To Be a Man

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 notion 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 topic within such constraints, using the film, ‘A Few Good Men,’ as a vehicle to hold this conversation.

Framing

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.

While I appreciate Nicholson’s performance, it was the the journey of Lance Cpl. Harold W. Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) that held my attention.

After a long narrative establishing Harold as Marine to his core, he abruptly comes to terms with the thinly veiled contradictions found within the code that once gave him a complete moral framework to operate within. His struggle to understand where his code ended and he began 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 inflection points of limited self-awareness and necessary course corrections—Harold’s struggle as a man on his journey resonates.

Harold is strong, both in character and purpose, but the notion that a limited set of codified hierarchical priorities such as, “Unit, Corps, God, Country” can serve him for life is problematic at best.

Man takes advantage of men who live by such obtuse slogans.

Coming Home

When Harold is court martialed for following orders that most people in society would consider criminal, the forced pause to his life journey reminds me of the prodigal son returning home.

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 then find ourselves staring back at ourselves in the mirror knowing 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.

When home, we can carve off the dead wood of our character and move towards a masculine path of integrity, discernment, kindness and conscientiousness, integrating new lessons for coping with and transcending the suffering of our individual 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 all of this is true about men, and white men in particular, but we’d be fools to chalk it all up to biology 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 us in an environment to fully see, work on and forgive ourselves—forgiveness because we inherently believe not knowing *everything* is failure. The expectation for men to perfectly provide, lead, love, and adapt to our environment in a 99th percentile fashion is the unspoken standard society sets for men to bear.

Space for support gives us the ability to take inventory of who we truly are without the noise, and course correct by tapping into our resiliency—encouraging ourselves to take greater responsibility for our actions, so that we might emerge from our temporary shelter to venture back into the elements that life conjures for us all to face.

Transcendence

As a Marine, Harold allowed himself to become manipulated into a bully, blind to the ramifications of his actions—a metaphorical indication of how the complexities of life, and the malevolence of our fellow man manifest in the blindspots we all own.

Yet this is exactly where Harold transforms before our very eyes.

With his freshly received scar of a dishonorable discharge—Harold’s nightmare scenario, tearing apart his notion 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—the context that forms 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 man—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 will bend to his gravitational pull.

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