What It Means to Be a Man

My ruminations on being a writer led me to go back to the question cited at the beginning of that blog post: what does it mean to be a man?

First of all, what does “man” mean? There are two principal definitions: to be a member of the human race and to be male.

If being a man means being human, the most important meaning to me at this time in my life is that we humans are mortal. We all die. We are allotted a brief lifetime to do our work, mate, and propagate. According to Freud, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” It is up to us to make the most of both.

Understanding “man” to mean male brings up an entirely different set of defining components. First of all, as a man, I am identified by my male body. By nature, I am bigger, stronger, rougher, louder, and more awkward than my female counterparts. Faced with a problem, I am naturally inclined to use force rather than reason to solve it. I can never get enough sex. I value strength over delicacy. And I am constantly attracted to the female.

A man’s way of looking at masculinity is partly inborn, partly socialized. I honestly can’t distinguish within myself which is which. Both shape my behavior, but one, the socialized side, is open to change.

Women in my life have sensitized me to the need for gentleness and humility—both virtues that feel unnatural to me as a man. I’m beginning to see that a complete man, one who exploits the full range of his competencies, realizes and fulfills all his potentials, not just those that become dominant at puberty. I’m coming to understand that the greatest of masculine virtues are those that flower late in life. I have come to treasure quietude, peacefulness, tenderness, and the need to put the good of others ahead of my own.

Even in maturity, there are times when the rougher male tendencies—strength, forcefulness, dominance—are appropriate. In defending the weak, helping the poor, fighting for the underprivileged, raw force can be required. But more often, a quieter power is needed. When the weak need comforting, the dependent need assistance, or the powerless need a hand, a real man knows how to use his strength to lift up rather than to put down.

That’s the ultimate test of what it means to be a man.

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