A Meaningful Life is a Radical Life

Inner Conflict

I abhor balance.

Life necessarily involves tension, contradiction, battles. Men particularly struggle with these tensions as we lead, teach, and grow. We need to be be productive, but we need to be reflective. Life demands that we be serious, but life also requires a sense of levity. We want our jobs to produce a great (even luxurious) living for our family, but we want our work to be meaningful.

These paradoxes produce grave challenges, the working out of which has real and significant consequences for our lives. Some of these paradoxes work out smoothly–the ends of the spectrum merge together, maybe even without effort on our part (but usually not). In such cases, an apparent contradiction of values turns out to be no contradiction at all; instead, it was a failure of perspective, an inability to see the world–and our place in it–as it actually is.

But today I am not concerned with those cases. I am concerned with the inescapable tension: the conflicts between values that ever frustrate men.

Hypothetical Him

Let me give an example to clarify my point. Suppose a man–called Hypothetical Him–makes a hefty salary. As a result, he has a great deal of disposable income. What should he do with it? On one hand, he knows that giving is part of his identity. He wants to support his favorite charity, contribute to the ministries at his church, provide for the individual needs of his family and friends–and even strangers–as they pop up. On the other hand, he wishes he had season tickets to every local pro sports team; he wants the best fishing tackle money can buy; he’d love to travel domestically and internationally, and with frequency.

What to do? How to work out the conflict between values? In what way can he find meaning and pleasure, all while avoiding a plaguing kind of guilt?

The typical answer–the refrain I’ve heard innumerable times–from friends, elders, colleagues, key note speakers, wise people all, is an answer I’ve come to disdain: “balance.”

You’ve heard it too, I’m sure. Maybe, like me, you’ve even given that answer, despite your guttural instinct to the contrary. “The key is balance”, they/we all say.

Our example would hear the same thing: “Just find a good balance.”

To our Hypothetical Him, and to myself, and to anyone else struggling to confront a baffling dilemma, I say to heck with that.

Jump in the Deep End

Instead, I say “Dive into the extreme.” Don’t seek balance. Seek passion. Seek excellence.

Be radical.

Anchoring ourselves in our deepest, truest, most fundamental values produces meaningful life, produces Real Men. And these values have the merit to produce radical action because we have arrived at them through no easy or convenient or trivial manner. We have wrestled, reflected, striven, even anguished over these values. How can we reconcile them with mere “balance”? If our Hypothetical Him accepts such a solution, I believe he is lost. I see “balance” as a synonym for hovering and for equivocating, for floating.

Instead, I desperately want (but often desperately fail, still) to act on those costly values. And I want to do so in extreme ways because “balance” cannot satisfy, neither us nor whom (or Whom) we serve. I admire–and the world is drawn to–people who live radically. The minimalist who lives with less than 100 things. The teacher who opens his classroom on weekends so students can finish their research papers. The lawyer who crusades for civil rights. The husband who gives up his free time–totally, unequivocally–so his wife can return to school. The coach who refuses to yell. The people who have no reservations about committing to a singular purpose.

I am well aware of the pitfalls of such an approach to life. At worst, we might become myopic lunatics, deranged and nonsensical (if not insane). Not as graphic but just as unfortunate are those who become either oblivious or irrational. And least insidious but most common are those whose single-mindedness renders them impractical. I know these results happen because of radicalism. But such consequences are not the result of passion, focus, or anchoring in a value. They are the result of forgetting what is at the root of any such value that drives the kind of conflict which initiated this reflection: human beings. Passion must be moderated by a consideration that real lives are being affected by my “diving into the deep end”. The abstract is not supreme.

Resolution

I realize this post is kind of radical (or at least I hope it is coming across that way). Another difficulty of radicalism is that it can alienate. But the converse is that it can inspire. When I think of the Real Men who are my role models, I see among them several common strains. As you might guess, one of them is the singularity of purpose I’ve described today: the ability to discern a value, eschew balance, and drop the anchor of their desire right into that value. They are the kind of man for whom “balance”, in the way I’ve described it today, is a hindrance to a meaningful life. They are the kind of man I want to be.

