I’ve told white lies, never like this.
Looked into true eyes, never like this. ~Eric Clapton
I began my morning by taking the dog for a walk around the block. A heartbreaking scene broke out before us as the garbage truck approached a series of recycling bins from which a homeless man was attempting to scavenge bottles for return. As the truck came closer and closer, the man began to frantically toss bottles all over the lawn. The driver and operators quickly debarked from the truck and prepared for a confrontation. The dog panicked. I felt sick for the man who could do nothing more than react to an oncoming loss: he would not gather his week’s bottles and that would be certain money out of his pocket.
I am a fortunate man. I have avoided homelessness in what has to be Canada’s harshest city to make a living in. I have had my life destroyed more than once in this town, but I am a resilient son-of-a-bitch. Still, one can only be thankful that the daily struggles our families face tend to be many steps away from tossing empties onto a stranger’s lawn to keep from starving.
Ironically, I have spent the past week examining what it means to be a man. What does it mean to be a “good man”? We had already looked at Ernest Hemingway’s macho-persona: a flawed, but beautiful, extreme masculinity punctuated by both violence and art. We read Tennyson’s “Ulysses” where we found an adventurer for whom experience became his driving force. He would sail until he dies. He would “never yield” and hated those who merely “hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.” We moved through Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society who begs his students to live in a state of carpe diem where a barbaric yawp could be equated to the sensitive man: a man who drinks tea, reads poetry and incites boys to rebel while he wears sweaters and corduroy jackets. This week we find ourselves exploring the advice a father gives to his son in Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, and it is within this poem that I find my most conflicted state of manhood.
Kipling demands that we keep our heads about us, that we do not fall into the traps of scoundrels and haters. He hints that a great man can lose it all without complaint, risk it all for what he loves, see the one thing he loves most broken, but that he will build it up again with worn-out tools. What strikes me through as I meditate on Kipling’s vision is that how he sees a good man as one who has found equilibrium. A good man will sacrifice. A good man will persevere. A good man will not take heed of the chaos, nor of the triumphs, but rather focus on what must be paid heed. For Kipling it is not about the rise to greatness, but rather it is about the way we walk.
What makes a good man? I do not pretend to be so wise. All I know is that I do the best I can with what I have. Maybe I ascribe to and find the most comfort in the words that begin this entry taken from the Clapton song, “It’s In the Way That You Use It.” Nothing is certain in our lives except that we will face burdens, challenges and beauty that we could never imagine just moments before we face them. I became a good man when I realized that I could play out an unplayable hand without fear or complaint; that despite bad cards I could still win because I know that a good man uses what he is given to build sustainable beauty and happiness for himself and those he loves.