In embarking upon the journey of discussing and hopefully improving the modern male ethos, I’ve offered my thoughts about “Improving the Merits of the Mind” and “Improving the Merits of the Heart”— two worthy endeavors for men and women alike. This article is to be my final installment in my three-part mini-series on male improvement. It may also be the most important because a man with a keen mind and a kind heart, while essential, will nonetheless be rendered useless unless he obtains a set of guiding principles by which purpose and direction often derive. That, of course, is my intention here: to discuss the importance of improving the merits of a man’s principles.
Many of the ills that currently plague men may be a result of a fuddled head and a feeble heart, but they may also be due to the fact that many men never subscribe to a code of conduct or a set of superior standards by which they continuously live. I’d argue many men, especially young men, live by the capricious tenets of feelings and convenience. While these tenets, like the low objects of which I’ve previously spoken, are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, they are not principles of a higher order; they will not guide men toward an excellent degree of morality, character, or virtue. Thus, I’d like to briefly address the misuse of feelings and convenience as tenets, and then offer some suggestions for a more principled approach to manhood.
Fight the Feeling
First, I frequently hear men say things like “if it feels right, it is right”; “if it feels good, it is good”; “fake it till you feel it”; and “live for the feeling.” The problem with these sayings (other than the illogical conclusion for a few of them) is that they elevate feelings to the level of a standard. This is somewhat understandable because pleasure in all its various forms is a feeling; and since we all seek pleasure, we often attempt to secure pleasurable feelings to a position of importance. Feelings, like pleasure, can not operate as a standard for conduct or character simply because feelings are purely subjective. Worse, feelings are terribly fickle. Some days I feel like running terrible Nevada drivers into a ditch as I happily speed past them; other days I feel charitable and am willing to concede my lane to another driver. Some days I feel like spending my 401k on beer and brats in Europe; other days I feel like being frugal and planing for my family’s future.
If I followed every feeling I’ve had to its intended end, I’d probably be dead or in prison. The truth is that most of my life’s mistakes can be traced back to a moment when I wasn’t thinking about things, I was merely feeling about things. It was my proverbial seizing of the day, only living once, and living with no regrets— all phrases used to justify some action that will eventually carry some level of loss or regret. Feelings are no standard by which to life; they are no benchmark by which men may elevate themselves. Feelings are often the involuntary biological responses men have that, if left unchecked by a standard other than one’s self, will inevitably lead them to ruin.
For the Sake of Convenience
Another oscillating tenet that many men try to claim as a standard of conduct is convenience. Doing things merely out of convenience, which is rooted in the desire for a life of ease, is no philosophy at all; it is how weak men are made weak. As I have previously pointed out, “the soft path makes for the soft man.” Now, I am not arguing against things being convenient. I appreciate my Bluetooth devices and microwaved leftovers— but they are things and the conveniences of technological progress, ones we all should enjoy. What I am arguing against is when people and principles are objects of convenience. Men should not be using relationships, acquaintances, or other individuals simply as an expedient for their own ends. Likewise, morality is not a marionette used for our own personal instrumentation. When people and principles are viewed as objects of convenience, a wrecked state of being will ultimately follow. I can guarantee that anyone in history that is considered great or anything accomplished that is considered great did not come as a result of convenience. Men who operate on the tenet of convenience are the sort that will never garner respect from others or for themselves.
It goes without saying that there are other volatile tenets that men use to base their life’s decisions (e.g. fortune, fame, followers on social media). Feelings and convenience, however, are two of the most detrimental to our collective male ethos. They are two of the most ruinous because housed under the umbrella of feelings is hedonism; and hedonism is a tenet that elevates pleasure to the highest good. Also, housed under the umbrella of convenience is docility; and docile is what men become when they view comfort as the highest good. This is why it is so important that men subscribe to a code of conduct or a set of higher standards that he does not set himself; otherwise our own subjective desires and emotional whims will lead us to set convenient codes of conduct and disturbingly low standards. Noble standards, ones that lead a man to a greater position in life, are external. They do not originate within. Time spent in the woods teaches me this. Allow me to explain.
