(Okay folks, this is a little longer post from me. It got put out there a few months ago for a class I was taking and I like it alot. Bear with me, and maybe a few suggestions to make it more readable?)
“Professor,” he cried, “It is intolerable. Are you afraid of this man?” The Professor lifted his heavy lids, and gazed at Syme with large, wide-open, blue eyes of an almost ethereal honesty.
“Yes, I am,” he said mildly. “So are you.”
Syme was dumb for an instant. Then he rose to his feet erect, like an insulted man, and thrust the chair away from him.
“Yes,” he said in a voice indescribable, “you are right. I am afraid of him. Therefore I swear by God that I will seek out this man whom I fear until I find him, and strike him on the mouth. If heaven were his throne and the earth his footstool, I swear that I would pull him down.”
“How?” asked the staring Professor. “Why?”
“Because I am afraid of him,” said Syme; “and no man should leave in the universe anything of which he is afraid.”
De Worms blinked at him with a sort of blind wonder. He made an effort to speak, but Syme went on in a low voice, but with an under-current of inhuman exaltation–
“Who would condescend to strike down the mere things that he does not fear? Who would debase himself to be merely brave, like any common prizefighter? Who would stoop to be fearless—like a tree? Fight the thing that you fear. You remember the old tale of the English clergyman who gave the last rites to the brigand of Sicily, and how on his death-bed the great robber said, ‘I can give you no money, but I can give you advice for a lifetime: Your thumb on the blade, and strike upwards.’ So I say to you, strike upwards, if you strike at the stars.”
-The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
Two men, arguing in a crowed bar about how to overcome an enemy who, by all accounts, is larger than life and evil beyond comparison. This is the pregame prep talk, or the deep breath before a big meeting. Chesterton has laid out in moving prose what a conversation might look like if you were trying to psyche each other up before tackling the next big thing in your life. No one talks like this now though; and this intensity, this ferocity of spirit seems nearly lost in today’s age of tepid masculinity.
In my own life, I have continuously struggled with what being a man really means. It seems like there is an ocean of opinions and ideas of what a guy has to do. Don’t wear pink; wear pink; work out; don’t care what people think; dress to impress; charm the ladies; respect the ladies; get the ladies, the list of contradictions goes around and around like a NASCAR track. There is no end to the opinions out there, but the fact of the matter is, that in today’s world, these opinions would be worthless and ignored entirely if guys had any idea what the reality was. Instead, we are sponges wrapping ourselves around the newest fad, the hottest actress, or the coolest toys. For myself, the question has always been, ‘How can a be a good man? I don’t want to a be an asshole to anyone, but I don’t want to get walked over either.’ The old phrase of how nice guys finish last has fit me like a glove for longer than I can remember. That’s the question I’m faced with today: is that okay? What else is out there? Can I occasionally be a total dick and be justified in my actions? Do I HAVE to be this condoling, timid, character that everyone likes to be around but no one really respects?
We’ll get into the details of my story a little later, for now though, I want to look at the two big camps of guy-dom that I’m faced with everyday:
Douche-bags, and Doormats.
It’s not really fair of me to label them that way, and for a world focused on political correctness and not offending anyone it is probably too much, but I’m going to strike upwards here, and hopefully with a little bit of exploration we can lay aside any namby-pamby bruised egos and really understand what is driving this dichotomy of the masculine psyche. I think a little clarification is in order, when I call out Douche-bags I use that colloquialism to represent a subculture of guys who feel like they’ve been Wronged somehow, whether by someone in particular, or the world in general. They are Tyler Durden. Men who feel like they have gotten the rawest deals and therefore the world owes them something, even if this is a subconscious decision. Doormats on the other hand, are the stereotypical ‘nice-guy’ we always hear about. They are accommodating to fault, bending over backwards to make sure that everyone is okay, that no one’s feelings get hurt, and usually they do so at their own expense. For myself, I’ve played both roles. While I think that there is some kind of middle ground, I feel a little incomplete regardless of whether I am taking care not to offend, or throwing aside socially acceptable behavior in an effort to be ‘edgy’. What’s true here? What does being a REAL man look like?
Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck between these two camps of guys, and there are always someone from both sides yanking on my arm, telling me how to live. On one hand are dudes like Chuck Palahniuk, author of the short story Fight Club, who has gained a substantial cult following around the book. Fight Club is pure aggression, with some of the characters in the story going as far as the castration of their enemies.
“Fight Club is not football on television. You aren’t watching a bunch men you don’t know halfway around the world beating on each other live by satellite with a two-minute delay, commercials pitching beer every ten minutes, and a pause now for station identification. After you’ve been to fight club, watching football on television is watching pornography when you could be having great sex. Fight club gets to be your reason for going to the gym and keeping your hair cut short and cutting your nails. The gyms you go to are crowded with guys trying to look like men, as if being a man means looking the way a sculptor or an art director says.” (Palahniuk 50)
This appeals to me. I WANT something to fight for, or even just an obvious enemy I can train myself to confront. I’ve spent a lot of years studying the martial arts, but every few years I just stop for awhile, and it’s always for the same reason: it feels like bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, I like feeling agile, and being in shape, and competing against both my fellow students and my personal best, but the politics of tournaments and ridiculous expenses involved in really training these days is more than a working stiff like me can afford on a hobby that in all reality will never pay off in my life. Lets face it, most guys will never have to put their life on the line unless they serve in the military or police. “The idea is to take some Joe on the street who’s never been in a fight and recruit him [to fight club]. Let him experience winning for the first time in his life. Get him to explode. Give him permission to beat the crap out of you. You can take it. If you win, you screwed up. ‘What we have to do, people,’ Tyler told the committee, ‘is remind these guys what kind of power they still have.’” (Palahniuk 120)
Wait… what? Power? What kind of power are we talking about here? Judging from most of Chucks novel, it’s the power to destroy, or use some twisted form of asceticism to recruit a legion of so called ‘space monkeys’ into your average cult of anarchy. He does make two excellent points that have always struck home to me.
“’I see the strongest and the smartest men who have ever lived, and these men are pumping gas and waiting tables… You have a class of young men and women, and they want to give their lives to something. Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don’t need. Generations have been working jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need… We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re just learning this fact, so don’t fuck with us.” (Palahniuk 149, 166)
Okay, I get that, there’s something missing in today’s masculine world. Is it really more aggression though? With national news always finding some new atrocity to display, a school shooting, a kidnapping, a murder in broad daylight, do we really need more violence? Is this what it means to be a man? I wonder. So does John Eldredge, a Christian author and Director of Ransomed Heart Ministries in Colorado Springs. His book Wild at Heart deals with some these issues of out of control anger, and attempts to drill into the core of what a man, specifically a Christian man should look like, “Our society produces plenty of boys, but very few men. There are two simple reasons: we don’t know how to initiate boys into men; and second, we’re not sure we really want to. We want to socialize them to be sure, but away from all that is fierce, and wild and passionate. In other words, away from masculinity and toward something more feminine.” (Eldredge 85) He goes on in his book to say, over and over again, that real men need to be given permission to be dangerous, to be fierce. As a middle management working schlep, I hear his words resonate within my soul. I was walking down a busy downtown street just the other day, coming home from a bar with a friend, as we’re walking I hear angry, one-sided conversation coming up fast behind us. Instantly I’m on my guard, and my hand moves unconsciously to my back pocket where I keep my CRKT fighting knife. A young man, angrily spouting what I can only relate as nonsense hustles past us, yelling at cars, people on the street, and the sign on Tom’s Diner. I wanted him to try something. My friend immediate diverts himself to cut through a parking lot and beckons me to follow, to give the crazy man a wide berth, and he turns to me as we walk. “Did you want to fight that guy?” he asked me. “Yeah,” I respond absentmindedly, “Well, not sure why, but I wanted to have a reason to hit something.” I’m the nicest guy you’ll meet, even when I’m angry, most people seem to belittle my rage into ‘you seem frustrated.’ As I sit and think about it, I’m reminded of a moment a long time ago. Growing up there was a group of guys that hung out at the school across the street from my house. One of them had it out for me, and I got really beat up a few times. After getting my nose broken the second time, my mom enrolled me in martial arts. That was the last time I got in a fight. I wanted desperately to prove that I had what it takes to defend myself. Eldredge talks about this kind of yearning, about needing needing permission to be fierce. “As [my son] Sam ascended[the rock wall], I was offering words of advice and exhortation. He came to another challenging spot, but this time sailed right over it. A few more moves and he would be at the top. ‘Way to go Sam. You’re a wild man.” He finished the climb, and as he walked down from the back side I began to get Blaine clipped in. Ten or fifteen minutes passed, and the story was forgotten to me. But not Sam. While I was coaching his brother up the rock, Sam sort of sidled up to me and in a quiet voice asked, ‘Dad… did you really think I was a wild man up there?’ Miss that moment and you’ll miss a boy’s heart forever. It’s not a question – it’s the question, the one every boy and man is longing to ask. Do I have what it takes? Am I powerful? Until a man knows he’s a man he will forever be trying to prove he is one, while at the same time shrinking from anything that might reveal he is not. Most men live their lives haunted by the question, or crippled by the answer they’ve been given.” (63)
“Well, If I am not drunk, I am mad,” replied Syme with perfect calm; “but I trust I can behave like a gentleman in either condition.”
