We guys have been seeing a lot of them lately—lists of what a “real man” is and is not. If you’re a man and you’ve read any of them, you’ve likely responded with either smug vindication (a real man hunts ! I hunt! I’m a real man!) or angry defensiveness (a “real” man cries at the movies! I only cry at the end of every Browns playoffs bid!).
But here’s the thing: both responses are totally wrong. Here’s why.
It’s turned us into a generation of Pinocchios– mere male-shaped puppets hoping someday to be turned into real boys. Too many of us are waiting for a manhood fairy to float along and tap us with her all-too-symbolic wand.
We’ve been duped into asking the wrong question entirely.
It’s not what makes a man real. It’s what makes a man better.
This man. The man I am, and you are.
So, for the guys who stumble on this blog looking for updates on the newest James Potter book (it’s half-way done, keep your pants on) let’s try to make a different version of those stupid manhood checklists, but this time with the focus in the right place. And the first thing on the list is the most obvious one of all:
1) A better man isn’t concerned with being a “real” man.
He doesn’t ask if his manhood is “real” anymore than he asks if the fish he caught is a real fish. If he does a thing, and it is sound, and good, and true, then it’s real and plenty “man” enough for him. He simply does not give “real” manhood a second thought.
“If this fish has ever watched ‘Say Yes to the Dress’, it doesn’t count.”
2) A better man isn’t threatened by a different kind of manhood.
If you’re a mechanic with grimy fingernails and you belittle the banker who gets a monthly manicure, you’re only proving one thing: that his manhood makes you doubt your own. Maybe you’re jealous of his income, or his car, or his hot younger wife. And if you’re the banker who looks down his nose at the guy waist-deep in your Beemer, you’re broadcasting your own emasculation like a neon sign. A better man has confidence unshakable enough not to be cracked by encounters with a totally different kind of manhood.
The tools guy paid the desk guy to make this.
3) A better man doesn’t drift to political/social extremes.
Reality check: your self image is not defined by being a Republican, or a liberal, or pro-life, or against global warming. It can’t be. Because when we define ourselves by those things, we drift inevitably to extremes. We become caricatures of ourselves. We divide into camps and start treating important issues less like quests for truth and more like sports teams.
I spent more time Photoshopping this than I did writing the article.
The better man moderates between the extremes. He builds bridges instead of burning them. He can comprehend nuance. He is able to occupy the middle ground between issues not because he doesn’t know which one is right, but because he wants to understand both sides well enough to be an effective persuader.
4) A better man seeks friends who are different than him.
Have you ever seen (or posted) one of those popular memes about the frustrations of dealing with “stupid people”? Here’s an ugly truth: our culture thinks “stupid” means “anyone who disagrees with me”.
We have to stop that. A better man knows that people can have perfectly valid reasons for voting and believing differently than him. That doesn’t make them right, but neither does it make them stupid. By making friends with people who are different, the better man is constantly challenged, his own beliefs and opinions are honed, and most importantly, he avoids becoming the small-minded, confirmation-biased blowhard uncle that we all claim to hate.
5) A better man dresses for who he is.
This may mean a tailored suit and designer tie. Or it may mean cargo shorts and a hoodie. But what it doesn’t mean is “whatever was lying on the floor from last night”. One thing about guys and clothes: it’s way too easy for us to live down to our expectations. And when it comes to how we dress, the expectations our culture has created for us are extremely, embarrassingly low.
The better man puts thought into what he wears. He gives the rest of the world the compliment of making an effort. But more importantly, he dresses for who he is, not for who he wants the world to think he is.
6) A better man is deliberate about what matters.
It was two millennia ago that Socrates, one of the first better men, said “the unexamined life isn’t worth living”, and even though it’s a great rule of thumb, it still hasn’t really caught on.
Most guys just do whatever their friends and culture do. But that’s a crappy yardstick to measure a life by.
The better man is deliberate about what matters– the choices he makes about his mate, his kids, his job. He pays attention to how he spends his money, and his time, and his energy. He measures himself not against his culture, but against excellence. And that means he’s deliberate about being self-aware. He studies his own flaws, he gauges what works best, and he uses that information to constantly fine-tune who he is, always striving to be even better.
7) A better man shows respect wherever it’s deserved.
Not just to the people and issues and causes that he instinctively reveres, but to good qualities wherever he finds them. Example: the average guy mocks and dismisses the people who vote different than him. A better man sees that those people want good things, too, they just have a different idea of how to get it. He respects their intentions, even if he doesn’t agree with their methods.
8) A better man makes quiet sacrifices for others (even strangers).
Years ago, I was cutting through a mall parking lot at rush hour, following a long stream of other impatient drivers looking to shave half a minute off the commute. We all jockeyed for positions, tailgated each other, and cut each other off wherever we could. I got to one of those stupid little mall stop signs and angled to turn in front of a car coming the other direction. A woman was driving. She saw my intention, patiently stopped her car, and with a wry little smile, she waved me on in front of her.
With that tiny little sacrifice of her time, peppered with the patient bemusement in her smile, she completely shamed me.
