My focus today is on one phrase from the conventional language of maleness: “Be a man.” I don’t remember if anyone ever explicitly said this to me. I don’t remember my father saying it, or my teachers or P.E. coaches. But I’ve heard it all my life; It’s in the very air I breathe–part of the landscape of male language. And it is loaded with coded, subterranean meaning, beyond the explicit meaning of the words. It doesn’t just mean “be a person of male gender.” That’s the least of it. The phrase reverberates with patriarchy and privilege. From that perspective it means “be strong,” “be in control,” “have power,” “take charge,” “exert your privilege,” “don’t let others take advantage of you” and so on. Of course now we live in a post-binary world, where there is a whole continuum of genders, but as I said this phrase only seems to be about gender. It is really about privilege. “Be a man” as a commandment lives on everywhere you go—and not just in America.
My latest book—Every Breath, New Chances: Aging With Honor and Dignity—a Guide for Men—is, as the title implies, a book on aging for men, but it includes tools and investigative exercises for men of any age. I call these investigations “deep mind reflections” and they allow men to access their deeper emotional and intuitive knowledge about various aspects of themselves. One of the aspects I discuss is this expression “be a man.” I don’t know how this phrase has impacted you–whether you once embraced but are now trying to grow beyond it, or whether you have always been offended by it as a kind of disrespect that doesn’t relate to who you are at all. I can’t speak for others, but today I am going to apply my method of deep mind reflection on “be a man” on myself.
A deep mind reflection begins with establishing a “key word” or “key phrase.” In this case the key phrase is “be a man.” After sitting still and calming my mind, I begin repeating this key phrase silently to myself: be a man, be a man—not constantly, but regularly. Slowly the phrase sinks beneath the level of intellectual comprehension and begins to impact the faculty of intuition. After a few repetitions the verbal meaning of “be a man” fades back and the simple vocal sound comes forward: be-a-man, be-a-man. This is the first step in deconstructing language. Before words have meaning, they are simply sound. Before long as I keep repeating, the sound “be-a-man” starts to become “beam in.” This is intuition coming into play now; it is saying, beam in. Intuition moved the energy elsewhere. But beam in to what? What is intuition pointing me to?
Now in addition to “beam in” I start to hear its synonyms: tune in, hone in. Hone in—an interesting phrase in its own right. It means sharpening. These are all related expressions. They all mean “look for something deeper.” Then “hone in” moves again, its sound changes. I hear it now as a single word: “human.” Human, human, be human. “Be a man” has slowly morphed into “ human,” and then “be human.”
A man is certainly human, we are all human, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. “Be human” is an entirely different kind of imperative, but it is not unrelated to “be a man.” “Be human” is saying, “be a man but just in the sense of being human.” When I am human I am not special, I am not strong or weak, I am not above or below, I am on the same plane as everyone. I am human in the sense that we are all human. As an aside, there was a recent New York Times essay by Ruth Whippman entitled What We Are Not Teaching Boys About Being Human . Learning to be human begins in childhood.
Then I hear the common expression, “I’m only human.” This means I have flaws just like everyone else. To be only human means to be humble, not proud, vulnerable rather than invulnerable.
Finally I hear the word “human” change to “humane.” The two words of course are related, but “humane” means kind, compassionate—the most admirable qualities of being human. “Be humane”—that is a transformation of the original key phrase “be a man” that has become an ethical imperative, one taught by all the great religions, and especially Buddhism, which is my faith. The Dalai Lama, when asked about the most important principle of his Buddhist faith, often replies, “Kindness is my religion.” Be humane. In that phrase I have arrived at something like the antipode of “be a man.” I don’t need to “be a man.” That could corrode my humanity, and the humanity of everyone around me. But I do need to be humane.
This personal deep mind reflection on “being a man” is my personal journey. Should you attempt your own deep mind reflection, it may lead somewhere different. There is also different flavor of deep mind reflection that I teach which uses images rather than words. But that is for another time. Today it is enough that I have lifted the cover off of the phrase “be a man” and discovered the gentleness and fragility of being humane. We live in a tough world right now, one suffused with strife everywhere. My aspiration for myself is, in the face of all that, to find some way to be humane. I think that is a worthy goal.