We are constantly bombarded with different messages of how to “be a man.” The phrase “Real Men do _____” is often used to shame men who don’t conform to this ideal. The fact is that we are making this up as we go along, looking to those who came before.
There are no shortage of fictional role models, whether it’s Don Draper (for the smoking and drinking to be sure, but also the existentialist cool) or the male Avengers (who may not be the most functional guys to emulate). But real-life heroes are a far more personal thing.
If we’re lucky, we have male role models in our life from an early age. I learned a lot from my father, mostly about to judge a good story (odd, since he’s a mathematician). But this is about other role models,men I’ve never met who nonetheless make me want to be a better men.
Listing your heroes can make one a little self-conscious. I could name larger-than-life figures like Jesus, The Buddha and Abraham Lincoln, but these mean so many different things to different people as to lose any meaning. It’s like calling The Beatles your favorite band.
Starting in chronological order I would say Oscar Wilde (1854-1900 influenced me greatly. Growing up all I knew about Wilde was that he was a) gay and b) funny as hell. The latter made him interesting, but the former (in the still fairly homophobic 80s) made him dangerous. Now, I think Wilde should be reclaimed as bisexual (I see nothing to convince me that he did not love his wife Constance) and find his writing essential. But Wilde’s greatest contribution to the culture has to be his aphorisms, many of which are as paradoxical as Zen koans (“Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow,” “One can resist everything but temptation.”) Wilde has shown me that something as frivolous as humor can be a powerful tool.
Nowadays, Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) is best known for the overly sentimental “What A Wonderful World,” but it would not be an exaggeration to say that he helped create not just jazz but modern pop music as we know it. Armstrong helped create the language of improvisation that informs most modern music, as well as popularizing the form. He can even be credited with one of the first “crossover” hits: 56 years before Run-DMC met Aerosmith, Armstrong recorded “Blue Yodel #9” with “Father Of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers. Armstrong was accused in his time of being an “Uncle Tom,” but he also criticized President Eisenhower for not doing more for desegregation. I’m not a musician, but if I was I wish I had even 1% of the talent and insight that Armstrong had.
Thich Nhat Hanh (born 1926) is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and poet. He is best known in North America for his books combining Zen with psychology for a mass audience. But he has done much more – opposing the war in his native country, earning him exile from Vietnam and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination (from Martin Luher King!) Seeing his practice as grounded in the real world, he has championed Engaged Buddhism for decades. From Thich Nhat Hanh I have learned to appreciate the spirituality of day-to-day life.
It’s hard to imagine what people thought of Andy Warhol (1928-1987) when he first appeared on the art scene in the 1960s. A slight, extremely pale man in a silver wig (he had lost his hair due to a childhood illness) making paintings of consumer packaging was no one’s idea of what an “artist” was, but he changed that. As much as The Beatles or Madison Avenue, Warhol created what we now know as “The 60s,” and later redefined (for better or worse) celebrity culture. He was also a queer trailblazer, painting homoerotic imagery when other artists were still closeted, and using actors from across the sexual spectrum in his movies. From Warhol I learned, ironically, something similar to what I’ve learned from Thich Nhat Hanh: how to find the beautiful and strange in the mundane. He also loved cats, which along with his technique of repurposing ought to make patron saint of The Internet.
Last but not least is Jim Henson (1936-1990), someone I’ve been aware of my whole life. I have learned so many things from this man, starting with how to read via Sesame Street. But Sesame Street and even more so The Muppet Show had stealth missions to bring anarchic comedy to the masses. Most importantly, Henson showed me how to deal with people in a decent manner without sacrificing yourself. While Henson was known as one of the most gentle people in all of entertainment, he was also a shrewd businessman who parlayed his syndicated show (that was turned down by every network) into a media empire. Whenever anyone says you have to be a ruthless jerk to succeed in business (let alone show business), I point to Jim Henson.
These are just some of the men who inspire me. They may not be yours. The point of this article is to start a dialogue. Who are your avatars of manhood?