Our culture trains us to be the most self-centered, me-first bastards imaginable. The better man knows this and goes the other way. He makes sacrifices, some big, some little, sometimes even for people he doesn’t even know. Sometimes he even sacrifices for the other self-centered, me-first bastards, and in so doing he shames them a little, just by being better than them.
9) A better man leads when leadership is welcome.
If you force authority on people who don’t want it, you’re not a leader; you’re a pissant tyrant. If you shrink from authority when it’s your duty, you’re not humble; you’re an insecure twit. The better man knows when it’s his time to lead, and he does it by being the sort of person people want to follow.
10) A better man doesn’t complain
This one’s simple. Complaining—whether it’s about your boss, or your wife, or your job, or the damn government—doesn’t make you the sober voice of truth. It makes you a whiny little wuss. The better man doesn’t bitch about his lot in life. He makes it better, or he shoulders it without complaint.
11) A better man can be wrong.
If you’ve lived your whole adult life without changing your worldview or opinion about anything important, you’re either the smartest man in the world, or you’re terrified of being wrong and have done everything you can to avoid it. Maybe you just surround yourself with people who agree with you. It’s easier now than it’s ever been.
Quit it. Being willing to be wrong means gaining ever stronger and better opinions. It inspires people to be less guarded and defensive. It makes you better in a way that surpasses mere rightness and approaches actual goodness.
People respect us for our strengths. But they relate to us for our imperfections. The better man seeks to be relatable more than to be simply right. It’s how he builds communities and friendships and, ultimately, more better men.
12) A better man respects his sex.
I don’t mean his gender. I mean his actual sexuality—his passions, his fantasies, his erotic intimacies. Let’s be totally blunt: porn may or may not be harmless (it’s not). It may or may not demean women (it does). But what we all know is this: it demeans you. Looking at two-dimensional honeys tells your subconscious brain that you’re not good enough for the real thing. And you know what? The more you do it, the more it’s true.
The better man respects his sex enough to save it for a real, live, complicated, feeling, mind-blowingly delightful woman. He doesn’t pay her for it. He doesn’t pressure her into it. He doesn’t have to. He knows he’s worth being wanted, and he works to earn her desire, without demands or expectations.
And that’s pretty much it.
Basically, we all have to quit buying into the notion of the “real” man. There’s no such thing. The “real” man is merely a checklist of superficials, written mostly by small men buried in their own insecurities. Obsessing about “real” manhood is ironically the least real way to be. Throw it out with the trash.
Instead, focus on becoming a better man. It’s a journey, not a checklist. It’s all yours. Own it.
(And maybe I’ll be able to do the same.)
So I heard a rumor that a teacher at a local school (I’m being deliberately vague) is making broad judgments, during class, about parents and people who vote for a particular presidential candidate. We all really like this teacher, and to some extent I don’t even disagree with their opinion. And yet I am very unsettled by this.
I’ve been asking myself why it bothers me so much.
I think it’s because it feels like updated McCarthyism.
And because, especially when it’s passed down from a teacher to students, it is a form of thought police, stifling disagreement, discouraging debate, exchanging critical thinking for mere intellectual fascism.
And because the pet error of our generation is the insistence that disagreement equals stupidity. More than that, disagreement may even represent a sort of dangerous, idiot evil that needs to be put down by force, if necessary.
We’ve all bought into it by degrees— the generation of generalization. We pride ourselves in holding two entirely contradictory ideas in our heads: “bigotry is bad” and “all X people are Y”.
It can manifest in endless ways:
All Trump voters are racist idiots.
Liberals are all intellectually-dishonest cowards.
White people ignore police brutality.
Black people riot and loot.
Christians are anti-science haters.
Nickelback listeners are tasteless rubes.
Did that last one make you smile? Does it seem OK to generalize based on musical taste? Like some generalizations are harmless?
That’s pretty sad. The ugliness of generalization– of bigotry– is fractal. It’s the same vicious shape no matter how small and seemingly harmless we reduce it.
It’s a rotten, invasive little seed of prejudice that can’t be planted in just one corner of our intellectual garden. It takes over. It taints, then becomes the entire garden, obliterating all other consideration.
We’ve grown accustomed to the idea that the easiest way to feel big is to stand on someone else. We think it’s OK, because we don’t make it a person, we make it some generalized group or demographic or voting block or sexual orientation or cultural category.
We think that judging a person is evil. But judging people– based entirely on superficial group affiliation– is just fine.
Maybe even our moral duty.
In our world, people aren’t different from us because they’ve had different life experiences that have formed alternate views and opinions.
They’re different because they’re stupid, and immoral, and dangerous. Period.
I don’t want to be misconstrued on one thing, however: People can be wrong. Their life experiences may have fostered perceptions and approaches and attitudes that may indeed be completely mistaken, inaccurate, and even destructive. But it’s the grand ego of our generation to insist, first and foremost, that difference equals stupidity. Nothing less, and absolutely, positively nothing more.
So that, I think, is what bothers me about a teacher making broad, categorical judgments about “everyone who votes for X”. Not because I like X, but because it perpetuates an ugliness that is already way too prevalent. Personally, I think this mentality— the generation of generalization, the doublethink that bigotry is only bad if it’s bigotry against the wrong people— is a much, much bigger threat to society than any presidential candidate could ever be.