The Complete Definition of “Manhood,” “Toughness,” and a “Stiff Upper Lip”

The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, “What’s wrong?” You say it in a concerned way. He’ll say, “What do you mean?” You say, “Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?” And he’ll look stunned and say, “How did you know?” He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it. This is the way of people. Suddenly ask what’s wrong and whether they open up and spill their guts or deny it and pretend you’re off, they’ll think you’re perceptive and understanding. They’ll either be grateful, or they’ll be frightened and avoid you from then on. Both reactions have their uses, as we’ll get to. You can play it either way. This works over 90 percent of the time.

    • ­From David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King”

I think this is completely true. Furthermore, I think the willingness to respond to such an inquiry honestly is a sign of great confidence.

But what about “manhood” and “toughness” and “a stiff upper lip”? These traits should not be dismissed as anachronisms worth evolving beyond. They should, though, be correctly defined so as to maximize flourishing.

Imagine a restless six-year-old named Jimmy. Think of how his shirt always seems stained by an amalgamation of peanut butter, dirt, and blood. Picture him earnestly working through his math test with his knee bouncing at 200bpm. Jimmy jumps off swings. Jimmy jumps off beds. Jimmy touches everything in the check-out aisle. Jimmy is chaos in a tiny package. And when Jimmy’s speed outpaces his balance, he sometimes crashes. “Don’t cry, Jimmy. Come on, boys don’t cry,” his All-American father, Christian, utters.

Society is often quite bad at telling the complete story. What we are here to do is complete the story so Jimmy isn’t left stranded with only part of a valuable lesson.

Part One of BE TOUGH that is correct and worth absorbing and the part of the story that is generally told

Your life is going to be filled with all sorts of challenges. Your life will also be subjected to an alarming degree of randomness that may well seem quite unfair. You will be tested in ways you can’t possibly comprehend. The best you can do in the face of this tsunami is Hold your head high (aka BE TOUGH). This primarily means you do not (a) complain (b) claim victimhood (even if it’s justified) or (c) drown yourself in self-pity (even if it’s justified). Additionally, you would do well to keep perspective and remember that when your mind tells you can’t go harder, your body essentially always has more to give. That of course you can endure whatever “it” is because you are, in fact, enduring “it.” Right now. And now. And now. In the moment of conflict it will be trivially easy to forget all of this, to forget yourself, and to surrender. Real men, tough people, and those with the stiffest of upper lips don’t.

Part Two of BE TOUGH that is correct and worth absorbing and is rarely (never?) mentioned when parents and others dish out their kind-hearted advice

Toughness is never about lying. Toughness is free from posturing. Toughness is not some magical ability that renders one immune to all forms of “bad.” Please note that in Part One there was nothing about tough people actually avoiding pain or self-doubt. So, really, the 360-degree view of what Christian is attempting to communicate is YES, the bloody elbow hurts, and YES be tough enough such that that bad feeling doesn’t consume you. Thus, Christian would have no issue (aside from the curse word; how do these kids learn these things these days?) if Jimmy responded, “FUCKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK,” and then laughed, because, come on, it’s just a minor cut that will heal in t-minus seven days. That’s keeping perspective. That’s being tough. And that’s also being honest. Fast-forward a few decades. You get fired, you lose a race, you get dumped, you get a terrible result, your worst fear is realized, etc. The fraud plays the Oh, that didn’t really matter to me card. Meanwhile, that same person is likely crippled with real self-doubt. At the very least, that person is a liar. The tough person admits how much it all sucks. Maybe he cries. Maybe he has little else to say because maybe he doesn’t have answers or solutions going forward, because maybe there aren’t quick fixes or solutions readily available. And yet, he does NOT capitulate to (a)/(b)/(c).

Pro Tip

(a)/(b)/(c) are all quite powerful forces. One of the most reliable methods for combating their potence is speaking with candor about difficulties; the seemingly simple act of saying aloud that which you most fear does wonders in reducing fear. Also, remember: people are struggling all while pretending they aren’t, so when they hear you soberly admit your issues, they are amazed you possess the courage to do what they cannot. This makes you appear confident even as you may well be feeling weak, but, really, the appearance is true since anyone confronting life while rejecting (a)/(b)/(c) is a confident person.

Fun Fact

If you become someone who is actually tough, the initial “surrender” temptation that traditionally appears upon confronting discomfort emerges less oppressively. That is to say, assuming you don’t commit the sin of (a)/(b)/(c), you actually experience less pain and self-doubt through the practice of observing and admitting pain and self-doubt: the next time Jimmy slams into the ground, the acute sensation of OMG this is bad! is only a, say, 8/10 instead of 10/10 and trending favorably toward 1/10. This culminates in truly being a person aligned with the standard, incomplete definition of a REAL MAN. Funny how that works.