Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Significance of Example

I can well imagine that every man can look back over the journey of his life and quietly remember in the days of his youth those men who had a positive and/or profound influence on him. In my own case, I would not ever want to forget them. I can remember thinking that such men were the very best of men; that such men were the men we were to look up to; that they must indeed set the standard for what men are supposed to be. The men who had the most impact on me were of my father’s generation. These were the men Tom Brokaw claimed in a recent best selling book as the “greatest generation.” To know men in that generation seemed very special to me. I thought surely these men had to be the best of the best. As a boy, I wondered if I could be like them.

But, in looking at such things from the past, we also have to have the perspective of the past. In my case, I was just a young man from a small town in northwest Oklahoma. It would not have seemed possible at such a young age to think of oneself as ever becoming well known or respected. Most of us adolescent males just barely out of puberty knew that it was all we could do just to try and make amends for the sins of our own adolescence. And I was dead certain I had born my share of iniquity.

Oh, it wasn’t that I did anything different than any other healthy red-blooded American boy. It’s just that almost everything I did could be counted as a sin by someone else’s moral standard. Back in my time, you didn’t have to actually commit a sin to be guilty. If you just thought about committing one, you were a sinner. And most sins of which I had any knowledge I rather enjoyed thinking about.

Unfortunately, it was also the bane of boys in small town America of my era to be constantly judged by stern-faced righteous looking old women who wore a perpetual scorn of mistrust upon their countenance, which seemed amplified by a pronounced, raised eyebrow which they quickly maneuvered into place whenever we came into their presence! The matriarchs of any small community had a way of knowing that men will be boys for the longest time before they finally become men. Their role in life, I think, was to keep us feeling guilty enough about being guys to compel us to hurry along the process of our own growing up so we could grow out of all the fun of life, and simply become men whom they could then control.

This brings me to the point of this rambling. Regardless of how we have been programmed in our past to learn, obey, and follow the cultural rules in which we were raised, part of the process of taking on the responsibility of manhood is to become aware that we are the same kind of men our forefathers were. Perhaps the moral training of the women in our life molded us to become good men. But we have all of the same qualities the generation before us had. We have the same passions, the same faults, the same shortcomings, the same biases, the same prejudices as our predecessors. We are, after all, only men. As the poet said, there is so much bad in the best of us and so much good in the worst of us that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us.

In the overall scheme of things, what our past represents is really of little importance. If we feel that somehow we are not as worthy as the men who came before us, there is only one thing to do. We start making different choices about how we live and think and relate to others. Just as we are who we are today because of the choices we made yesterday; likewise, tomorrow will be the result of today’s choices. As the author Mary Crowley so rightly said; “We are free up to the point of choice, then the choice controls the chooser.” What she meant is that once we choose, our choices control us.

As we grow into responsible manhood, we have a higher duty to look after our own behavior in such a way that we will bring credit to ourselves and to our gender. We become the examples that younger men watch when they are deciding what choices they are going to make as they begin their life as men. We are supposed to be the right kind of men for them. Our hope should be that we will ourselves become the greatest generation—great by what we know; and great by how we practice what we know.

It is largely about commitment. What we commit ourselves to become will change what we are and will make us different men. It is not the past, after all, but the future that conditions us—what we do with what lies in front of us is far more important than anything that has already happened to us.

As men of integrity and honor and nobility, there is but one question to ask. What are our commitments going to be tomorrow? The day after? Where are we going? What are we going to do? Who are we going to be? What example will we set? What legacy will we leave?

These are our choices. Our choices will become our life.

And if we want to check ourselves as to the rightness of our own example, we need only to look back over our shoulders and commit to become the kind of men we thought we once knew. Perhaps unknowingly, those men have taught us that it is seldom who we are, but who others perceive us to be that defines our life. We behave in the manner that is congruent with the behavior of those we admire the most so that we can serve the role of modeling the behavior of those who will come after us.

This makes today a remarkable day in each of our lives. It is such a moment that, if we commit ourselves to the meaning of honor and integrity as men, then providence will move with us. And everything will change. As the poet so eloquently said:

"Be such a man, and live such a life,
that if every man were such as you,
and every life a life like yours,
this earth would be God’s Paradise."

1 comment:

Griffin said...

Dear Brother Bob,

Thank you for this beautiful and poignant meditation. It reminded me of my own father, who was the child of an abusive alcoholic. It might have been "easy" for him to have remained a simple product of his past and, like too many other men, passed on a legacy of drunkeness and violence. Yet that is not the path he chose. He saw possibilities for himself in the lives of other men, and embraced the potential for and responsibility of change. I admire him deeply for that, but also because he kept that same openness as a father. Though he did have some dreams and wishes about who and what his son would be, he never let those turn into demands or coersion. My dad didn't just believe in freedom, he lived it. That's real courage.