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JUNE 27, 2011 BY TOM MATLACK 11 COMMENTS
The fact that goodness is elusory makes it all the more important to talk about.
There have been many times I wished we had left the “good” out of our title. “The Man Project” would have worked just fine. Or even “Dudes,” or “Why,” to play off our genetic code. But from the start “good” has been our cross to bear. With so many men in the public eye called out for bad behavior, men and women both seem to have a thirst for a different paradigm of manhood–something fresh and real and, yes, good. Thus, our Project was born.
The problem, of course, is that talking about goodness is like asking an Eskimo to describe snow– it’s nearly impossible to pin down. Goodness is harder to define than badness, which may be one reason why as a culture we have been spending so much time talking about men being bad rather than good. Things get even muddier when you start talking about “good” husbands and “good” fathers. The slope towards righteousness is slippery indeed. I am writing about goodness, so, therefore, I am better than you.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I have no claim to the high moral ground. Still, the expectation of many readers is that if you are going to found a Project around goodness, you better at least have a working definition to follow. That’s the fundamental rub: how to talk about goodness without coming off like God and without judging others. Especially when my own life has been filled with mistakes along the way. Goodness is an aspiration. It’s something you can see in others and follow. But it comes in as many different shapes and sizes as there are people. You can’t name it once and for all. That doesn’t make it any less important. The very elusiveness of goodness, I would argue, makes it all the more important to think about and sort out on your own terms. I have often said that my own definition of being a good man is loving my wife passionately, showing up for my kids and doing something to help somebody else. But that still leaves out a lot. To me, another part of being good is the discovery of seemingly completely random gifts. For example, I can get pretty much any kid under the age of 2 to fall asleep in my arms. I dove into a lake at summer camp when I was 10 and beat a field of well-trained swimmers by more than a body length over 100 yards. In business school our statistics professor
would fill board after board with mathematical equations. Everyone else looked confused. For a reason I can’t explain the symbols made perfect sense to me. None of these are things I had to learn. In fact, I had to unlearn what I had been taught in order to allow the innate gift I was born with to flourish. In grade school I was told that I was slow at math. I felt loving babies was unmanly. Swimming wasn’t as macho a sport as football. In a way, goodness required shutting down the thinking, self-critical, part of my brain to break through the limitations imposed from the outside. “Goodness” in the sense of being really good at something required a discovery process that had nothing to do with moral judgment and everything to do with the thing itself. It had to do with a letting go of some preconceived notion of who I could be and allowing a truer version of myself, a fundamentally better one, to emerge. Along with goodness as a gift has come a sense of “good” as exuberance. I am reminded of a whole company founded around the phrase, “Life is good.” Good in this context involves the actual feeling of a baby nuzzling into my neck, or the sensation of propelling my 6’3″ frame with huge hands and feet through the water likes submarine. It the everyday experience of eating something delicious.
“Damn, that is GOOD!” we all say. It’s this last sense of the word good that I’d encourage you to consider as it relates to whatever being a good man means to you. It has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with living life to its fullest, enjoying the hell out of whatever brings you meaning as a man.
