The deer have begun to move more frequently through the backyard. After the coldest winter in 64 years, these docile and nervous beasts still have the will to break trail and the strength to bound through four feet of snow. The temperature this year has often dropped below -40 and the wind has gusted persistently from the north, and they, having eaten only pine needles and tree bark, somehow survived. At night, when the wind off the lake is not too strong, they burrow deep in the snow beneath the apple tree and rest against one another through the night and I wonder if it is a peaceful rest or one wrought with fear. At least here, close to the cabin and far from the wilder woods, the wolves are not likely to find them so vulnerable. At least here they experience some semblance of safety. I watch the deer, knowing they are aware of me, and I wonder what it is that they’ve come to teach me. Perseverance? Gentleness? Caution?
I’ve always wanted to be a good man. Most people in my life would say that I am. Like the deer, I have sought to live a life of gentleness and humility. I’ve done my best to persevere through hardships and remain cautious as I move forward through the seasons of my life. I’ve always wanted to be a good man, but often I have acted from the fear that I am not. I’ve found myself caught in a belief system defined by duality, one that demands perfection in one hand and condemns me irrevocably in the other. And so I have tried all my life to be virtuous and I have condemned myself when I have failed. I know that the deer are not plagued by these notions of morality the way that I am. They have only their nature to guide them. But we, as humans, exist in a context defined less and less by nature, and more and more by our constructions. Were I to measure my goodness in the context of nature, I would come up with nothing and have to wonder if it was a senseless question. Even here where I live, beside the lake, surrounded by the woods, I feel that I don’t belong, that my place within nature has been abandoned and I have instead taken a position of dominance over nature. The deer exist within nature. I watch them from the window, but I am not a part of their world. I have isolated myself from it. But I also long for it, and in the presence of the deer, or the crows, or even the trees, I feel I’m receiving a gift.
In the forgotten context of nature, I might have known what it meant to be a good man, or I might have come to realize that in nature there is no good or bad, only reality. Instead, I exist primarily in the context of a society full of conflicting voices and I must sift through them and discern what I can believe in as truth. From these conflicting voices I attempt to determine what it means to be good and then live according to these determinations. I have failed utterly again and again, but my ultimate intent has been to be virtuous, and I can only hope that this means something, or come to recognize that it doesn’t. In which case I might see that I am already virtuous by right of birth, innately and irrevocably. I might see that life itself is a virtue.
The deer, quietly wandering through the yard, speak to me with a gentle, passive voice. Their lessons are given like the breath of trees, freely and without condition. How I experience society’s voice is often quite different. There’s nothing quiet or passive about the abruptness with which it takes me by the ears, locks eyes with me, and demands my full attention. Maybe I experience this contrast more starkly now that I spend half of my time removed from it, now watching the deer, now the trees, now the lake. With a voice far stronger than nature in volume, language, and insistence society peddles its wares on every corner, indoctrinating me in its systems of success, teaching me the value and the quality of my masculinity, promising me a means by which to prove my value as a human being. Less concerned with goodness, it dismisses my convictions, disregards my dreams, and dissuades me from nurturing the parts of me that I value most. It speaks with authority and subsumes me with ideas of which I am often too oblivious to question. It’s hard to understand its motives, but its purpose is proven in the resulting myriad of individuals pulled along by its rhetoric, among whom I often wander, in a daze, wondering what I really want from life and if it’s possible to find it. And the deer continue to move through the yard. And their voice continues to softly speak. And I know that to them, I am a man inherently, while to the rest of the world my masculinity is a nebulous thing that I must somehow prove and quantify.
Had I been raised in any of a number of alternate cultures I would have by now gone through a rite of passage that would have defined me as a man. I would have hunted and killed a lion using only a spear. I would have gone into the woods alone without food or water in search of a vision for my life. I would have been sent away from my family to live with an elder in seclusion. Had I experienced a rite of passage like these or any other, I may have then known that I was a man. But even that would not have been enough. The question quietly whispering in the back of my mind is one propelled by a deeper desire for purpose. Beyond performing a physical feat of strength and bravery, or enduring hardship and isolation, beyond earning a salary, or fathering a child, I want to know it means to be a man – and a good one.
My father asked me one summer evening if I would join him for a walk after dinner. I was twelve at the time, and though I was often aloof with my father I still had a strong desire to connect with him. I put on my shoes and waited for him outside. He joined me and we walked in silence for several minutes until, at the end of our street, he turned to me and asked me something unexpected. “Do you have any questions about sex?” My knee-jerk response was a quick and dismissive, “no.” I hoped that that would end it. The last thing I wanted was to have an open and honest conversation with my father about the most uncomfortable thing I could imagine. Luckily, my response was enough. He said nothing more. And that was my experience of the dreaded “sex talk.” I don’t know what else we talked about that evening but I had the sense that my father was as relieved as I was to leave the subject behind. In the wake of his silence and mine, the voice of society spoke up. In the coming years I began my education under the instruction of friends who knew no more than I did, stories told in movies and television, over-sexualized images in advertisements, and eventually pornography. These became the voices that demanded my attention. These were the voices that told me with the greatest conviction what it means to be a man.
Under the onus of this culturally defined breed of masculinity it’s no wonder that so many of us are bending like blades of grass in the wind. We ascribe at conscious and subconscious levels to the belief that our value as men is intrinsic to our financial status, our accumulation of power, our establishment of a legacy, and our sexual prowess. To attain these things, we agree to give up our deepest dreams, repress our deepest emotions, and dismiss our deepest beliefs. We do this not because it’s what we really want but because we are told it is what we want. We do this because Society’s silver-tongue offers a louder, simpler, and more alluring vision of masculinity than anyone else. We listen and follow, at times overtly, at times with resistance, at times with lies, at times in secret, at times with the blessing of those around us. We listen and we follow, but it leads us nowhere.
If we were to pause for just a moment, and see with honesty what we really want from life, if we were to regard those around us and see how clearly our true desires mirror theirs, these constructed ideas of masculinity could dissolve, or at least become less convincing. The untruth of them could become obvious and we could realize that although they have entangled us they are, and always have been, mere fabrications. We’re held in tow by an imaginary rope. When we realize this, maybe then we can know how free we’ve always been. Maybe then we can find an answer to the question of masculinity. I don’t pretend to be clear enough in my own heart and mind to discern with perfect consistency my true sense of purpose in this life. I don’t expect I ever will be. But it is my intention to quiet the blaring voice of society, or at least to see past its deception. It is my intention to listen instead to my own inner voice, and to the men and women in my life who are concerned with experiencing life in a truthful way. I want to know not what it has meant to be a man, but what it can mean. I want to experience something good, and unexpected. I want to experience something absolutely real.
The lake outside my home is still frozen and the deer continue to move through the trees chewing on twigs as their stores of fat slowly dwindle. They have endured the coldest months of the winter and it is incredible, but this perseverance is not enough to keep them alive forever. If the winter does not end, they will die. Despite all of their faculties for survival they still need the spring. As do I. As do we all.