on other men, to learn from them, to get comfortable with the idea that as a man I am not destined to a script of bad behavior but am capable of something better.
Which brings us to this idea of “goodness” as some kind of absolute. All too often, it seems to me, that by saying someone is a “good” man what we are conveying is that the man has character, integrity, and is in some way perfect. It’s a myth that is particularly male (I don’t hear it when talking about women the same way). It’s like we want to roll up Clint Eastwood, the Buddha and Jesus Christ all into one neat little package.
To that I say, horse shit.
I believe in the power of personal narrative, in the power of men helping men, in the ability of men even in the most dire situations, having made the most grave mistakes, to transform themselves and become different human beings–men capable of honesty and integrity and success where before they were caught in an endless loop of dishonesty, addiction, even violence.
But even the most inspired, the most enlightened, the most transformed among us are still human, are still mortal, are still men who struggle with day to day life.
My personal definition of being a good man means trying to make more good decisions on a daily basis than bad. It means showing up for my wife and kids even when it’s not easy. It means trying to help someone else out of generosity rather than greed. It means telling the deepest truth I am capable of. And it means forgiving myself when I fail. Because I still fail an awful lot. If I make more good decisions than bad on any given day that is a victory. And I sleep well. But there are still plenty of nights I don’t sleep as well as I would like.
As James said three years ago, being a good man is an aspiration. This is a project not a destination, for us collectively and for each one of us personally.