Photos: Kaitlyn Rose and Downatthezoo
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About Tom Matlack
Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 17-year-old daughter and 15- and 6-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Comments
June 27, 2011 at 9:14 am 0 0
Tom, Interesting you bring up being a “good father.” Women obsess about being a “good mother,” especially since that seems to have amped up in recent years as Ayelet Waldman notes in her book, “Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace.” She also notes that there’s no
definition of being a “good father” — basically, as you mention, they “show up.” But saying that showing up is being good isn’t fair to fathers who do a lot more than just that. I think when you become a parent, you take on the obligation to be present in their lives — it’s a given! The expectations women place on themselves as well as society for being a good mother is a lot more than just showing up. I’m curious why that is. And, I’m also curious why you don’t consider morality as an essential part of the being a good man conversation. Bernard Madoff may have been a good father to his sons when they were growing up, but he was by no stretch of the imagination a good man. In the end, one of his sons took his own life in response to the sins of his father. Isn’t morality at the heart of being good? Reply
Tom Matlack says:
June 27, 2011 at 5:11 pm Hmmm, Vicki I actually think showing up is the essential part of being a parent, mother or father. Not sure where you are going with the “a lot more than that” either for fathers or mothers. I run into a lot of parents who have expectations for their kids that are completely selfcentered and unreasonable. For me anyhow, I really try to allow my kids to be who they are and be a very active presence in their lives without forcing them to become someone they are not. That is what I mean by “showing up.” It is actually intended as an very all-inclusive phrase. So not sure why you need to somehow put me down as a father for saying it that way. You also misunderstand my point about morality. I am not saying that morality isn’t critically important. In fact we have plenty of rules about what constitutes bad behavior, like that of Madoff. But when it comes to virtue I actually think morality is essential AND its a much
more personal matter. That is my point. I can’t dictate my goodness on someone else (thereby saying that somehow my way is better than yours). Is Michael Kamber a good man for taking amazing pictures of war? Yes he is. Is Julio Medina a good man for working with inmates leaving prison? Yes he is. Is Jeffrey Wallace a good man for devoting his life to his autistic son? Yes he is. They have each found their own definition of goodness is all I am saying. I admire them all and and am inspired by each of them for different reasons. ah, Ayelet. Well we were in the same class at Wesleyan. We actually spoke back to back at our 25th reunion a few weeks ago. But she seems to dislike me because at one point I gave her friend Elizabeth Gilbert’s second book a bad review on HP and I had the gall to question the myth of personality surrounding Eat, Pray, Love though I certainly didn’t fault Gilbert for that. She felt somehow I was being unfair to perhaps the most successful memoirist in the last decade. So quoting her probably isn’t going to convince me of much here. Reply
June 27, 2011 at 10:51 pm 0 0
Tom — I think you have misunderstood what I wrote so please allow me to clarify. And I am certainly not putting you down; that is not how I treat people. Still, I apologize if that’s how it’s coming across. I was questioning the idea of showing up; because there is no mother I know who would say that’s what she does. We moms obsess about what being a “good mom” is, which is exactly what Ayelet addresses in her book. As she writes: “If you work, you’re neglectful; if you stay home, you’re smothering. If you discipline,
you’re buying them a spot on the shrink’s couch; if you let them run wild, they will be into drugs by seventh grade. If you buy organic, you’re spending their college fund; if you don’t, you’re risking all sorts of allergies and illnesses.” She says all we expect of dads is to show up — that’s being a “good dad” (although I believe a good dad is one who loves the mother, but that’s just me …) I was wondering if dads feel the same way, and what, exactly, “showing up” means. It seems too vague to mean much of anything. That said, you and I are on the same page about parental expectations, given what you wrote. I agree that we can’t dictate our idea of goodness on someone else, but as humans we can all agree on certain “good” and “bad” things — murder is bad, being kind to others is good, etc. — with many shades of gray. As for “Eat Pray Love,” I, too hated it — it’s all about the worst of women. But after seeing Elizabeth Gilbert in person and interviewing her, I think she is a warm, giving person, one who understands the responsibility of wealth (and I loved her prior book, “The Last American Man”). Thanks for listening. Reply
Tom Matlack says:
June 27, 2011 at 11:13 pm Vicki that helps but I do think you are still missing a fundamental point by separating fathers from mothers and credence to Ayelet’s theory that mothers suffer a particular obligation to be good. In fact our whole project is built around the idea that just like women, men are in the position of having conflicting expectations and desires with regard to family and work. Where women worked so hard to leave
