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The Carletonian

What it means to me to be a good man: Virtue, redemption, embodiment

<gine a Venn diagram: men in one circle, good people in the other, all the good men in the overlap. What is it these guys have in common? Are they good people who just happen to be dudes? If so, gender is incidental, and should be left aside. So is there something else, some other qualities that emerge when masculinity and ethics interact? I think so. Virtue is a matter of practice and the practice you get depends on the body you’re in.

The venues of sex and power furnish moral quandaries for men. If you’re a man you’re likely to disregard the feelings of others for your own sexual gratification. If you’re a man you’re likely to be looked to for your leadership and opinion when they are unearned or unmerited by comparison. There are potent undercurrents here—biology and patriarchy—that men have to work to reign in and dismantle. Cultivating masculine virtue is, in some sense, a matter of constant redemption.

If this sounds too much like “original sin,” you might look at it this way: checking your libido and ego is a matter of living with integrity. Does the intimacy of your body resonate with the intimacy of your emotions? Do your engagements in public life match your avowed commitments to equality and democracy? Integrity is about making your values and actions consistent, integrating new experiences into a life guided by principle.

Of course there’s the horrible, exciting fact that most new experiences are entirely unlike any of your past. Which is why it doesn’t make much sense to speak of being a good man, at least not when that’s what you’re aiming for. For one thing, the right thing to do is always context dependent. I hope my fatherhood is guided by dedication, passion, humor, awe, but the devil is, quite literally, in the details. More importantly, if you think you’re good, you may soon think you’re good enough. Is there such a thing? No: better to focus on ethical epiphanies and noble growth, the feelings of becoming good.

This, too, may ring a bit unsatisfying—goodness so easily lost and never quite reached—but then remember, it’s joyous to live well in human form. How immense and rich is your life-project! You help build a fair society, you love passionately and find it comes easier with practice, you revel in your friendships, your creativity, your fabulous complexity, you cherish your learning and those failures you cannot conquer you accept. And because your body is always with you it is so much more than a liability. For it seems a genuine mark of a good man to be whole in mind and body: in tune with his physical rhythms, constrained and comforted by them and always mindful they are finite.

-Terin Mayer is an alum, Class of 2008

This essay is part of an ongoing series established by Chase Kimball. If you would like to have your own reflections published, please 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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