The Good, The Bad, and the Better
Years ago in an underground newspaper I caught a cartoon strip that I never forgot. Satan was calling God from hell and said he wanted out. God listened and knew what he was talking about, because He felt the same way. Both of them were lonely and bored. God was loving and all good, but listless, spent, and flaccid in every way. Satan was all bad but completely dynamic. They decided something essential was missing for each of them. The solution was obvious. In the final panels you saw them reaching out to each other and then merging into one. This way they regained (in Satan’s case) meaning and connection to the sacred, and (in God’s case) vitality. Only together were they made whole.
This little piece of art has had meaning for me all my adult life. All I ever wanted was to be a good man, and it always meant the world to me to be told I was. Today, though I live in a world where everyone now seems to want to be considered a good person, I’m still pursuing good manhood. But what exactly does “good” mean? Or “man” for that matter?
Besides being born with an essentially loving nature, I was also raised to be sweet and obedient, virtuous and nice above all else. My mother, bless her heart, sure did much that was right while raising me. But looking back I get the feeling that if she could have reached inside me and extracted the gland that produces testosterone, she would have. She really had no idea what to do with the mischievous, boisterous, fun loving boy in me. So she decided it must be crushed. Along with the ability to say No, or get mad, which in my house were considered mortal sins.
So one Sunday when I was ten and mom and dad were out for the day, and Mr. Parker from next door rang the bell and said that our lawn was too unkempt and told me to cut it, I took out the lawn mower and did just that. When my parents returned, and asked me what got me to mow the lawn, they were aghast. Someone else had ordered their son around! I gave them a look like “What’d you expect?” They’d raised me to do what I was told, and never taught me how to say No to an adult.
So I entered the world unprepared, and was soon to have my balls cut off, and not by men. The girls would always want me…as a friend. I was the one they would complain to about how those dicks out there would mistreat them – the very dicks they let enter them. I, they assured me, was not like the other guys. I was good and kind. I was the one they sought advice from about how to win the hearts of the assholes they couldn’t stay away from. Something was wrong with this picture.
Of course I learned the hard way. Women don’t want nice guys and never did. Oh sure, some women with dads who’d beaten or molested them would seek out a soft and sensitive guy to work things out with. But mostly, regardless of what they said they wanted, they perceived – correctly – that nice guys tended to finish last. Nice guys like me wanted to please and be liked a little too much. We’d get angry or aggressive only passively, which would be infuriating. To befriend such a man was one thing, but the sexual charge that turns women on would be missing.
A turning point for me came the day back in ’77 when one particularly voracious female allowed me to walk her home from a party. We had been drinking, and, once in her place, we started having sex. Out of somewhere long suppressed in me I acted on a hunch, and, while on top of her, lifted her leg up and, tentatively gave her a little pat on the ass.
What came out of her in response was the single most exciting word I’ve ever heard from a woman in bed.
“Harder!” she said.
What a revelation! I had always thought sex was something I needed to do in a certain (i.e., civilized) way to make a woman happy so she would stay with me. But you mean it could also be fun, wild and outrageous?! Indeed, in that moment I realized that, as Woody Allen said, if sex isn’t dirty, why bother? And also that some women liked the one part of me my mother assured me was revolting: The bad boy.
Actually, what I like most about sex is the spectrum, from oh-so-tender-and-sweet, to a hard rockin’ fuck fest. The freedom to ride that range is the best part of making love.
But what I’m talking about today isn’t just about sex.
It’s also about the other middle class taboo: expression of anger or aggression.
“Don’t you raise your hand to me!” was a refrain I heard from my mother throughout my early childhood. She knew I wasn’t about to hit her. What she was making clear was that even (or especially) in an argument the expression of anger was “rude” and unacceptable.
In other words, for me this journey of manhood has been largely about working out my relationship with my own healthy aggression. We tend to think of and condemn aggression as violence and abuse. But I’m talking about healthy aggression, the kind you need when someone is being abusive with you and you need to call upon your tongue-fu. Or when there’s a mosquito on your hand, or a mugger wanting to follow you into the building.
This is another way of saying there is much power on the dark side. At least there has been for me. For instance, I could be lost in a mental state that would feel like a muggy day – spacey, confused, morose, depressed. Until lightning would flash in my head, followed by a thunderclap of anger like a cloud burst that would come and go in a minute and clear the air, and leave me revitalized and with clarity restored.
And I like playing with this energy in others. My therapist, for example, is generally sharp and incisive. But when he’s mad he’s downright scintillating. When I’m dissatisfied with a session and need some brilliance from him, I just piss him off. It works.
What this all boils down to for me is integration — the good, the bad, the balance between them. My brother put it best when he once told someone that I was “A good man…and a bad boy!”
I never felt more acknowledged.