Being a real man. Who taught me about this? The list is long. My dad, of course. But also my mom, my world history teacher (rest in peace, Mr. Byrd), Atticus Finch, Teddy Roosevelt, the school director I used to work for, and so on.
Learning to be a real man is a constant work-in-progress. Whenever you think you’re done learning how to be a real man you’re just fooling yourself.
So even though I don’t know who taught me to be a real man, and despite my own work-in-progress status, I know what a real man embodies. And (surprise!) it’s very different from the mainstream definition.
Here’s a list of things a man must embody in order to truly be the manliest of men:
A Real Man is Gritty
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” – Helen Keller
I’m not talking about the old west, Jeff Bridges with an eye-patch type of grit. I mean the kind of resilience that comes from walking through fire and healing your burns enough to go at it again.
Life will test your mettle, and pounce on you when you’re not completely prepared–because no one can be. There’s never a point when a man is completely, thoroughly ready to be a father. There’s never a point when a man is completely, thoroughly ready to see his father pass and kiss him for the last time. And yet, he must. He must try his best, endure, and keep his spirit alive. That’s grit.
A Real Man is Humble
“Living is Easy with Eyes Closed.” – John Lennon
There’s the traditional sort of humility, where you brush off praise and avoid boasting. But the most powerful–the most manly!–sort of humility involves a lot more vulnerability.
This humility comes when we realize we don’t have all the answers. It strikes us when we look within and find a gap. We can either embrace that gap and do something about it, or ignore it out of sheer pride. A real man is not afraid to say, I don’t know; he actually relishes saying, Teach me. All males are ignorant of one thing or another, but being humble enough to learn is what separates the men from the boys.
A Real Man is Responsible
“Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” – Albert Einstein
Being the man of the house is an outdated idea. But that does not mean men are without responsibilities. If anything, our responsibilities are greater than ever.
Our duties are no longer a pre-determined list culled from tradition. They are more dynamic and fluid. Maybe we need to pay the rent, or maybe we need to sacrifice our careers for our partner’s success. And while we can still be the bread winners and provide financially, it is not enough. We must provide emotionally, spiritually. Our work goes beyond what we’ve been told. It goes beyond laying down a paycheck on the kitchen table. It involves supporting the success of those we love, in whatever way we have to do it.
A Real Man is Open
“A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.” – Ian McEwan
Most people still expect men to be quiet with their feelings, and sterile with their wounds. To be a man is to show no quivering, no self-doubt. The CEO who doesn’t sweat. The dad who never cries in front of his children.
But that’s just a caricature drawn by people who’re long dead. The notion that just because you are a man you are no longer prone to human emotion is ridiculous. A real man embraces everything that he is, even during the most vulnerable times. He sets an example for everybody by showing up without pretense. Yes, it’s incredibly hard to set this example, for society is still hung up on the stoic man with a cast-iron stomach…but the tide is turning, and common sense is turning the page.
All human beings, regardless of sex or gender, are fragile and broken. That’s our communal bond.
A Real Man is Thoughtful
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” – Charles Dickens
The caveman didn’t have to deal with many other cavemen. He spent most of his days twiddling his thumbs or decorating his cave with doodles. But we are not cavemen anymore. Acting out of complete self-interest can’t be tolerated. Just because we want something doesn’t mean we ought to get it.
This sounds like such a simple idea, but look around you. How many people, men and women, do you know who treat others with little respect or thought? How many people push others around, coerce them into submission, or have blinders on when they’re plowing through to the prize?
These are today’s cavemen, but some of us still consider them the “real men.” They are macho. Rugged. Self-made, or whatever other euphemism we want to use for neanderthals.
Real masculinity is not measured by what you get, but what you give. It’s measured by how you treat those who are worse off than you, or could use your help. This is another form of strength. It may be the most courageous form of strength, because you may get nothing in return. To be this strong requires thoughtfulness, the kind that reminds you of your place in the world: a tiny piece in an immense puzzle that binds everything and everyone together.
A Real Man is an Idealist
“There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
The past contains a lot of horrors that could persuade many that we’re meant to act and live like brutes. It also contains many wonders where humanity is at its best. Some men focus on the former, using it to justify their own brutishness (eat or be eaten), and they call themselves realists.
But they are just selective with their memory. They only recall what will excuse their behavior, not what will inspire them to do good.
A real man, one who contributes to society rather than pillages it by using nihilistic bullshit, inspires hope and wonder. He wants to lift the world. Not to gain praise, but because it’s what human beings have the capacity to do.
A Real Man is Loving
“If boys don’t learn, men won’t know.” – Douglas Wilson
Money is boring. Work is not everything. Achievements are momentary. But the love that you give others, through empathy, caring, and sacrifice, will outlast all of it.
Loving your family, your community, and your fellow man, is the greatest legacy you can leave behind. This is what great men do often and well.
It’s also the hardest thing to do, for your efforts may go unrequited. They may also label you soft, or question your masculinity, since you are putting love ahead of money and awards and, you know, the “real” stuff.
But ask yourself this: who is the most influential man in your life? Got him in mind? Good. Did he change your life because he gave you cash? A promotion? A new car?
Or did he change your life because he was generous with his time and cared for you and your well-being and growth.
Be that man.
(This piece goes out to my father, who is still with me, and who I look up to for almost everything. He’s a man, a real man in the way I describe above. Happy father’s day, dad)
Originally published on The Good Men Projectphotocredit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dariuszka/