"Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one." - Marcus Aurelius
I’m a member of a Men’s group (the Men’s Table) that exists in order to give men a safe environment in which they can have “real” conversations. That’s to say conversations about real things - things that affect them deeply, things that encompass territory into which men rarely venture; namely, feelings and emotions.
In today’s world most men rarely if ever admit, even to ourselves, that we do have feelings and emotions and sometimes these things get the better of us. We just soldier on, ignoring the pain and/or pretending it’s not really there or that it’s just life and there’s nothing we can do about it so we should just put up and shut up because we’re Real Men, and that means we’re Tough and we can Handle Anything. We go through life worrying that if we admit to our distress we’ll be seen as weak or in some way inadequate.
This is what we’re taught right from the get-go. Boys don’t cry. Toughen up. Don’t be a wimp. Puff out your chest, kick sand in the faces of those weaker than you, strut your stuff. Drink lots of beer, drive too fast (preferably while under the influence of, and possibly while still consuming said beer), show off, excel at sport (any sport involving brute force and ignorance will do, and if your chosen sport doesn’t include those things then bring them in anyway) and have sex with as many women as possible. That’s what it means to be a Real Man, isn’t it?
While there are in the world today far too many eternal Peter Pans who never outgrow their teenage, testosterone-fuelled irresponsibility, most of us - the ones who have managed, often more by luck than judgment, to survive our formative years - most of us eventually settle down and acquire, at least outwardly, an appearance of respectability. Being respectable means conforming to the expectations our culture demands of us. Get a good job, get married, have 2.4 children, buy a house in the suburbs, work hard, keep your nose clean and don’t rock the boat.
Oh and if you do feel the need to go off with your mates and get roaring drunk on a Saturday night, well, boys will be boys, right?
But what if all that chest-puffing, bluster and bravado, drinking, risk-taking, womanising and sport don’t float your boat? What if you look at the guys who behave in that way and you have to admit to yourself that you’re just not one of them, even if you’re still pretending that you are?
What if you encounter something - a piece of music, let’s say - that’s so beautiful it moves you to tears?
What if - God help you! - you fall in love? Not just lust and the excitement of another conquest, but the real thing?
What if there’s some shit going down in your life and you know it’s killing you but you just don’t know what to do about it?
What if you discover one day that you’re not all those things that the world apparently expects of you?
Does that mean you’re not a Real Man?
Now, on top of all the cares and responsibilities that you carry, you have another load to bear; it’s the weight of your fear that you might not be able to manage it all, that you’ll be judged as weak and/or a failure, that you’ll be ridiculed and ostracised.
And as if that’s not enough, you can’t talk to anyone about this because doing so would be the final admission of your weakness, your wimpishness, your inability to cope and therefore your complete lack of Real Manhood.
It’s no wonder that so many men are struggling under the weight of all that anxiety.
Interestingly, I’ve noticed both through the work I do as a coach and mentor and through the Men’s Table, when you give men a chance to talk in a safe, supportive and confidential environment, most of them really do want to open up and share their thoughts and feelings. They want to, but often they don’t know how. They lack the confidence, and the vocabulary, to be able to speak out.
When the Men’s Table was first getting established locally, most of its members would sit quietly and listen to the conversation without contributing much. But gradually, over time, one by one they began to join in, to share parts of their stories and to talk openly about their feelings. They’re not usually looking for advice; being heard is enough, and we’re finding that when a man comes to the Table with a question, he almost always brings the answer as well. Talking it through, he’ll quite likely find his answer for himself.
When a man is able to talk about his feelings and about his cares and concerns, usually he’ll walk away from that conversation feeling lighter and more able to go out and face whatever it is he has to deal with. Just knowing he’s not alone, that there are other men who heard him and understood without judging him, can be enough to bring him back from the brink of despair.
In the end, it’s not a sign of weakness if we admit that we’re not a superhero, that we do have feelings and that sometimes it can really help to talk with other guys who can listen respectfully. It takes courage - the courage to be brutally honest and to make ourselves vulnerable - to speak out. Equally, it takes courage and honesty to listen with empathy and without judgment to another man’s story, and to not try to "fix" him afterwards.
I would say that courage, honesty, empathy, respect and being non-judgmental are some of the attributes of a good man.
I'd also say that another hugely important attribute of a good man is authenticity: being himself, true to his own personal values, always. No more slavishly following convention or pretending to be something he isn't.
The world would be a better place if there were more good men in it. That's not to say that there aren't any now! They're out there. They just need to wake up to themselves and have the courage to start living authentically.
So please, let's have no more arguments about what a good man should be. Take the advice of Marcus Aurelius, you guys!