-The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton, 52
So am I man? Am I douche or maybe just a talkative doormat? I want to be fierce, I want to be powerful, but I don’t know how to do that in a society of video games, political correctness, and mediocrity. I wonder if anyone really knows, or if this another one of those rhetorical questions of the ages. So far, most of what I’ve read goes right in line with the stereotypes that we see in the movies. Men are supposed to be dangerous, even violent. That is definitely a piece of what I feel missing, but it doesn’t complete the picture. What about the charm? The gallant chevalier? The knight-in-shining-armor? Society today yearns for men to be men, but at the same time lifts up this icons of debauchery we see in film and television. ‘Manly’ characters who seduce women, and then walk away. Love ’em and leave ’em. The level of promiscuity seems to directly link with the perceived level of achievement. And the books! There are so many books, instructing men how to dress, how to look, how to act, all in the pursuit of ‘getting some’. One book, Details, outlines all the ins and outs of dressing yourself, and ‘making your wardrobe work for you’. It is astounding the amount of philosophy and specificity contained in this tome and others like it. This particular book, written by the senior editors of the magazine which shares it’s name, contains a veritable fountain of knowledge for the man to dress for any occasion, as well as nearly a dozen interviews with top fashion designers, giving their top ten fashion tips. In one interview with Donatella Versace(the person behind the brand), she flat out calls it, “Ben Affleck looks like a nice American boy. He’s a gorgeous man, but he should have more attitude, be more dangerous.” (Peres 231) The real issue between douche-bags and doormats, I feel, is one of attitude. I get it! Every guy has been wronged by society somehow, and at the same time carries an inherent wound which they must overcome. Even the most successful people in the world can see that it boils down to your own actions, your own attitude. Things like fashion, courage, and nobility are things which all men can possess, but few do, and some abuse. It’s fine to dress well, it’s fine to work out, it’s fine to own a gun or a nice car, but the issue comes from needing those things to define you. “Clothing is the outward expression of the inner person.” Giorgio Armani says in another Details interview, “It’s important to dress in a way that sends the message but also looks effortless and natural. Wearing clothing that is inappropriate to your inner character is the biggest mistake a man can make in terms of fashion.” (57) Whether it’s how much you can bench press at the gym, or the amount of money you make, or your number of sexual conquests, these things are examples of your inner character, but not the SOURCE of it. Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs says it perfectly to Details, “Smooth is a thing you can learn from Sinatra. He looked everybody in the eye. The way he moved – Sinatra was always making statements, but he was never being loud. He didn’t have to yell.” (131)
Sinatra. Old Blue Eyes. That icon of class and style. ChairMAN of the board. Now that guy was neither a Doormat, or a Douche bag(well, depending on which biography you read anyway. We’re gonna pay attention to the character, if not the reality.) Sinatra is guy who had it all, the real classy feel, the dangerous edge, the romantic. Movies like Ocean’s Eleven, and I’m talking about the original one with the real Rat Pack, not that crappy remake with all of Hollywood’s modern pretty boys trying to regain some of that lost class; or The First Deadly Sin, where Frankie is a disillusioned detective solving one last murder while he tries desperately to hold on to a marriage he’s beginning to lose because he’s worked too hard all his life. Here is a man, or at least a character, I can hold as my own lighthouse. Our society today is faced with severe lack of manly role models. Mr Mafioso, a writer for askmen.com, puts it this way “The cultural icons of past generations were icons for a reason. Frank had the voice of an angel, Astaire had the dance moves that made you dizzy and Marilyn had, well, she had everything. But the cultural icons today don’t