It’s 2 AM and my client is in tears. We’ve been on the phone for hours because his fiancee is threatening to call the wedding off. That might be enough to explain how crushed he is, but there’s something else going on, a deeper ache inside of him. It seems this fight is just the tip of the iceberg. The language he is using to describe how broken he feels is rooted in manhood itself. He is consumed with self-doubt about his ability to be a father and partner, to provide, to be worthy, to be chosen by his woman, and therefore be truly good enough. In his ears, her complaints are less about what he does or doesn’t do, and more about whether or not he is a failure of a man, no matter the words she actually chooses.
He explains to me that for his entire adult life he has felt like he is “racing the ghost”. It’s a reference to Mario Kart, where you can try to beat the best lap that the game has stored by racing against a hologram of that record. He’s describing a feeling of never quite being able to step into the mold that was cut out for him. In a general sense, that there is a “you” that you inhabit, and the “you” that you are supposed to be. I think for my client, and multitudes of other men, the gap between the two does not feel small, and it occurs as daily agony. The modern man is held back by an expectation that he is supposed to be someone other than who he is.
Expectations are everywhere. We all have them, and much of the time they are subtle and invisible. Many are given to us by authority figures when we are young, and can thusly be difficult to identify, let alone question. This is because old notions feel the most like common knowledge. They are “just the way things are”. However, I think the expectations we create for ourselves are the really insidious ones. When we look at “successful” men, especially as youngsters, it is all too easy to latch onto their visible qualities as bars to be cleared. We project perfection onto them, and then use that projection to create expectations of how we need to be, but ignore the big picture of a naturally flawed human. Think of the star athlete who might also have a gambling addiction. Think of the Wall Street tycoon who also has a nasty habit of harassing and assaulting women. Think even of your own father, whose irresponsibility with money is difficult to see next to the warm-hearted saint that you know him to be. Young men look at the best qualities of older men, and decide that they have to be all of those things. They have to be The Man. Anything short of such is failure.
My father was one such victim of his own expectations. He grew up with a very successful father, who imbued him with confidence, entitlement, and impossibly high measures of success. The architecture of my father’s self-worth was constructed of material wealth, status, and lifestyle. He toiled day in and day out as a sales entrepreneur to build a life that measured up to my grandfather’s lot as a surgeon. The gap between what he was and what he might have been was enormous in his mind, and in his heart. He drank to make up the difference. By the age of 58, he had squandered every dollar he had made, every dollar that he had inherited, and every dollar he could borrow. His liver was cirrhotic, and his dreams were torn to shreds. In the end, all he had left was love. There was a lot of love for and from his family, but I suspect very little for himself. He died penniless and homeless, feeling very much like a failure, all because he never really stopped to question his expectations.
In this modern era, men are expected to not only fulfill on many of the classic roles of manhood, like providership and physical strength, but on a host of new roles as well. We are expected to be sensitive and gentle, emotionally available, woke feminists, and sexually well-behaved. We are expected to stand up for ourselves and others, but never be violent; to take the lead in romantic pursuit, but never be pushy; to be wealthy enough to take care of a partner, but not overly concerned with money. It’s enough to make any man tear himself in half trying to be The Man. Of course, women can do all of these things and don’t need men to do them, but that doesn’t negate the general desire to see a man who has all his shit together.
Certainly, some men grow up with a lesser view of what men should be. Their expectations of both reality and themselves are truncated. They may have had “mentors” that told them to fall in line, to impress the boss, not to stick their necks out. I think many men are raised not to aspire to greatness, but to try to be content meeting a quarterly goal in their little corner of the world. I don’t believe these men are any happier though. I think that the hero in all of them dreams of a life where they aren’t shackled by their self-imposed limitations. These men also suffer from the feeling that they are supposed to be someone other than who they are.
Regardless of how we were raised, men who have this feeling of needing to be someone else live a life fraught with fear paralysis. We spend our lives climbing a Mountain of Should. There is one voice that says, “you should be more, do better, you can get there”. Then, there is another voice that says, “you can’t, you shouldn’t, it’s too risky”. We experience a crippling cognitive dissonance of wanting to be enough just the way we are, yet knowing that we are capable, and have always been capable, of much more. So, we work our asses off to feel like we are trying, then come home and feel justified in getting wasted. Or, we spend 50 weeks per year earning money and not really living how we want to, to spend two weeks sitting on our butts on a beach somewhere, spending tons of money to finally live how we want to.
I recall being in my teens and early 20’s and looking at the name of an author printed on a book cover, and seeing the talking heads on TV, or a professor’s name in my college catalog. I remember thinking, how did these people get so far in life? I couldn’t see myself doing any of those things. New breakthroughs are being invented all the time. Companies get started and take off. Catchy names of products and services are trademarked left and right. Every once in a while I would have an idea that I thought was totally original, only to Google it and find out five other people have already thought of and made a fortune from it. It seriously never made sense that anyone like me could ever do anything special or great when there are so many people so far ahead in the race against the ghost. I can also recall nearing the end of my 20’s, as the house of cards my father had built was crumbling, and feeling like I was witnessing proof that success was an illusion. No amount of “merit” would bring it or keep it around – only luck or timing.
I choose to define happiness as the difference between expectations and reality. If your expectations exceed reality, the difference is painful, and would make anyone (not just men) afraid to try things. This paradigm will hold you back. If your expectations are reasonably small, or even (just imagine) non-existent, then reality will feel like soaring, and everything will occur as a bonus! You will enjoy trying new things, and even accept “failing”, because you never expected to have any particular outcome in the first place. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it works. Learning to notice, name, and deeply question your expectations won’t make you lazy and uninspired. It will give you the freedom to set goals based on your knowledge of real reality, not some false projected one. It will give you access to feeling like the best you you can be, and the permission to let yourself finally be enough.
When I look back on my youth, I wish anyone had told me the truth: successful men are regular people who have struggles, flaws, setbacks, and even failures. What makes them successful is being ok with their humanity, and accepting that they are far from perfect. Greatness in one part of life does not make you great at all the parts, and if you truly want to be a great man, then you have to start with your relationship to you. You may never have your name on the cover of a book, or get a library named after you, or some such notoriety. But, if you embrace both self-love and humility, you can become great at anything you choose.
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