Life is full of twists and turns, peaks and valleys, and very real moments when our understanding for how we move through this world gets pulled out from under our feet.
While this is undoubtedly true for all of us, regardless of gender, I can only speak to my experience as a man, so I’m going to explore this space with such constraints, using the film, ‘A Few Good Men,’ as a vehicle to hold this conversation.
Nothing of Value Comes Without a Cost
There’s plenty of room to critique the writing—perhaps it gives away too much at times and runs with stereotypes—but the film has held up well over time with Jack Nicholson’s unforgettable performance as the antagonist; a grizzled, misogynistic, rule eschewing and non-empathetic Colonel Jessup.
And while I appreciate Nicholson’s performance, it was the the journey of Lance Cpl. Harold W. Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) that held my attention throughout the film.
After establishing Harold as Marine to his core, he must abruptly come to terms with the thinly veiled contradictions found within the code that has provided him with a complete moral framework in which to operate. His struggle to understand where he begins and ends is a genuinely interesting wrestling match throughout much of the film… and what makes his end scene so compelling.
As I navigate through my middle years, with all sorts of experience in tow—including my own past inflection points of limited self-awareness and necessary course corrections—Harold’s struggle as a man on his life journey resonates.
Harold is strong in character, but the notion that a limited set of codified hierarchical priorities such as, “Unit, Corps, God, Country” can serve him throughout life is problematic at best.
Man takes advantage of men who live by such obtuse slogans, and we all have such blindspots.
When Harold is court martialed for following orders that most people in society would consider criminal, the forced pause to his life journey reminded me of the prodigal son returning home.
Harold was frivolous in how he showed up in the world.
All men experience aspects of the parable—when young we chase folly; we settle on unstable foundations of perceived wisdom and untested values; we believe righteous behavior emanates from our pours and invariably find ourselves staring back at ourselves in the mirror realizing otherwise.
And when we have stumbled or failed brilliantly, as men often do, we return to a metaphorical home, as Harold has done—arrested for behavior he deemed to be righteous.
‘Home’ is sacred for men; it’s where we can carve off the dead wood of our character and move towards a refined masculine path of integrity, discernment, kindness and conscientiousness, integrating lessons for coping with and transcending the recent suffering of our lives.
Or we don’t, and our choices can manifest with terrible results.
Men kill themselves at a 3.6x rate of women; white men commit 70% of all suicides; and men over 50 are killing themselves at a 49% increase from 1999 to today.
On the other extreme of violence, men commit 98% of mass shootings; 68% of mass shootings are perpetrated by white men; and it has been estimated that 31% of public mass shootings occur in the US, even though we have only 5% of the world’s population.
The quantitative data can’t tell us why this is true about men, and white men in particular, but we’d be remiss to chalk it up purely to biological markers and race, as these human outcomes are carving tragic paths that our society can’t afford to further pave.
When we’re failing as men, we need support to position ourselves in an environment to fully see, work on, and forgive ourselves.
I say forgive because we, as men, inherently believe not knowing everything is a failure.
The expectation for men to perfectly provide, lead, love, and adapt to our environment in a 99th percentile fashion feels like an unspoken standard for men to bear.
Home is space; space for support gives men the ability to take a focused inventory of who we are without the paradoxes found within the noise of commitment and responsibility in complex terrain, and begin to course correct by tapping into our resiliency.
We encourage ourselves to take greater responsibility for our actions, so that we might emerge from our temporary shelter and venture back with purpose into the elements that life conjures for us all to face.
As a Marine, Harold allowed himself to become manipulated into a bully, blind to the ramifications of his actions—an indication of how the complexities of life, and the malevolence of our fellow man can manifest in the blindspots we all own.
Yet this is exactly when Harold transforms before our very eyes.
With his freshly received scar of a dishonorable discharge—Harold’s nightmare scenario that tears apart his identity of virtue manifested—he steps forward into ownership of his actions, claiming his responsibility as a man to transcend blame and excuses, focusing on his very being to become someone greater than he was while an active Marine.
Life isn’t static, careers shift, and what it means to be a man isn’t definitive nor a guaranteed manifestation.
We all take modeling—from our fathers, our uncles, our peers—to carve a path toward mature masculinity. These relationships form our truth about virtue and a life well-lived.
But not all boys grow up in an environment with male role models that represent such a clear path.
When faced with turmoil and tragedy, either from life outside our direct control or stemming from our actions, men tend to either take an inventory of actions—to transcend circumstance and reclaim our place in our journey—or puff out our chests, doubling down on patterns with minimal introspection because that’s what we see other men doing.
Bradley Cooper—a man that both men and women alike find to be beyond reproach as a talent and a human being—admits that his lack of self-worth, well into his 40s, kept him from being able to hold deep, reciprocal relationships.
Male toxicity isn’t a constant state of being; men who lack self-awareness and a footing for transcendence within the waves of patterns set by their role models, peers, and surroundings is the constant.
Harold exemplifies the best of us by being the man who takes inventory of his actions, changes course, and squarely plants his foot with integrity so that such waves bend to his gravitational pull.
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“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned ”