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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

What it means to me to be a good man: Goodness as striving

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When I was growing up, my father lived near a small lake. One winter, we pushed a plastic sled into the snow and made a track through the yard leading down to the lake. When it got dark, my father sprayed the track with a hose, slicking it with ice. I watched him with awe: this was going to be dangerous. We placed the sled carefully at the top—the ice crunching as the sled settled in the track—and I climbed into his lap. “You ready?” he asked. “I don’t kn—” and he dug his gloves into the snow and pushed us off. I held my breath. We slid slow at first and then faster—frighteningly fast, the wind picking up and trees zipping by until wham, the track ended, and we were thrown from the sled. We laughed and laughed, lying there in a snowy pile.

This is one of my richest memories from childhood, and I owe it to a father who has long struggled to be good. When we think of good men—or, especially, of great men—we often think of contribution. Good men, by this standard, are those who have impacted their communities, fought hard for just causes, or overcame the odds to succeed.

This is a poor standard. Most of us believe that we have at least a basic understanding of the world’s workings and our ability to change them. I would argue otherwise. While we can make sense of the world on paper, we shy from the reality, which is that the world is so hugely complicated, so immense and deeply interwoven, that its true workings may evade our understanding altogether.
 Here’s where this is going: good men are defined not by what they contribute—for it may be impossible to know—but by how they conduct themselves. Is a man a loyal friend? A loving spouse? A patient father? Is he kind and courageous, fair and generous? These are the marks of a good man. For most of us, this goodness in aggregate will far outweigh the contributions we make in our careers. We do not know the power of our words and our actions; big and small alike, they ripple in others for years.

My father is a good example of this. He suffers from depression, and on some days it’s difficult for him to get out of bed, to brush his teeth, or to pour a bowl of cereal. But he works through it—he struggles to be good. He lives now with his aging parents, caring for them because they can’t afford in-home help. My grandmother spends most of her time watching the backyard from her kitchen window. My father, seeing this, designed her a hummingbird feeder. He hung it ever-so-carefully so it would draw the birds to hover near the glass. Sometimes when I visit, I’ll spot her from another room. And she’ll be sitting there as she always has, but now smiling, watching the birds sweep and swoop, dipping their long noses into water thick with sugar.

My father’s life has not been filled with accolades or soaring accomplishments, but I find inspiration in his struggle towards goodness. He has contributed to the lives of others. In small ways, mostly, but in ways that ripple. When I remember that icy sled track, the darkness and the cold, and how I felt safe in his arms, I am urged toward goodness. I am reminded that when all is said and done, good men are not defined by the fruits of their dreams and ambitions. They are defined by behavior, and by their striving towards goodness.

-Will Cole 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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