“You’re a good man, Charley.”
There are few words that can ever touch me as much as these.
Why is this? You could call me a good therapist, a good husband, a good writer, it wouldn’t mean half as much. I suppose I grew up at a time when a guy was still steeped in the Masculine Mystique – those at-times indefinable qualities of manhood that were meant to set you apart from the boys. And the girls.
Some of these qualities were good to strive for: Self-assuredness; physical prowess of every kind; competitiveness; courage.
Some turned out to be not so useful, like invulnerability. The admonition to be both fearless and tearless.
Speaking of tears, the words “good man” have always evoked them in me. I couldn’t fathom the reason why until I took a look back to see that it seemed to run in the family…
It’s January 20, 1968, and my brother is getting Bar Mitvahed. Here we all are, up on the Bima. I’m here to give the prayer preceding the Torah reading. Everything looks different from up here. In the congregation sits our whole family, minus the one who can’t be here to see her son on this otherwise joyous occasion, the one we’d lost three years prior, almost to the day.
Dad has long rehearsed the few Hebrew words he needs to say, as he is about to place the Talis over Richard’s shoulders. For weeks he’s rehearsed them. But he stumbles. He chokes on the words, suddenly overcome. Everyone knows why, except for my poor brother who looks up at him like “what is going on…?” Dad is helped by the rabbi, and muddles his way through, and sits down next to me, looking not only grief-stricken but defeated, disappointed with himself.
Somehow, the words come to me. I lean over to his ear and say…
“You’re a good man, dad, and I love you.”
I had no idea then, but twenty five years later, he thanked me for salvaging that day for him. I had spoken the only words that would be the antidote to the harsh words in his head.
Being a man by the American definition was never an easy task. Being a good man was rare, especially in the eyes of other men. My dad himself would often tell me that mister so and so “wasn’t a real man.”
In the 1970s, when it seemed like just about every second couple in Great Neck was getting divorced, my dad pronounced that such marital problems were “always the man’s fault!” But in time it became clear to me that men like my dad were not only hard on other men, but on themselves as well.
Whatever it was that haunted my father, when he’d hear those words acknowledging him for being a good man, I could almost see them do battle with and temporarily overcome the something inside that castigated him for being anything but. And this would always result in him shedding a tear of relief.
Somehow this got passed down to me.
Someone can tell me I’m sensitive, thoughtful, considerate, and I’ll just smile. But to be acknowledged as a good man, as strong, courageous, competent; or sexy or a good lover; or resilient, cunning, impactful, bold: These are the things I’ve always striven to be and have always longed to hear.
So while writing and working with this today, I’ve been wondering how it is I might daily be preventing myself from feeling like a good man.
I believe it’s by telling myself, subtly, almost silently and in countless ways, that I’m just not good enough, not doing enough and not daring enough; not giving enough; not earning enough. I could do better — so much better — as a therapist, husband, writer, friend.
The voice is relentless.
It’s as if the only way I know how to mobilize myself to perform well throughout the day is with these little inner cattle- prods.
And from where do these messages originate?
Well, just a little while ago, as part of the process of writing this post, I go into the bedroom, and do a little Gestalt therapy on myself. I close the door behind me, and play out the following dialog, out loud:
[Overlord, standing with a whip and bullhorn at the head of the boat]
Look at all you need to do today! Keep rowing that boat! If today you have to row upstream, row, or you’ll be swept away! If tomorrow you’re headed downstream, row! You’ll get there faster! I’m going to keep after you, Charley. Otherwise, you’ll stop, and then you’ll be dead in the water. I do this for your own good!
No more! I may have once needed you. Probably did, back when I was too tied to mom’s apron strings. But that was – Jesus, dad! That was a half century ago! In two months I am going to be sixty four years old. I don’t need you barking your daily orders at me anymore. Take your bullhorn and get off my boat!
I left the room feeling lighter.
Perhaps what I need to remember is…
I’m doing fine.
And I’m right where I’m supposed to be, and always have been. It’s all been a path, and how could I ever not be on my life’s path? Even when I thought I’ve fallen off, that too was part of the path.
My life’s been a perfect teaching, and I’ve been the perfect student. Oh yeah — a perfect jerk, and perfectly foolhardy at times. But always attending class. And always learning at the right pace, the only pace I could ever learn. And even recess, even playing hooky was a learning too, because in time my path has become self-correcting.
And as a man, in essence, I’m not so much good, or good enough. I just…am who I am! And that inner critic too, he’s here on my journey as well and has served a purpose. And maybe learning to finally quell him, and throw him overboard, is part of what I’ve needed to learn how to do all along.