Back to the Uncertainty

I wrote on Tuesday about real men and how they are OK with uncertainty in their lives. That was early in the morning and I realized later in the day that I’m not quite there yet in my journey.

I left my office at 11:15 to meet the lovely and talented wife for lunch before going to our appointment at 1.

We were supposed to meet at noon and I needed to run by the bank to deposit a check and stop by Best Buy to pick up some blank DVD’s before meeting her.

I thought I’d given myself plenty of time to do both of those tasks until I got to the Panera Bread where we were having lunch and realized that I had forgotten to do either item. I was so distracted and preoccupied that (without even realizing it) I drove right past both of the places I was supposed to stop on my to lunch. Needless to say, the uncertainty was getting to me more than I realized.

But I was determined to check both of those two things off my list BEFORE the doctor’s appointment so I put my car in reverse, backed out of my parking spot, and started making my way back toward the bank and Best Buy.

And that’s about the time I folded.

I probably didn’t have time to double back to the Best Buy and bank if I was going to be on time to lunch with the baby mama, but I tried anyway with terrible results.

Oh I made it to both places, did what I needed to do, and got back to Panera Bread before she did, but boy did I loose my cool in the process.

Usually I’m a pretty mild-mannered laid back kind of dude. But evidently I was feeling a lot more stress about the “high-risk” ultrasound than I realized because I was an absolute jagweed behind the wheel yesterday. If I’m normally Dr. Jekyll, yesterday’s events turned me into a raging Mr. Hyde (at least behind the wheel inside the safe, friendly confines of my rubber-footed steed).

The car in front of me stopped on yellow at a light that I thought we both had time to make it through and I found myself yelling at the driver while banging moronically on my steering wheel.

As I was waiting to pull out of the parking lot at Best Buy, the car in front of me was taking longer than I would have liked and I actually growled at the driver.

Growling?!?!?!?!? Seriously? What am I… some kind of surly old grizzly bear? Manhood fail.

As I was walking into the Best Buy, I almost trampled a rather large giant of a man who was walking slowly in front of me as I scurried past him in hurried frustration. When I couldn’t find the blank DVD’s I was looking for, I literally glared at all of the blue shirt wearing employees in my general vicinity like it was their fault Best Buy didn’t carry the exact kind of DVD I wanted.

I’m sure there are men out there who, day in and day out, face a lot more uncertainty than I did yesterday – men whose very livelihoods put them at risk of death on a daily basis. Cops, firemen, soldiers… people like that. And there I was unnecessarily acting a fool over a little bit of uncertainty and there are dudes out there who face their own mortality on a daily basis without losing their cool.

I talk a pretty mean game about real men this and real men that here on the blog, but yesterday proved that I still have a ways to go in my journey to becoming a real man.

Absolutely Perfect

This ain’t no baby blog, but what kind of man would I be if I didn’t brag a little bit on my future progeny?

The lovely and talented wife had her “high-risk” pregnancy ultrasound yesterday and everything checked out wonderfully.

The ultrasound tech and the doctor each did independent scans and both of them kept using the phrase, “This baby is perfect.” When it was all over, the doc said, “Your baby is absolutely perfect.”

Beaming with pride, I almost got up from my chair and offered him a hearty fist bump right then and there. He looked like he would have been down with what’s up, but instead I used restraint. I want to be a real man and I think real men probably know when to give pounds and when to keep it all business.

But seriously… did I ever breath a sigh of relief when I heard those words. I thought to myself, “Yes. Yes she is.” I mean, how could she not be? Just look at the stock she comes from. (I kid, I joke) But seriously… I’m sure yesterday won’t be the last time we hear that phrase in reference to this child.

Thanks for indulging this beaming dad-to-be with a bit of an off-topic post.

Yes Sir/No Sir; Yes Ma’am/No Ma’am

As I’ve written before, I learned a lot about being a man from my mom. One of the things she taught me was good manners. And one of the basics of good manners she taught me was saying “Yes sir/No sir” and “Yes ma’am/No ma’am”.

