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Giants of Men

[This is a revised version of a post originally published on Jan. 11, 2009, one that I felt was worth revisiting.]

This weekend, I buried my grandfather. He was a giant among men, and will be sorely missed.

He lost his wife of 65 years to cancer over two years ago, and he still lived at home (he was 90), but was unable to fully care for himself anymore. We knew that he wouldn’t last much longer, but it was still a shock to hear the news of his passing. He was my last grandparent still living, so perhaps that’s why his death was hard for me to take. I didn’t realize how much I missed my grandparents until they were all gone.

I heard so many good things about him at the funeral – how many people he had touched with his life, what a strong presence he had, and how much he valued his family and community. His funeral service was standing room only.

As I looked at my mother and her siblings on the stand, I saw them as they were now, getting old and now assuming the positions of matriarchs and patriarchs of their families. I no longer saw the uncles and aunts who always seemed so young to me, and who always looked up to their parents for guidance.

It brought up a lot of thoughts and feelings about family and relations for me. I realized that I was now only a single generation away from being the head of my family, and that felt strange. Could I live up to those standards? What will they say about me when I’m gone?

Every person at his funeral service expressed such respect for him that I found myself with a new admiration for his life. Perhaps the most common thing that people said about my grandpa was that he lived a good life and was passionate and committed to his principles. He left a legacy of service to others.

And I didn’t see that as I was growing up. All I saw was a grandpa. Not a person, not a man. But he was, all of his life – raising a family during the depression and then WWII, and living to see the era of laptop computers and digital cameras and cellphones. What a contrast to his childhood!

It started me thinking about the difference between men of his era and those of my generation. It seems that we’re losing something. I know that I did – both of my grandfathers passed away before I was wise enough to consider the wealth of experience in their lives.  A whole generation of giants of men are leaving us, and with them, we’re also losing their ideals and virtues and principles.

When we lose these giants of men, these principles become endangered:

“He’s a good man.” The endorsement of a friend or community member was as simple as that. And it meant a lot. It said that person had honor and integrity and could be counted on to do what he said. My generation has lost this. We still endorse and recommend our friends, but it doesn’t carry the same weight anymore. We’ve become cynical and skeptical about others, and could use a return to trust and integrity in our world.

Cash is king. If you didn’t have the money back in the day, you didn’t buy it. You made it, or you scavenged it, or you did without. If something got broken, you repaired it (again and again). Today, everybody wants to extend credit to us, and we’re all purchasing things that we don’t really need, simply because we can buy them. Having that debt puts us under the gun to make more money every day, and having all that stuff doesn’t make us any happier.

Saving your money is honorable. Those growing up through the depression eras had different ideas about money, and saving it was higher in priority than spending it on consumer goods. Putting our cash aside for a rainy day or for the future is not super-relevant to my generation. We’ve been told that 401K plans and Social Security will be our safety net, not our savings. And we spend huge portions of our lives just paying for a house that we’re told is a good investment, with little to no cash savings.

A handshake deal is written in stone. If you shook on it, a verbal agreement was as good as a contract. Better, even. A man’s personal integrity was what bound him to do the right thing. Now we need multi-page contracts and background checks and credit checks to make a deal. We don’t trust anybody without a signature.

Marriage and children are sacred obligations. Marriage used to be a bigger commitment, not something to take lightly. A man took responsibility for his decisions and his actions, especially when it concerned his family. That’s not to say husbands or marriages or families were perfect then, but simply that it was a bigger deal to get married back then. Today our divorce rate is out of control, and fatherless children are the norm, not the exception. Men go through several wives these days, sometimes within a short time. Why get married if we aren’t really making a commitment?

Mind your own business. Gossip has been a part of the human experience for such a long time, but it used to be considered more of a bad thing. People were labeled as gossips because they were the exception, not the rule. Modern media has now made voyeurs of us – we want to see everyone’s dirty laundry and then judge them on it. Or we want to see someone else’s mistakes and screw-ups so we can laugh at it. If we put that same energy into changing our own lives, we’d be so much farther ahead and much better people because of it.

