The 6 Essentials of Being a Man: Reflections on a 74-Year Journey

My quest to understand what it meant to be a man began the day I dismantled my crib. I mean who wants to spend large portions of the day and night locked behind bars when there is so much to be explored in the world? I was four years old. Shortly thereafter I wanted to trade in my white baby shoes for “big boy” shoes.

My mother took me to the shoe store for the first time and I was entranced by all the shoes and color choices. After looking them over I knew exactly what I wanted.

“I want the Red Keds,” I told the clerk in the shoe store.

 I waited expectantly for him to return from the backroom, but when he opened the box, my heart sank.

“Red is for girls,” the salesman announced. “Blue is for boys.”

I scowled at him and said, “No, I want the red Keds.” He looked at my mother for support. He didn’t want me starting my young life on the wrong foot. My mother looked at me, then replied to the salesman. “Give the boy what he wants.” I walked out with my Red Keds.

I just celebrated my 74th birthday on December 21, 2017. Ever since my red Ked days, I’ve been trying to figure out what it means to be man. Here’s what I’ve learned thus far. I don’t claim this is the truth about what it means to be a man. It’s just how I see things at this time.

Full disclosure: I know my understanding is influenced by my age, having been raised by a single Mom in Los Angeles, my passion for biology, my time in medical school, my professional interest in evolutionary psychology, being heterosexual, married, the father of 5 grown children and 17 grandchildren, a psychotherapist specializing in men’s health, and a lot more I undoubtedly don’t recognize.

  1. Being a man is whatever the hell I say it is.

Trying to fit me into someone else’s male box never worked for me. When I went to pick out my first bicycle, I wanted the one with the scooped out front, not the one with a bar across. Even as a kid, it was clear to me that bouncing off the seat I might smash my balls on the bar. The scoop was what I wanted. “But that’s a girl’s bike,” the salesman said to me. “No, it’s not,” I insisted. “If I’m going to ride it, it must be a boy’s bike.”

  1. Being a man means knowing we are male in every cell of our body.

According to David C. Page, M.D., professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “There are 10 trillion cells in human body and every one of them is sex specific.” I was told that females have an inherent identity because they are the ones that can carry a baby in her body, but men have to do things to prove they are masculine. “Masculinity is not something given to you, something you’re born with, but something you gain,” said Norman Mailer. “And you gain it by winning small battles with honor.”

Not so, it turns out. If we’re male, every cell in our body carries an XY chromosome pair (If we’re female each cell carries an XX chromosome pair). “So, all your cells know on a molecular level whether they are XX or XY,” says Dr. Page.

Can you imagine how wonderful life would be if every male knew there was nothing he had to prove in order to be a man? Can you imagine how many fewer fights, conflicts, and wars there would be?

  1. Being a man means being initiated by other men and being part of a men’s group.

For most of human history there were male initiations where boys were separated from their mothers and sisters, formed into groups of their peers, guided by older men into the unique mysteries of being a man. We all long to know where we fit in the company of men. That’s why I’ve been in a men’s group now for 38 years.

As the poet, Robert Bly, reminds us, “Men need to be in the presence of other men in order to hear the sound that male cells sing.” We never feel essentially male until we experience the unique male song that can only be heard in a men’s group.

  1. Being a man means respecting our origins: Egg + Sperm = Me

Biologists have a very simple and useful definition of what is male and what is female, whether we are fish, ferns, or human beings.  An individual can either make many small gametes (sex cells) or fewer but larger gametes.  The individuals that produce smaller gametes are called “males” and the ones that produce larger gametes are called “females.”  Although the human egg is microscopic, it is large enough to house 250,000 sperm.

We are all a combination of female and male, yin and yang. And males always feel a bit small in comparison to the larger female energy. Its why insecure men often try to intimidate and control women.

  1. Being a man means being competitive.

The female strategy produces gametes that are large, and have a high rate of survival and fertilization. The male strategy is to produce as many as possible, to increase the chances of finding a large one. It’s easier to move the small gametes to the larger one, rather than the other way around. It’s why males go after females. About 400 eggs are ovulated in a woman’s lifetime.  A healthy male produces 500 million sperm per day.

Sperm compete to be the one chosen by the egg during fertilization and men compete to be chosen by a woman. Most all women who want sex can find a man who is willing to have sex with them. Most men are not so lucky. If you want to be chosen by a woman, you have to be the kind of man that other men trust and women respect. Hint: It’s not the Bill Cosbys or Harvey Weinsteins of the world or even the Charlie Roses, Bill Clintons, and Donald Trumps.

