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The Carletonian

What it means to me to be a good man: Starting Fresh

<udgingly got to admit: I think it’s impossible to define what it means to be a good man. When I began, I figured writing this essay would be easy—I was looking forward to letting the silt of my vague beliefs about masculinity settle neatly onto paper. I was expecting that I would find, as I thoughtlessly believed there to exist, human qualities that were distinctly masculine. See, that’s what occupies me when I think about this “good man” issue: what does it mean to be a good man as opposed to a good woman? I really want to believe that there is a difference. I want to believe in a respectable difference because I’ve never felt proud to be a man. I’ve felt proud of myself, sure, but never because I thought I was being a particularly good and masculine Man. Instead, I have felt pressed to live a somewhat androgynous life because I have lacked clear examples of positive masculinity.

As a white male growing up in a middle class family, I was born into a world of inherited guilt. One of the things I was pressured to feel guilty about was being a man. I was always aware of the long history of sexism that preceded me. Growing up like that, I developed a hearty bit of nervousness—about women, about masculinity, about myself. At the time, it seemed to me that any sensitive, thoughtful, self-aware man should divorce himself completely from any “masculine” qualities that had harmful connotations. Which was most of them. For example, I never dated, or even seriously thought about dating until I was heading off to college. I was so afraid of pressuring a woman to do anything that I wouldn’t dare ask a girl out, let alone try to kiss one. That would be downright misogynistic, to make the first move like that, to deny it to the girl, to presume, to be aggressive. Right? Instead I tried to keep myself undifferentiated from women, I was under the impression that the ideal man wouldn’t see himself as a man at all. And that’s what I tried to do, to the extent that my mother thought I was gay until I called home with news about my first girlfriend. I believe that, in a sense, that was a good way to grow up thinking. But I missed out on practicing to be a man, a very real, undeniable part of my identity. Now, at age 23, where do I start?

Like I said, I don’t think there is a universal definition of a good man—as helpful as it would be to nervous boys. Instead, I’m convinced that each nervous boy has to figure it out for himself. In our postmodern world, with its deconstruction theory and such, the notion that there is a universal definition of “man”, let alone “good man”, is hard to argue. The good news is that because we have moved so far away from understanding concepts in universal terms, we can almost start fresh. There’s nothing stopping a boy from deciding for himself what relative meaning he will give to the words “good” and “man.” That is all to say that the ideas that follow come from my somewhat unique experience thus far—they may apply to other men’s lives, they might not. They most certainly don’t have to. Furthermore, just because my life has led me to believe that a certain attribute is masculine doesn’t mean that it can’t be feminine. I think an attribute becomes masculine or feminine when it is embodied by a good woman or man, it is not innately gendered. It’s important to allow our men and women a broad vocabulary with which to define themselves. Let women be the providers, let them be independent, let them change their own oil. Let’s let men be graceful and nurturing. Let them be beautiful, if they so choose.

That being said, at the risk of sounding trite, here’s what my life has lead me to believe what a good man should be. A good man should guard something inside of himself that is calm and still and observant in all moments, even when the rest of him is moved. He should love deeply and forgive quickly, and be completely present to those he loves. Most importantly, he should live his life as though he were writing the most beautiful epic poem, just the kind he would like to read at the end of the day before falling asleep—a poem about a very good man.

-John Vigeland is an alum.

This essay is part of an ongoing series established by Chase Kimball. The series will continue next term, so if you would like to have your own reflections published, please take some time over winter break to respond to the question “What does it mean to you to be a good man?”in an essay of 400-800 words and e-mail it to [email protected].

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