Two Men of 2009

If you are a Classics scholar, you may know that the month “January” was named in honour of the Roman god, Janus, who is depicted as having two faces, one looking forward, the other back.

As we begin a new decade together, it’s worth noting that back when the last one began – when we were bracing ourselves for something called the “Y2K bug” — YouTube, Facebook, the Iphone, and Wikipedia did not yet exist. We can only imagine what the world will be like when the futuristic sounding 2020 rolls around. We may all need to hold on to our socks, if indeed, we are still wearing them.

I’ll leave the future for another day. This morning I’d like to take a few moments to look back on this past year, a year that ended for me, alas, as I watched the US junior hockey team give up a 2 goal lead to our Canadian cousins before losing in a shootout in Saskatchewan.  In some respects, that come from ahead, grabbing loss from the jaws of victory seems like a perfectly appropriate way for me to bid adieu to 2009. It may have been that kind of year.

The unstated question at boys schools such as UCC is, “What does manhood mean?” There are two men who cast some light on this issue, two men who dominated the news last year – multi-racial men known simply by their distinctive first names: Barack and Tiger. Like Janus, they look at the question of promise from opposing perspectives: one of a promise fulfilled, the other of a vow broken.

Even if you don’t approve of Barack’s approach to expanding the war or deepening the deficit, you have to admire the man himself. He is the Jackie Robinson of political leadership. His calm demeanor, his keen intellect, and his quiet sense of pragmatic competence may have been just what we all needed during a volatile time.

Tiger, well, I’m sure you know the story all too well. I will leave the sordid details in the all too eager hands of those producing “Inside Edition” or “People” magazine. After all, inquiring minds need to know.

It’s worth noting that neither Tiger nor Barak got where he is by being lucky. Both were blessed with natural talent, of course, but each disciplined himself, honed his skills, and became known for extraordinary – almost superhuman focus, a kind of concentration that served to redefine what success looks like in golf and government.

In an interesting way, both men define themselves through their relationships with their fathers. Earl Woods molded and mentored Tiger in a way that makes most us dads feel profoundly inadequate. Barack, on the other hand, was completely abandoned by his dad, and his first book, “In Search of My Father,” details the impact this profound loss had on him.

For all of their similarities, though, what separates the two and what has caused all of the well-publicized hardship for Tiger, was his apparent ability to too easily compartmentalize his life.

Let me try to explain. We all have to compartmentalize things from time to time.  If your mom blasted you this morning as you left the house, you still had to go to school. You can’t let that unpleasantness paralyze you. You put the pain in a box, resolve to make amends tonight, and you move on to tackle the rest of your day. This kind of compartmentalization is a necessary skill.

But if you have too much compartmentalization in your life – if you find it too easy to put a box around parts of your life that clash – then you run the risk of losing your integrity. Tiger’s adultery is just an extreme example of how someone can play the devoted husband and father in one area, while behaving in a completely different fashion in another.

We all struggle with this tension to some degree, even if we aren’t paid millions of dollars to schill for Gillette. The challenge is this: Can we be the same guy in the library as well as the locker room? Do we behave the same way on a Monday morning as we do on a Friday night? And if there is a discrepancy, what is the cause of this inconsistency?

One of the highest compliments you can ever receive is to be described as a “stand up guy” because stand up guys don’t give in to the tyranny of the moment. They are the same — no matter the time, no matter the company, no matter the score. Come hell or high water, they are always the same. Always themselves.

The antithesis of the stand up guy is Eddie Haskell. I’m dating myself with this reference, but in old guy tv, a show called “Leave It to Beaver,” featured a smarmy high school boy named Eddie Haskell, who often peppered his conversation with saccharine comments such as, “That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing today, Mrs. Cleaver.” What everyone saw and understood was that Eddie acted one way in front of adults and a completely different way in front of his peers. You may know guys like that yourself.  I hope you don’t know too many.

Prep schools, by the way, have a reputation for breeding Eddie Haskells, guys who know what adults want to hear and see. They always have their shirts tucked in, their shoes shined, their gray flannels ironed. But it’s too easy for all of us to confuse the externals with the essentials. While you need to observe the dress code, the superficially flattering remark designed to curry favour eventually starts to ring hollow.

I hope that, as the year begins, we can all strive to be stand up guys, to avoid the easy hypocrisy of compartmentalization, to be the same guy in the student centre as we are in the Eaton Centre.

We may not all become prime ministers or presidents, but we’ll know who we are, what we stand for, and what we’re about.  If Janus is looking your way, forward or backward, hopefully he’ll see the same guy. When all is said and done, it’s personal integrity and not a close shave that is, as Gillette’s tag-line suggests, “The best a man can get.”

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One Response to “Two Men of 2009”

  1. Robyn Stefani Says:

    Thanks for posting, I very much enjoyed your newest post. I think you should post more often, you obviously have talent for blogging!

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