  1. Being a man means loving your testosterone…and your estrogen.

I grew up thinking hormones were women’s business. Of course, I was wrong. According to Theresa L. Crenshaw, M.D., author of the textbook Sexual Pharmacology and The Alchemy of Love and Lust, “Testosterone levels seem to be influenced by just about everything: the seasons, the environment, competition, the military, stress, a D cup, just to name a few. The morning highs, daily fluctuations, and seasonal cycles whip men around. Men who so strongly need to feel in control are in fact in much less control than they realize. No wonder men can be so, well, testy!”

“The normal range of total testosterone in a man’s blood varies between 250 and 1,200 ng/dl,” says Dr. Crenshaw. Women have only 10 percent the testosterone that men have (that’s why they are not generally as aggressive, sexually driven, or hairy), but it is an important 10%. “It is this testosterone, not estrogen, that causes the heightened erotic sensitivity of the clitoris, breasts, and nipples. It maintains the fullness, thickness, and health of her genital tissue as well.”

Just as women should cherish testosterone, men should cherish their estrogen. Estradiol in men is essential for modulating libido, erectile function, and spermatogenesis. Estrogen receptors, as well as aromatase, the enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen, are abundant in brain, penis, and testis, organs important for sexual function.

I’ll enjoy hearing from you. If you have an essential quality you’d add to this list, let me know. Share your comments below or you can contact me via email.

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  1. Jed, you are brilliant as usual. Thank you.

  2. Bill Bright says:

    I never even thought about what being a man meant, at least not until Robert and John Lee and yourself started writing about it. My original lesson was of my dad getting up, going to work and coming home dangerous. Now at 62 I understand his suffering, that he came from a time that expected men to be a certain way regardless of everything. My father was born 54 years after the Civil War, to put things into context; its a startling notion, we think of something as barbaric as slavery as being ancient history. The same culture that had slavery as an economic foundation also made the rules about men and what they were expected to be. Archaic to say the least but a part of the man who was my father. The pace of change is probably too much for a generation to align with, when the 1960’s arrived in my home it was too much. My older sisters wanted freedom and my parents were not prepared, the struggle for control was violent and chaotic. I am sure my father believed he was doing what any man should do. From the prospective of 5 decades the turmoil and struggle still is worthy of an occasional discussion and some free flowing anxiety. My sister’s desire to be their own people, independent from the rules that created my father was more then he could hold back; the rage and fear and every other emotion that flowed in that house became a foundation for what I had become. Those unconscious instructions still present themselves, as outdated and painful as they are. So what does it mean to be a man is still unanswered, I am a man in a turbulent world on the back end of when it even matters. Its not even a question I think about much, maybe a little bit more now that I am a grandfather of twins and feel a love unlike any other before. I am conscious in what I say and I love telling them how smart they are, even though they are just learning the language. If I could use my deepest wounds to become someone who they love and respect and someone who gave them a leg up in the world they will be facing then I have been a man my father would be proud to have as a son. And isn’t what our father’s feel about us still somewhere in that question of what does it mean to be a man?

  3. Arthur R George says:

    Jed: These are all important observations, yet I wonder if these are not strategies derived from “fighting the previous war.” That is to say, as in combat and business and academia, that we seek to apply lessons learned in our previous effort to new situations in which those recent lessons may already be irrelevant to a new situation. It seems you are applying the lessons of the “Men’s Movement,” and post-feminism, when a new paradigm has already emerged. Progressive religion, for example, is seeking to address people on the margins: the recreational or addicted drug user, transgender, gay, “queer” as a different identify certainly from the “enlightened manhood” you propose and even from such binary definitions as bisexual, identities from border cultures or foreign cultures that elude easy description, and, let us not forget, the stirrings of the alt-right and the Trump supporter and the fears and rages they bring to the conversation. There is a different fluidity expressed in the “metrosexual male,” who is similarly dealing with the fluidity of female sexual identities, and the emergence of women in executive or middle management positions wielding authority over men. This seems to call for a whole different response than the “previous war” in which such as drum circles and men-only retreats sought to empower male consciousness. So, men’s groups may remain the appropriate forum, but must they now address different questions? I wonder, with some concern, if you are not simply yet importantly addressing “the previous war,” but missing out on the one already on our doorstep.

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