I can’t tell you how many times people paid compliments to my mom, dad, and grandparents for my and my brother’s good manners as children. “Sir” and “Ma’am” became reflex responses, embedded right behind my teeth for release any time someone in a position of respect or authority asked me a question.

In my hometown, nearly everyone my age used “Sir” and “Ma’am”. Of course, I grew up in a city of 3,000, 45 min from the closest major metro area, and as you might expect, using these words was one of the many small-town values embodied there. And this particular value was incredibly secure. Here’s what I mean:

  • When I moved to this town in the seventh grade, my first day of gym class with Coach Wells required that we be assigned a locker. When he called our names and asked if we already had a lock, we were supposed to reply with our answer and “sir”. In my anxiety, I forgot. The penalty? Ten pushups, on the spot. I never forgot to use “Sir” with Coach Wells again.
  • Even the meanest, orneriest, most disrespectful kids could usually not bring themselves to forego “Sir” or “Ma’am”.  I have an image in my mind of the recalcitrant trouble-maker, standing defiantly before our vice-principal, glaring as he showed exactly no remorse for whatever he’d done, still saying “Yes sir” to the to administrator (and being quickly corrected if he didn’t).

Now, 17 years after Coach Wells reinforced my mom’s lessons about manners, I still find myself using “Sir” and “Ma’am”. At church, at work, in restaurants, in the doctor’s office: it still flows naturally. I’m a bit more conscious of it now, mainly because I hear it from others much less frequently (I almost never hear children or teenagers say it) and because I’m at the age of people for whom I used to reserve the “Sir” and “Ma’am” when I was a child.

Still, I go on using it. And it still attracts notice. One of my supervisors asked me why I still called her “Mrs. Supervisor” (“Mr.” and “Mrs.” being a partner to “Sir” and “Ma’am”). I told her that’s just the way I’d been raised. My explanation sounded a little hokey, but I don’t care. So many of the men I respect still use these designations. The use of these titles is born out of my own sense of respect, of good manners, of deference, of humility. And most important–of honor.

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My plan, should God bless me with children, is to teach them to use “Sir” and “Ma’am” as well. First, it’s a tradition in my family. Second, I want them to have good manners. Third, I want them to have a sense of honor, of according age (and its accompanying wisdom and authority) its due respect.

At the risk of sounding like a the-good-ol’-days-were-better-because-they’re-old kind of guy, I think those just mentioned virtues are fading a bit in our society. I don’t have any empirical proof, just my own observation. I plan on bucking that trend and asking my kids to do the same.

Real Men and Uncertainty

Knowing that some things in life just don’t lend themselves to an easy solution or a quick answer, a real man learns to be OK with uncertainty.

Though he does everything in his power to move toward action and solutions, recognizing his own limits, a real man knows that sometimes the only thing he can do is wait and see what happens.

The lovely and talented wife has a 4D ultrasound today at 1 o’clock. Her doctor scheduled it because of some abnormalities in the way she’s been measuring the past month or so.

We’ve known about the ultrasound for the last two weeks and the uncertainty’s been strange to deal with. When she scheduled the ultrasound for us the doctor called it a “high-risk” pregnancy ultrasound. Because I wasn’t sure what that meant, I did some of my own research online and found out that the term “high-risk” can mean one of two things when it’s used to describe pregnancy.

First, it can mean that the mother and baby are actually in some kind of danger. This is the definition that most people think of when they hear the term, high-risk pregnancy. However, “high-risk” can also just mean anything that’s not in the normal range… or in other words, if anything about a pregnancy is abnormal, they label it “high-risk”. There’s no middle ground. Either a pregnancy is normal or it’s “high-risk” which doesn’t necessarily mean that the mom or baby is in danger.

The kind of ultrasound she’s having today should tell us if something’s actually wrong with the baby. Or it could simply tell us that the girl takes after her daddy and may have a future in professional women’s basketball some day.

Like I said, it’s been an interesting last few weeks since this ultrasound was scheduled. There have been times when I’ve been pretty tired of not knowing what’s going on in there… “there” being the inside of the wife’s stomach. There have been times when I’ve just wanted to fast-forward to 1 o’clock this afternoon so we could find out if something is wrong or if we just have an unusually long baby.