have anything but a hefty bank account. The green might come from daddy or an unwarranted record deal, and that somehow qualifies them to be on the front of every newspaper and magazine. This instills two great ideal in the youth 1) Talent doesn’t mean much and 2)It’s all who you know and what you have. In my day, you ‘knew who you knew’ and ‘had what you had’ from working the way we did.” (Mafioso 1) Let’s go back for a minute. Remember Gabriel Syme, the poet from the beginning of this little foray into the manly ideal? “Who would condescend to strike down the mere things that he does not fear? Who would debase himself to be merely brave, like any common prizefighter? Who would stoop to be fearless—like a tree? Fight the thing that you fear.” (Chesterton 136) Bravery is often considered the summit of masculinity, so why does Chesterton berate it in this tirade? Is this arbor-ous fearlessness the root of the douche? A lot of the self help books and advice columns I’ve read have talked about being fierce and fearless, but what about the peaceful atmosphere that comes from gentleness? Isn’t that the root of being a gentleman? In one book, ironically titled ‘The Modern Gentleman’, There are entire chapters dedicated to how to pick up women in bars, when it is the proper time to put on a condom, what your underwear says about your sexual prowess, and many more, though rather unsavory, details. Amidst all the ‘practical’ advice though, there still blooms a few flowers of truth. Things like meditation, responsibility, and general anti-asshole advice. Apparently even the incorrigible jerks have some sense. “A man owes himself more than stolen moments of solace. Weekly whiles alone are essential. When inner trouble is burbling, alight to a solitary meal or mid-day introspection or clear a night’s social calendar and take yourself out. ‘me time’ is therapeutic and efficient. Wash the car, hit the gym, open the diary, and purloin ‘me time’ without turning into a scruffy troglodyte. Remember: not every Saturday evening must be a raucous group affair. Don’t fear a phone that doesn’t ring with invitations. Little bespeaks the meek like a man who can’t muster the self-love for an unaccompanied weekend movie or sandwich in the park.” (Mollod 124)
So far we’ve danced around a lot of different ideals and opinions, but the singular theme I want to see is how it all ties together. We’ve talked about the ferocity and the need to be dangerous; about social standards(or lack of standards altogether); we’ve even touched on the idea of meditation and role models in living the masculine ideal. At the heart of it all though, to live the masculine ideal must be synonymous with living a heroic life. It is one thing to live bravely, as Chesterton would put it, but another thing entirely to live heroically. To be a real hero removes the capacity for misplaced or misused strength. Violence, apathy, abuse, even rape, have marred the name of real manliness forever.
“Most of you will remember the tragic story from April 1999. Two boys walked into the school library and began shooting; when it was all over, thirteen victims and their two assailants were dead. Sommers is alarmed about about the remarks of William Pollack, director of the Center for Men an McLean Hospital, and so am I. Here is what he said: ‘The boys in Littleton are the tip of the iceberg. And the iceberg is all boys.’ The idea, widely held in our culture, is that the aggressive nature of boys is inherently bad, and we have to make them into something more like girls.”
Or perhaps we jump over to one of our more vulgar sources?
“A gentleman has a long fuse. Like a well-balanced pressure cooker, let off steam in small, frequent doses and avoid the histrionic supernova that leaves a high body count in its wake. When you start to feel the Bile Barometer rise, it’s time to self-monitor. After a bad day at the office, slug the heavy bag in the gym, not a fifth of Cutty Sark.”
With so many travesties committed by guys, whether it’s a college stabbing, the Newton elementary school shooting, or just a jerk picking a fight at a bar; the fact of misused strength remains as a throbbing sore on the heart of men. ‘If I become fierce, but lose my cool, who would I hurt?’ A long time ago, I asked myself that same question. And I didn’t like the answer I had for myself.
