Tom Matlack wonders why men are always defined by what they do, instead of who they are, or better yet, what they love.
A mom, who my wife and I have become very fond of, cornered me recently. Her kids were playing with mine and we all were laughing, having spent plenty of summer evenings doing roughly the same thing, i.e. watching a herd of neighborhood kids having a blast together for no other reason than it is summer.
“Really, Tom,” she asked with a pensive look in her dark eyes like she was about to ask me some deep philosophical question. Now this particular friend is from Jersey and has had a brush with a life-threatening disease, so she has both a “take no prisoners” and a “let’s laugh at life” attitude that is infectious. Her getting serious all of a sudden really caught my attention.
“What do you do?” The tone of voice was like the question had been bothering her for a long time, the modern day equivalent to the search for the Holly Grail. I mean I show up at kid events during the day on weekdays dominated by moms. I sometimes take what apparently seem to be urgent phone calls, moving to the few locations where I can get cell signal. Strangers sometimes talk about reading me online.
I realized that I had presented quite a riddle to my friend. But still the question left me thinking much more deeply about the meaning of manhood and the doing.
This idea that manhood is defined not by who you are but what you do goes to the very core of the male dilemma, or at least this man. I have always felt there was this cosmic pecking order of masculinity and the question, “What do you do?” reduces it to its essential elements. Here would be what I imagine to be the list of potential responses in reverse order of machismo (if the conversation occurred in a bar and I was single instead of happily married the significance would only be magnified by a factor of a thousand):
10) “I am really not sure, I ask myself that question pretty much every day” (which is what I actually said)
9) I stay home with the kids, do laundry, and cook dinner for my kickass wife
8) I’m unemployed
7) Trash man
6) Construction worker
4) “I Manage Money”
3) Noble Prize winning Doctor
2) U.S. President
1) I started a $100 billion Internet Company
I’m not a Marxist but one thing I think the guy got right was that propaganda can be an extremely powerful tool in warping people’s minds. And the thing that I see most frequently among my male friends is this struggle to balance their own intuitive sense of themselves against this external pressure to be and do something deemed worthwhile by the world at large: the what vs. who you are problem. Amidst this giant treadmill to answer the question of “what do you do?” is the thirst for money, power, and prestige obliterates the more subtle issues of every day life and male happiness.
If anyone but a friend who I am very fond of had asked me that question I might very well have responded, “Who the fuck cares what I do? The real question is am I happy? Who do I love and how do I express that love? What are the things in my life that inspire me?”
As it was, I first said I had no idea what I do and then proceeded to tell my friend my life story. I talked about my wife and kids and how much it means to me to be a good husband and father first and foremost in my life. Then I talked about riding my bike up huge mountains with my male friends even though at 50 years old and 200 pounds we are never going to make it to the Tour de France. I told her about GMP and about work I am doing in Mexico with a microfinance company, a hotel video provider, a couple of game companies, and a bunch of other crazy entrepreneurial ventures I have cooking.
In the end I am not sure she had any clearer idea of what I do day-to-day since my manhood doesn’t amend itself to a pre-determined shape to fit into a societal hole. But she did have a much better sense of who I am and what I care about, what lights me up, and what makes me as a man tick.
My suggestion is that we replace the obnoxious and demeaning question of “What do you do?” as somehow defining of maleness into “What do you love?” The pecking order would disappear. With inspiration, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And instead of repeating again and again the shadows of manhood we’d get down to the real thing, unique to each of us and without shame.