Do the right thing. Acting on principle is a rare thing these days. Most of us act out of our own best interest, not the good of the whole. Doing the right thing everywhere you go is hard, but it’s what separates the men from the boys.

Row your own boat. Men did what it took to get ahead and to support their families. They worked hard at honest jobs, taking pride in their work. We’ve now got generations that think the world owes them a living, and we expect to get ahead even if we don’t do anything. It’s become more about who you know than what you do, and honest labor, skilled or otherwise, isn’t given the respect it deserves.

***

This may seem overly simplified, but I really do think that we’re losing something in our culture, and urge everyone to connect with and learn from our elders before they’re gone.

I can only hope that the legacy I leave behind will be something celebrated by my children and theirs. But somehow I don’t think it will be the same.

What do you think?

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14 Responses to Giants of Men

  1. I lost my grandmother this fall. She was 92. My grandfather is my last remaining grandparent, and he turns 90 in September. He just got out of the hospital, thankfully he is fine. He is concerned he won’t be able to do push ups now. I just hope he hangs on until we all go to see him for his 90th birthday.

  2. Some great thoughts here. The wisdom of our elders is always a resource that sadly few of us take time to appreciate to its fullest.

  3. Derek…again: I am sorry for your loss and feel your pain.

    My grandparents have been gone for a long time. But your blog post is so ‘timeless’. We have become so caught up in the “here and now” that we’ve forgotten the “then and there”.

    Values have changed: now it’s “live for the day”. What about the consequences for the decisions and actions we make and take? When did that all fly out the window? I think Madison Avenue has taken us down the pea patch.

    Unfortunately, some of us parents have gone along with the kids to be sucked into the instant gratification era. We need a shock of reality. Perhaps that’s what this economic mess is all about. A “hello?” to all of us to stop and think about how we got here.

    Great post my friend. Great post.

  4. Those are great ideals to live by and to pass on to our children – whom, of course, are the true measure of our parenting.

  5. Very insightful and principled article. It is true in all respects. I have struggled to acquire these traits through many errors. My grandfather never spoke to me. My father died when I was 14. It was only in becoming a Christian that I began to see these things, yet since most of my Christian peers had similar life experiences, the simple truths that you have expressed were rarely found. I believe the Depression steered many of our elders into a sober financial life. The rest of what you have described, though Biblical in substance, was transferred through generations in a tight family unity with strong values and honesty, usually without the presence of excess finances.

    Without male role models to influence these principles and virtues the learning curve can be long and painful through much trial and error.

    Derek, you are very blessed that your grandfather has left you a legacy from which to build the foundation of your life and instill good values in your own children.

  6. This is a wonderful post, Derek, and thank you for introducing me to it.

    Your grandpa sounds like he was a wonderful guy. If times were different, perhaps he’d have been one of the leaders that we see building paths online?

    There does seem to be a gap between generations where we lost direction. It’s coming back – I see it every day where people stand up to make a difference. But it’s a slow haul – at least it’s started, though, and that’s the main thing.

    Thanks again for an insightful and open post.

  7. Dear Derek,

    This moved me deeply. I don’t think it’s over simplified at all. In fact, I think that is what we all need to recesses: simple, solid, and real values. It was enriching reading this. Not only the realizations that hit you and you seem to embrace on a deep level, about soon being the head of the family and seeing your grandfather and other relatives more clearly, but that strong desire in you (which I’ve seen so many times) to live a life from your heart. To live a life filled with harmony to others and Earth, a life of real value. You strike me as very earnest and genuine, both qualities that your grandfather had.

    It did me good to read this as I too believe in these almost organic or grounded values. They are part of what keeps me sane in world that appears to have lost all sense of “true” values, a world that has all but forgotten what is important. We’ve forgotten to the point that more often than not we don’t see our connection to the living planet (which we can’t live without), we don’t see our connection to each other or the “real” goodness around us.

