(This was a hard question to answer. I pray my reflections lead you to your own.)
In response to The New York Times article “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing.”
213. “What Does it Mean to Be ‘a Real Man?'”
My dear friend Brittany Reeber, film producer and writer extraordinaire, dropped by for a visit the other day. We hadn’t seen each other in months, in which time she had been attending screenings and awards ceremonies for her projects. She’s always been an advocate of female identity, sensitive to its issues, and one of a handful of voices in my life that have helped me to remain sensitive to the topic as well.
After our initial chitchat, some catch up, and right before I retired for the evening, she said something that’s been on my mind ever since: “You look so old,” she said. I hopped off the kitchen counter I had been sitting on, and adjusted my glasses. “I don’t mean old like old,” she said. “I mean, you look like a man.”
Everyone has their own definition of “Real Man”; that’s probably why NYT wrapped it in quotes. However there are overlaps. A large part of being a real man, you will agree, is having concrete examples with which to form a definition that you then apply to practice. You will also agree that a real man is not born, but made. Of chance, a boy is born a baby; of will, he is made a man. To illustrate the point in another way: you can only straighten a line using a straight edge; thus I mean you become a real man when shaped by real men. For me, I’ve had the opportunity to grow up with a father and uncles whom I consider real men, people who stuck to their word, built homes, planted trees, raised families, and contributed beyond themselves. Without thinking to hard, these men informed my gut-definition of a real man, and shaped me into the man I am today. Nevertheless, this pattern alone is too narrow, for one could have as easily become a man following the footsteps of a role model outside the family. So there must be something beyond close family ties that make one a real man. Additionally, there must be an inward component, given that the one best armed to define a real man, is the man who is truly himself a man. What follows below, then, is not only the result of my childhood experiences, and the interactions with men outside of my family, but the ever-evolving effort to be a real man myself.
I often go back to what Martin Luther King Jr said about the three dimensions of a complete life when reflecting upon the life worth living. In his sermon King paints a vivid image of a complete life. What’s neat about this speech in particular is that it doesn’t exclude women: simply, he preaches about what any complete life ought to be, accessible and equal to all.
The first dimension he calls the length of life; not the duration of a life in years, but the sort of inward length a person gains by self-actualizing. How in tune are you with your hopes and dreams? If you manage to learn what you want out of in life, then you are that much longer. If you learn what you want out of life and take steps toward your goals, then you are even longer. If you take steps toward your goals and achieve them, then you are that much more the longer. Learning a new language, starting a business, writing, acting in accord with your beliefs, all earn you length.
But of course, a life completely engaged to oneself is completely one dimensional. So King introduces the width of life, which is one’s commitment to his fellow neighbor. The more committed you are to the people you love, the people around you, and humanity at large, the wider your life becomes. Examining the metaphor, we see that developing width naturally follows having length. A world where everyone realizes their dreams is a world where everyone helps one another. If your dream is to design jeans, and you dedicate the length of your life to mastering your craft, then the next logical step would be to design high-quality or affordable jeans for other people. That drive to share your art becomes your width, your contribution to society. It follows, also, that while you’re committed to your own artistic development, and the sharing of your craft with others, the people who benefit from your length and width can match their own length with their own width. They would wear your jeans as they were building your home, or were growing the vegetables you later bought in a market. I imagine the early tribes developed into towns this way, charting a two-dimensional map of its self-realized citizens who shared with one another.
But a city isn’t complete, and neither is a person’s life satisfied, with only a two-dimensional plane. Enter the third dimension, which King measures proportional to one’s devotion to God. King says that it isn’t enough for an individual to commit to humanity, just as it isn’t enough for an individual to be solely invested in oneself. The individual must devote himself to a higher power. This is what elevates him off the flat surface of the earth and into the heavens where, though not in the kingdom yet, can still pray to live a complete and three-dimensional life here among the living. It would seem that King’s religious inclination, to not call it a bias, is showing; bear in mind though that King was giving a sermon at a Baptist church in Chicago. For “people of the book,” as the Muslims refer to monotheists, believers might easily translate King’s devotion for Christ into their faith, or higher power, and still remain true to the “three-dimensions” metaphor of a complete life. For everyone else, myself included, this metaphor still works; as my tutee, during a discussion of this sermon, once said: “The third dimension of a complete life is having faith in what is mysterious.” Devotion to a Christian God-figure might not be your jam, but certainly you will agree that there are forces beyond our current comprehension–call them mysterious, call it wonderment. We all accept that there are things yet defined, and some of us even pray to them. For the religious fanatic, the leap of faith comes with the desire to be one with God; for the scientist, the possibility of knowing the unknown comes in the hypothesis step of the scientific method. The fact that one is ultimately inflexible, and the other ultimately disposable, doesn’t mean they don’t share the same beginning. Both are yearnings to reach truth beyond oneself. For me, I like what my student said about the mysterious: it provides us not only with dreams and humanity, but adds to the breadth of our lives.
To answer the question, then, simply and honestly: A real man is a complete man.
And when Brittany said what she said the other day, my only simple and honest reply was, “Thank you.”
Afterthought: To reinforce this notion, and gander at what makes a woman real, a note should be made about virtue’s role in a person’s completeness. Virtue means “moral strength, high character, goodness,” and shares the same proto-Indoeuropean root wi-ro [meaning “man”] with the words “virile,” “world,” even “werewolf.” King’s three-fold schema fits nicely with what Seneca wrote about virtue: doing honor by oneself, acting as a paragon, and respecting the gods. I mention this because, in my opinion, what makes a man real is the same thing that makes a woman real too: virtue. Alas, let’s hear from a woman what it means to be “a Real Woman.”