At work, at home, in the car, gathered with our church, wherever – the uncertainty’s been constantly on my mind the last few weeks and I’ve been learning to deal with it.

I’ve still probably spent too much time trying to figure this out though. As a man, I really do hate uncertainty. And yet, I think learning to live with and accept it’s presence in our lives is one of the keys to living a normal, functional life.

I don’t know what we’ll find out at the ultrasound the ultrasound today. And quite honestly, I’m OK with that.

In Defense of the Pocket Knife

I won’t claim that real men carry pocket knives. What I mean is, pocket knives are neither exclusive to Real Men nor a requirement for Real Manhood.
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However, if you carry one, have carried one, have thought about carrying one, or don’t know what a pocket knife is, please read on.

The giants of my childhood carried a knife in their pocket or on their belt: grandpa, dad, step-dad, uncles, Rambo. In my mind, the correlation was clear: men carried knives.

I saw my grandpa skin racoons, open envelopes, cut rope, dig out splinters, clean fingernails, all with the same pocket knife. I suppose that’s the root of why pocket knives, seemingly a vestige of some older time when dudes needed to carry sharp objects to protect themselves, have continued to be popular: so many situations render them necessary. Have you ever needed to cut fishing line, slice open a package (particularly those 100-ply-polymer-blend-government-grade plastic packages that kids’ toys seem to come in), pry a flat object from an even flatter place? In such situations, the inevitable query is, “Anybody got a pocket knife?”

I’ll tell you what: it feels good to be able to say, “Yeah, here’s mine.”

Many of the accoutrements of manhood seem a bit like our appendix: nice to have, but not essential for existence. A pocket knife, on the other hand, has so much utility.

So whether you carry Buck or Case, Swiss Army or Ka-Bar, Gerber or Browning, know that you stand in solidarity with me and many others. Carry on.

Real Men and Yelling


A real man rarely raises his voice and when he does, it is never out of anger.

A real man’s influence comes from the gravity of what he has to say and the character he has built over time. He lets his words stand on their own merit without resorting to amplifying his volume and furrowing his eyebrows to get his point across.

A real man knows that to raise his voice in anger, is to lose control of his emotions. When a man loses control of his emotions, his emotions then control him, and a real man is not controlled by his emotions. A real man realizes that screaming or yelling in anger or to get a point across is the vice of the emotionally weak. He is not afraid to express his emotions, but he is not controlled by them. A real man knows that yelling, though somewhat instinctive, is reactive and a real man rarely reacts… a real man acts with intention.

A real man knows that he when he raises his voice, people often tune him out and miss his message. And yet, the opposite happens when his voice is calm, cool, and collected. He finds that other people actually begin to lean in closer to hear what he has to say. They tune into his message and (if what he’s trying to convey has merit) he is able to persuade or influence them appropriately.

A real man sees that yelling as a form of persuasion or influence simply does not work. Not only that, but he also realizes that his yelling gives everyone around him a headache and makes him feel incompetent. Sure, he may have some short-term success with it, but his long-term credibility is eroded every time he resorts to raising his voice.

Although I don’t have experience in all of the following arenas of life, I think this principle applies to them all. A real man doesn’t yell at: his children, his wife, his employees, waiters and waitresses, sporting officials at his children’s sporting events, people who cut him off while driving, or really anyone else for that matter.

A real man realizes that raising his voice as a form of persuasive expression is simply not effective. It usually only clouds whatever point he’s trying to make while frustrating and aggravating the people he’s trying to make it to.

The only situations where it’s appropriate for a real man to raise his voice in a reactive manner are those involving the imminent danger of other people. If a real man sees someone standing on the train tracks with a locomotive barreling down on them at 80 mph, and he’s too far away to physically knock them out of harms way, it’s perfectly OK for him to scream, “GET OFF THE TRACKS!!!”

But then again, when was the last time you heard a man yelling to help make someone else aware of an immediate threat to their safety?

When he’s not angry, a real man may infuse his words with passion and excitement – in fact, the more so the better. But this only applies in positive situations… situations where smiling would also be a perfectly natural expression.

A real man does not raise his voice in anger.