the home as part of the feminist movement men are now trying to find their way back home. We are both conflicted. Both genders want to be good spouses and good parents and have a career. So this idea that somehow women suffer more than men on this score is just flat wrong and sexist at this point. Yes I used a male phrase to describe what I meant by being a good dad (“showing up”) but you misunderstood that and spun it into a broader statement about how moms and dads are different when in fact I think in the challenge of balancing a life, which is near impossible in this day and age, we are exactly the same. As for Ayelet I find her POV very hard to take. I really do honestly like Elizabeth Gilbert and think she more than anyone never expected the fame of her little book that the world seemed to think was the answer to all their problems. Reply
June 28, 2011 at 9:32 am 0 0
Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Tom. I am not saying (nor do I believe) women “suffer more”; I am asking whether men hold themselves up to the same (I think ridiculous) standards many women do, which often makes us feel like failures. It’s a question — not a “look how bad we gals have it, you guys don’t suffer like we do….” yada, yada, yada. But, you are right — I don’t understand what “showing up” means, and, yes, moms don’t talk like that; we’d give you the lengthy laundry list of what we “do” for our kids! (which is the same as “showing up,” but in all the gory details; it doesn’t mean it’s better or worse than
what men do.) To me, “showing up” is one of those cliche phrases we all throw around that are generally meaningless, like asking someone “How are you?” and only expecting “I’m good” (because God forbid someone’s honest and say, “Well, I’ve been having some problems lately …,” plus “good” isn’t a feeling, anyway), or promising to “reach out” to someone. It’s not a personal slam on you, Tom (or on men in general) — we all talk like that. I was just wondering how you, as a dad, define it. But, hey — I can let it go! Reply
Pat Gillen says:
June 27, 2011 at 11:50 am 0 0
Great piece, why stop at ‘Good’? The Man Project would have worked too. Good is ‘muddier’ to define, but that’s the opportunity for further exploration. The awareness you have of sounding ‘righteous’ is refreshing, but you spend plenty of time detailing our imperfections and failings. Too much so in my opinion. At times, I wondered if it were more aptly named The Bad Men Who Ended Up Doing Good Project. Reply
Henry Vandenburgh says:
June 28, 2011 at 10:54 am
My first wife and I did well with out daughter because, I think, neither of us were particularly anxious about the details. I was a grad student who worked in psych nursing evenings for her first five years or so, so I was the day parent. We (my wife and I) were basically Dr. Spock parents who never read Dr. Spock. So we were very relaxed about developmental markers, etc. Our daughter turned out fine, got an MFA from Columbia, and is a flimmaker in London. I think “Eat, Pray, Love” is absolutely one of the best things I’ve ever read. I am flummoxed that anyone could find anything to dislike about it. With Marcuse, I’d think that much “morality” is surplus morality– someone wants you to do things that benefit them (or systems of oppression) while telling you it’s good for you. Reply
Ryan Brady says:
June 28, 2011 at 12:55 pm 0 0
“Eat, Pray, Love” pisses some people off because it glamorizes the puzzling obsession affluent westerners have with eastern spirituality. I hate it because I’m an atheist, and my girlfriend hates it because she’s Indian. Reply
Henry Vandenburgh says:
June 28, 2011 at 2:34 pm 1 0
My hunch is the journey of meditation etc. to the West has been a very good thing. It’s not as though we didn’t have our own meditators and mystics anyway (Meister Eckhart, et al.) Meditation and spirituality needn’t be religious anyway. In the purest form they’re not. I have to also disagree with the comment below about righteousness. Righteousness is always extremely dangerous because it lurks right around the corner from evil. Read Jung on the shadow. Case in point: Nancy Grace is whipping up an electronic lynch mob against a very likely mentally ill woman. When she was a prosecutor, Grace was identified as having committed prosecutorial misconduct. Grace’s proposed victim needs to be in a hospital, not executed. I also don’t get the anti-sex trope here. It comes (no pun) up in a variety of ways. Self-control needed: yes! Reply
Ryan Brady says:
June 28, 2011 at 12:52 pm 2 0
I think “The Good Men Project” is the perfect title. I don’t have a
problem with righteousness. Being a good man (to me) means taking ownership of the good qualities traditionally associated with being a man, and rejecting the bad qualities. Good qualities are things like assertiveness, responsibility, selflessness, honor, sincerity, and respect. Bad qualities we reject are the stereotypes that we have no selfcontrol when it comes to sex, that we cannot express emotions other than anger, that we must be overly competitive, etc. A good man lives as an example. Reply
June 28, 2011 at 7:38 pm 1 0
Awesome words Ryan! I like the “good” in Good Man Project. There is a websites called the Good Woman Project and I like that too. “Good”. It’s a small word with a lot of impact and that’s what generates some of the negative press it might get from people who don’t like the idea of having any definition of “good” defined to live up to. From a female persepective, I think a lot of women are hungry for truly, honestly, wonderfully, beautifully “good” men. We don’t want just “nice guys” and we really don’t want “bad” boys. We want “good” men. And I think many men want to be “good” men. Reply
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