A Better Man


This is a copy of the reading I did on 16 January 2022 - my contribution to the discussions on toxic masculinity in the wake of the Aisling Murphy murder. I highly recommend Michael Ian Black’s book “A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter To My Son,” published by Algonquin Books in 2020, for all the young men (everybody, really!).

Good morning! Today is my son Ben’s 21st birthday. Ben is very lucky to have a father, two grandfathers and an uncle that are great role models in a more evolved idea of masculinity. Not everyone is that lucky, and after the events of last week, I thought I would read something by another evolved man, the actor, podcaster, author and self-styled “praythiest” Michael Ian Black, from his 2020 book “A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter To My Son.”
          He starts by recommending adopting the “practice of consideration” and says: “What do I mean by a “habit of consideration”? Just that. Taking a breath to consider. A check-in with yourself. How am I? What’s going on with me? What am I doing right now, and why? Who or what am I serving? Little moments of deliberation that will hopefully lead you to sound decisions about the choices you make day to day, moment to moment.
          What does all of this have to do with masculinity? A lot, I think. Men and women are no different when it comes to spiritual matters. Every person feeds their spirit in different ways, but I suspect that women, on average, have greater access to their inner lives for the same reasons that they have greater access to their emotional lives. Not because they are naturally more open to their inner selves, but because we men are unnaturally closed off from our own. Men often end up stifling the best parts of our selves—our joy, our wonder, our empathy—to maintain our place in a pecking order that serves no purpose.
          Life, a good life, demands constant self-interrogation. Who am I? What do I value? Where do I devote my time? What deserves my attention? Be a relentless interrogator of yourself. Discover your own assumptions and question them. Question everything. Follow those lines of inquiry. Educate yourself. Find viewpoints that challenge your own and treat them with the seriousness that you would expect others to treat yours. Read about other people’s experiences moving through this life. You may agree with them, you may not, but at least consider that you might be wrong. Consider that you might be wrong about almost everything. Don’t become complacent because complacency can quickly turn to the spiritually destructive apathy.
          The answer doesn’t lie in abandoning traditional masculinity, only that we broaden and deepen its language as we reorient our place as men. Manhood has always celebrated service to others. It has asked men to pick up rifles and plows and welding torches. We have done so because we understand that the work of men has been to provide and protect, and we have done our work. Now the nature of that work is changing.
          Men are fumbling to find an alternative to our old ways, but we don’t want to abandon everything we understand ourselves to be. We don’t have to. We can preserve the best parts of our masculinity, jettison the stuff that’s hurting us and the people around us, and work on developing the skills that will help us in school, in the workplace, and with our families. Empathy, compassion, understanding. Love.
          Love isn’t something that happens to us. It’s something we do. Whether it’s the love of a child, spouse, friend, community, or even an idea, love communicates itself as an action and a practice. Traditional masculinity teaches us to be strong and tough and brave. Think about how much strength love requires. How much perseverance. How much courage.
          But also: how much empathy, vulnerability, grief.
          To get better, I had to figure out a way to become a new me. I had to figure out how to become a better man. That process is slow and ongoing. It’s an everyday practice, just like the practice of love is an everyday practice. The good news is I can practice them at the same time because they're the same thing.
          I’ve found that it helps to start with some of love’s components and work on those: patience, kindness, empathy, resilience. All the stuff you already know. Maybe you just pick one of those things to work on in a given moment, or day. It's like anything else. You practice and practice. Sometimes it comes easy and sometimes it doesn't come at all. Sometimes you fake it.
          Listen, I know how naive it sounds to say that “love” is going to fix men. Is love really going to help a guy graduate high school? Get a job? Is love going to feed his family? Is love going to drive the bad guys out of town instead of the gunslinger? Maybe not.
          But maybe.
          As you leave home, I’m asking you take a leap of faith: Who you are as a man is enough. It’s more than enough. You don’t need to get married or become a father to be a man. You don’t need a high-paying job. You never have to question your manhood, defend it, or prove it. You only have to be who you are.
          There are so many ways to be a man, as many ways as there are to take a breath. Your masculinity is not a competition any more than your humanity is a competition; any more than one breath is better than another. They are all important, each leading to the next. Most of the time you will not even know you are breathing. So it should be with your humanity.
          When I was a kid, somebody told me to “be a man,” but he didn’t tell me how. I’m telling you now. Be strong and resilient, yes. But also, be tender. Be kind. Be forgiving—of others, but equally importantly, of yourself. Breathe. Be inspired. Practice love.”

Jennifer Buller
Dublin Unitarian Church

Mr. Black kindly consented to let us reprint the above excerpt on 16 January 2022 in response to my thread explaining where and why we wanted to share it.           Thanks, @MichaellanBlack!