    Unless we are constantly bombarding ourselves with TV, computer, iPod, cell phone and more we tend to feel like we are going crazy. To to let go, slow down, take time out from the bombardment to just “be”, and let peace, Nature, real connections with people and Life back into our hearts and souls is a HUGE step to remembering our values.

    I loved this article and see it as a beautiful reflection of YOU. I think you are ALREADY leaving a deeply precious legacy for generations to come, and will also make a very remarkable head of the family. I am proud of you and thank you for choosing to live consciously. You make my world a better place too.

    Thank you and hugs,
    Robin
    .-= Robin Easton´s last blog ..What Does “Naked in Eden” Mean? =-.

  8. Derek, as I prepare to go visit my 86-y.o. DAD who exemplifies each of these values, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the elephant in the living room here, which is the obvious evolution of good men such as yourself who not only choose to walk through the world with mindfulness but also do so with emotive brilliance.

    Guys like Gavin H. @servantofchaos and Tom M. (The Good Men Project) and Danny B. and YOU are redefining masculinity minus the over-rated stoicism and that’s wildly important as we progress toward humanity ascending.

    One of the BEST things of my father’s aging/memory frustrations has been seeing him grapple with his own mortality with a sincerity and genuine sense of being human that knocks him off the pillar both familial and societal pressures have placed him upon.

    That’s huge. And necessary to see and to BE in order to achieve the intimacy so often lacking between dads and daughters of a certain generation.

    So thank YOU and your generation of men who dare to be real, be mindful, and be gentlemen of substance…you have much to teach the ‘other men’ out there swept up in the media machine of misogynistic crud defining manhood by notches/scores/thuggery and bravado. Onward, giants!
    .-= Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth´s last blog ..Sexy Broccoli, Saucy 6 Year Olds & Why SexEd is a Must: SexTech Pt.3 =-.

  9. All this fine sentiment wasted on an America that practices the ethic-less new neo-con corporatist view that raping the next generation to age 40 for low wages then downsizing them to economic Hell and poverty for high profits is the right way to build a strong nation! Look at America’s bottom line! Crashing through the gates of Hell with the dollar in fast pursuit as we speak! Is the formula wrong after all? Can there be wisdom and strength in older hands we did not value properly? Is ware-housing the Elderly the right thing to do? China grows stronger with the rest of Asia daily, and they value their elderly. America shrivels, look a Detroit City:
    http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/2Nrlnk/exiledonline.com/slums-of-detroit-a-look-at-the-heart-of-americas-2nd-most-deserted-city
    http://www.100abandonedhouses.com/
    http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit/index.html
    http://www.jamesgriffioen.net/index.php?/prairies/feral-houses/
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8YdmLkDmjU
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hhJ_49leBw&NR=1&feature=fvwp
    Weep! Great buildings built by the strength of the backs of the now elderly, falling into disrespect! All that timber, never to grow on this continent again! We are so screwed in our sense of ethics, values, so doomed to wasting all that is of real value, including the admonitions of our Elderly! Sad America, Sad.

  10. Mr. Markham, I am sorry to hear about your loss.

    However, what a great tribute this article is- reminds me somewhat of an article from Brett McKay’s artofmanliness.com on ‘finding your core values’ (though I must say your article struck a louder chord with me).

    I’m 21 and lost my grandfather to cancer a few years ago but I remember the principles that (although he never really spoke about) he lived by so emphatically and try to emulate them myself.

    I often wonder, what is it about our grandparents’ era that seems so much simpler, that made men seem more, well, manly?! Was it war? Compulsory service? The absence of soul-sapping technologies? Maybe, but as a member of the (doomed?!) ‘Generation Y’, I hope that the values of our grandparents do not die with them and that we too can live everyday confident that we are ‘doing the right thing’.

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