men, masculinities and gender politics

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The measure of a man

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A friend of mine read an immensely popular book that claims to disclose secrets about men every woman should know. As I listened to my friend divulge the book's "secrets," I could not help feeling that there isn't anything secret about its "secrets" and that it is little more than commonplace drivel about appeasing emotionally disturbed, controlling, and abusive males who just are not recognized as such.

I later perused the book and reached the same conclusion as a reviewer who stated succinctly, "If that does describe your relationships, much better advice to you is: Stop hanging out with losers!" Excellent advice, I thought, because a real man is not a little boy trapped in a grown man's body looking for a mother-figure. Neither is his highest aspiration is to be a "benevolent dictator" or King Kong of his so-called castle. He does not need his ego stroked by subservient women nor his alleged manhood validated by engaging in violence.

Indeed, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

Alas, our society is one in which a man is far more frequently measured by his looks, job, status symbols, gift-giving, sex appeal, or tough-guy exterior. As noted in that venerated anthology called the Bible, people are all too inclined to look on the outward appearance when trying to decide what manner of man someone is. Consequently, it is nearly always the case that little more is expected of a man than that he has "good" looks, a "good" wardrobe, a "good" job, some or all of the most fashionable material "goods," and that he is a "good" provider, a "good" sex partner, a "good" fighter, or just able to show a woman a "good" time. It is long after a man has been judged on the basis of such 'cryteria' that serious consideration (usually too little too late) is given to whether his inner man is as good as his public image.

Few people are wise and patient enough to measure a man by "where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." Most people are content to see that a man is "cool" merely when he is self-indulged and self-satisfied. Even women seeking male partners do little or nothing to learn how a man might hold up under the weltering heat of adversity. Despite the problems and perils of having a fair-weather friend or fair-weather "lover," most of a man's so-called friends and lovers will have forged relationships with him without tarrying to observe his character while he is enduring trials and tribulations.

Regardless, the most important things about a man are revealed by how he conducts himself when he is displeased, distraught, or distressed. It is easy for a man to get along with others and project strength of character when he thinks the going is good. It is easy for him to have a great attitude when he thinks life, kith, and kin are treating him well. It is easy for him to be Mr. Right when he does not perceive that there is anything wrong (with him!). And it is easy to allow ourselves to think that favorable circumstances is the best light under which to see a man for who he is. But a man who is always at his worst during the worst of times doth not a good man make. A man at his best gives the best of himself even during the most trying times of his life - even when he is suffering and struggling with the issues of life. A good man, that is, brings forth good things from the good treasure of his heart regardless of the situation.

Such is not common sense. Most people believe that hard times are excuses for exhibiting character flaws and weaknesses rather than opportunities to (show that one has) overcome them. Besides, the logic continues, no one is perfect, so it is only realistic and far more likely that a man will "not be himself" under the stress and strain of difficult and demanding situations. So a man's acting "out of character" is constantly overlooked and forgiven inspite of the other lives he wounds and wrecks. He is a "good man," they say, even though he can be counted on to make poor decisions when he is under pressure or just downright peeved.

Abusive men and their victims tend to think that way. And in the most severe cases, both the abuser and his victim completely disassociate the man who commits domestic violence from the same man who at times does not. In pleading his case, the abuser might say something like "that wasn't me," and his victim, for a time at least, might agree. The problem in such cases is not just cognitive dissonance, but a misunderstanding of the positive roles conflict and crisis can play in the maturation and manifestation of a man's character. Not only do we need to understand that hardships and personal issues are no excuse for putting others or ourselves through hell. We also need to understand that it is more desirable and constructive for us to learn ways of transforming the same into growing pains and experiences through which we empower ourselves to exhibit integrity, sagacity, inner strength, and noble intentions.

For most men in our society this is a revolutionary approach to conflict resolution and character recognition, especially since it demands of each of us a thorough and ongoing reassessment of our sense of self. We grew up thinking that a "real" man does not take any stuff and gets his way by almost any means necessary. We also grew up thinking that the more imposing, intimidating, impervious, and independent we are, the more people, especially women and children, would think of us as "the man." However, a man who can only resort to aggression is not any more resourceful and redoubtable than an insecure ignoramus who attempts to use vituperation to cloak his vacuity and limited vocabulary. That a man must coerce others into letting him have his way does not mean he is strong. It means that he is too weak and insecure to meet them on the level playing field of equality and mutual respect.

Dr. King's words of wisdom behoove us to remake and renew ourselves as men who are magnanimous even when our lives and relationships are not magnificent - as men who are charitable, courteous, and chivalrous not just when it is convenient, but even when it takes all the positive energy we can muster. He is attempting to open our eyes to the realization that true men of stature are strong enough in mind and spirit and secure enough in ourselves to be compassionate and considerate of others even in the midst of confusion, crises, and the crucible of unrequited love; to admit and amend our own faults as well as forgive others; to repay evil with good; to be insulted but insult not; to be angry and yet sin not; to dialog rather than dictate; to be deep enough to delight in diversity and enlightened enough to live and let live.

Adopting such an approach to dealing with adversity, a man distinguishes himself from the great mass and majority of misguided males who believe kindness is a weakness. He joins the company of courageous men from around the world who are no longer fearful of being friendly and fair through thick and thin. He becomes one with the true men of distinction who recognize and respect the dignity of others, especially women and children. He becomes a man worthy of honor because he consistently honors the worth of others. He becomes outstanding because he never leaves a man, woman, boy, or girl standing out in the cold of injustice and insensitivity. He becomes one of a few good men who have learned to seek the good of others as well as themselves. He becomes a light in dark places because he is now part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

richard jones (www.iamrj.com) is a writer living in Detroit, MI.
Copyright (c) 2003 richard jones. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission from richard jones.