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.

I’d like use the film, ‘A Few Good Men,’ as a vehicle to hold this conversation.

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 as a young man. His struggle to understand where the codification 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 course correction—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, Core, God, Country” can serve him for life is problematic at best.

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

Harold’s pause on his life journey reminds me of the prodigal son returning home. All men experience aspects of the parable to degrees—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 do, we return to a metaphorical home, as Harold has done—being arrested doing what he deemed to be living his life as it should be lived.

When home, we carve off the dead wood and move towards a masculine path of integrity, discernment, kindness and conscientiousness, integrating new lessons for coping with and transcending the suffering of life.

Or we don’t, and our choices can manifest with terrible results over time.

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 racial makeup, as these two human outcomes are the tragic paths that our society can’t afford to further pave.

When we’re failing as men, we need actual support to position us in an environment so that we can see, work on and forgive ourselves. I include forgiveness because we feel not knowing everything is failure—for not perfectly providing, leading, loving, living or adapting to our environment in a 99th percentile fashion that culture sets forth as a standard for men to bear.

Such 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.

Harold isn’t perfect by any means.

As a Marine, he allowed himself to become a manipulated bully without recognizing the ramifications of his own actions—a metaphorical indication of how the complexities of life, and the malevolence of our fellow man manifest in the blindspots we all own.

This is where Harold transforms before our very eyes.

Even with the freshly received scar of a dishonorable discharge—his nightmare scenario which immediately tore 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 and what it means to be a man isn’t definitive.

We all take modeling from our fathers, our uncles, our peers, to carve a path towards and through maturity within the context of what we know to be true.

But not all boys grow up in environments with male role models that point towards a clear path to stand-up manhood.

Those who end up on the alternative, bumpy, often treacherous path, might even believe that it’s paved with triggers of virtuous behavior when they end up exhibiting the exact opposite. When faced with turmoil and tragedy, either from life outside of their control or directly stemming from their actions, men will either take an inventory of actions, transcend circumstance, and reclaim their place in the world… or get caught up in the cycle of sticking chests out and doubling down on ill pattens with minimal introspection because that’s what men 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.

This isn’t toxicity; it’s the inability to be able to identify the unknown unknowns for how to thrive in life. Being a stand up man takes trial and error.

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