I was fifteen years old, and my little sister wouldn’t let me have the TV remote. I was pissed. I’d been training in muay thai kickboxing for nearly a year, and without thinking, wrapped my arms around her head and started throwing knees into her sides, just I like I had on so many training bags. I bruised two of her ribs. The resulting discipline involved being grounded, having a long sit down talk with my mother, father, and my instructor. Two full class periods at the Dojo of wall sits and push ups. I didn’t get to watch television for two months. Looking back, now that I’ve honed my sense of honor somewhat, I’m horrified at myself and what I did. I think it was right after that event that I promised myself I would never hurt anyone again; that I would protect everyone around me from such blind anger. Thinking about it now, that was also when I made an effort to stop being dangerous. Fear held me fast. Fear of hurting someone else. Fear losing control again. Martial Arts never held the same appeal for me after that day when I lost control of my emotions.
Plato has a beautiful metaphor of the masculine mindset. Imagine a chariot pulled by two horses. The chariot represents Reason(one of Plato’s Ideals, abstract, yet understandable), it is the conscious thought. On one side is a dark, unruly horse, representing man’s appetites and base desires.(wealth, pleasure, power) This horse can hardly be bridled. On the other side of the team, is a beautiful white stallion. This horse is nearly wild and constantly pulling and tugging the chariot onward. This white horse represents man’s Passion, or Thumos as Plato describes it. When Reason and Passion work together, pull Desire into step, the charioteer can reach the heaven’s and ultimately, enlightenment. Art Of Manliness, a blog dedicated to more old fashioned manly ideals wrote an excellent break down of how Thumos is missing in society today.
“Of the emotions, anger was the most important to check and channel, and restraining anger and restraining thumos were closely connected. One type of man with unbridled thumos is he who wants fight everyone about everything. The guy at the bar who starts a shoving match if he simply thinks you looked at him funny. He’s filled with anger, but it has no specific target – it’s just boiling inside him all the time, and the littlest thing can set it off. Thumos is much like fire – control it and it become an enormous power, handle it loosely and it can burn you and consume everything you touch.” (McKay 6)
I admit, I feel like this a lot of the time, but I’m working on it. The goal being, to become serene. McKay goes onto say; “Thumos, properly trained and harnessed, can be one of man’s greatest allies – inspiring and guiding him, stirring him up, and driving him on towards the peaks of greatness. It can perceive his possibilities and make them real. The Greeks believed that a man experience true happiness ‘in thumos.” (8)
Okay, I got angry, and really lost it; but as I learn more and more, it’s not the anger that’s bad, it’s how you release it. If I had been angry about a stupid remote control, and channeled that into a conversation of what to watch, or even just thrown up my hands and go for a run until I had cooled off, that would’ve been fine! Instead, I got violent, OVER A STUPID REMOTE CONTROL. I was bored, and wanted to watch MY show, not some crap that little girls watch. The more we delve into this heroic ideal, it seems like the warrior’s path becomes more and more likely the only means to achieve real manhood in a society so starved for heroism. But being a warrior doesn’t involve that guy with the out of control thumos. It means being at peace, powerful, and dangerously gentle. Chögyam Trungpa, author of Shambhala says “Warrior-ship here does not refer to making war on others. Aggression is the source of our problems, not the solution. Here the word ‘warrior’ is taken from the Tibetan pawo which literally means ‘one who is brave.’ Warrior-ship in this context is the tradition of human bravery, or the tradition of fearlessness… Ultimately, that is the definition of bravery: not being afraid of yourself. In the face of the world’s great problems, we can be heroic and kind at the same time.” (Trungpa 9,10 emphasis added)
I’m still mad. I can still be major asshole sometimes. I’m even known to just completely shut down and shut out everyone and everything around me. I’m still human. It doesn’t really matter who’s the Douche or the Doormat, living a honorable, chivalrous life is a matter of being willing to hold yourself accountable. To be fierce, and pick yourself back up out of the mud and filth around you and shout to the world ‘YOU COULD BE SO MUCH BETTER! LET ME TRY TO SHOW YOU HOW!’ even if(when) you’re met with silence. I don’t know if there is any single answer for living out the masculine ideal in today’s world. The point is to try.
“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly .. who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. – Teddy Roosevelt” (Eldredge 1)