The Wilderness of Life
Hiking is one of my beloved recreational activities, and I’ve hiked thousands of miles in my lifetime. I’ve explored the Ozarks, the Sierra Nevadas, summited Fuji, trekked the Australian Outback, backpacked around a number of European countries, combed through the forests of Thailand and South Korea, and so much more. I adore the connection one gets from walking the land. I also appreciate the lessons that are learned from setting off on one’s own. One such lesson comes from the fact that the designated trail often ends, or much to my wife’s dismay, I often choose to go off the trail to make my own way. In making my own way through some uncharted wilderness, often without GPS (reliance upon electronics in the wild is usually disastrous), it is imperative that a man has a point of reference by which to navigate; otherwise he will inevitably get lost.
Of course, a smart hiker always carries a compass, but being able to navigate by one’s own acumen is a skill all men should possess. Terrestrial navigation (or path integration as it is called in the animal world) is build upon the ability to read the land. Streams, mountains, tree lines, the location of the sun, and other topography can serve as a guide when no other method of guidance is available. The knowledge of magnetic north coupled with a visible mountain peak in the desired direction will help a hiker stay true to his bearings. If a man decides, however, that he needs no external navigational tool by which to set his course, he will inevitably stray from his desired course and find himself lost and at the mercy of nature— and nature is not kind to the ill-prepared man in the wilderness. In fact, it is deadly.
A man walking through the wilderness of life is no different from the man spending time in the forest; a navigational point of reference outside of himself by which he sets his course is essential. Otherwise, he too will find himself at the mercy of nature, human nature, and human nature is not kind to the ill-prepared man in the wilderness of life. In fact, the subjective desires and emotional whims of our human nature are often so destructive that they, too, can be deadly. Philosophers like Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jaques Rousseau have argued similarly. I’d contend this is precisely why male violence, depression, and substance abuse has steadily increased: men have gotten lost in the wilderness of their minds, hearts, and lives— and they have no external navigational point of reference to help guide them through. This is why a man needs a philosophy, a theology, or a guiding set of principles that is used when the terrain is rough, uncertain, or the clear path ends. These fixed points of moral reference, not the ever-changing self, becomes the beacon that will carry him home. If a man does not have these fixed set of navigational principles, and he chooses instead to simply go with the flow of nature, nature will carry him to unexpected, unwanted, and altogether dangerous places, places he does not want to be.
Courage to be More
Abraham Lincoln, arguably our nation’s greatest president, once said, “If there is anything that links the human with the divine, it’s the courage to stand by a principle when everybody else rejects it.” The courage to stand on a principle is what made Lincoln great; that same courage is what still makes men great. Lincoln subscribed to principles like honesty and integrity, stuck to them even when it would have been convenient to abandon them, and those principles guided not only himself but the country through the thickets of the mid-1800s. When a man has a benchmark that is above him, a principle that calls him higher, a man with a sharp mind and good heart will rise to meet it; but when a man sets his standard at the level of convenience, he is never forced to rise to anything other than his own capriciousness or emotion— and that requires nothing of a man.
The Man in the Mirror
I am proud to be man. I am also proud to be a son, a husband, and a father. However, pride (deep satisfaction, not excessive arrogance), like respect, must be earned. I cannot possess pride in my various roles as a man by birthright alone; I must be a man by work, reputation, and principle. Each of my roles is an immense responsibility, especially my role as a husband and father. It is easy to sire a child with someone; it is demanding to properly raise a child with said someone. If I am to lead myself, my son, and my family safely through the wilderness of life, I must sharpen my mind, strengthen my heart, and navigate by the fixed points of moral reference that are virtue, hope, faith, and love. I cannot force another man to improve his ethos anymore than I can force him to read books in an effort to hone his thinking, embrace adversity as a means of character building, or subscribe to a higher code of conduct so as to improve his bearing in this world. I can only do these things myself. Improving the modern male ethos begins first with me and mine. The same could be said of all projects of social improvement: change begins with one’s self and in one’s home. As for me and my house, we will strive to be better with each waking day. I would hate to have my wife, my friends, my family, or my son to one day turn, look at me, and think, “I wish he were a better man.” Instead, I will turn, look at myself, and fight to be that which they need, that which the world needs: a better man.