Why (NOT) to be cool
For approximately 80 years, the notion of what a man should be like has been heavily influenced by the idea of ‘cool’.
THE COOL MAN
The cast of seductively cool figures includes Humphrey Bogart, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Marcello Mastroianni, James Bond, Bob Dylan,…
The cool man doesn’t try too hard; you don’t see them floundering about in a panic — but they succeed anyway.
They are physically confident, they can scale a mountain or stroll down a deserted street in the middle of the night; if they have to kill someone, they will do it neatly with minimal fuss;
they don’t worry, they are self-contained and sure of themselves; their trousers are always a perfect fit; they express themselves briefly — but their words are always to the point; they’re not meek in the face of authority, but they don’t crave power themselves: they are independent.
The cool man’s essential characteristic is an aura of invulnerability, well handled: without any showing off or bragging. When the house is on fire, the cool man doesn’t scream or call the fire brigade; ‘temperature’s rising, baby’, he quips to his current girlfriend as she emerges from the shower. Then he casually puts out the blaze himself.
When the waiter spills a cocktail over him, the cool man doesn’t get flustered; he removes his jacket and looks even better in his shirt.
When his boss or someone is being difficult, the cool man smiles ironically: he can walk away at any moment; this is what, as a man, one is supposed to be like.
For decades some of the most astute and creative minds have devoted themselves to making this notion of masculinity attractive — it’s been portrayed as enviable, seductive to women, and well-dressed.
And the image has worked: it’s what you need to be a real man.
And — perhaps daily — this model of manhood tortures us with the gap between its ideals — and our reality.
But there’s another — more realistic and more important — vision of what a good man is like that’s (comparatively) been given less attention and creative encouragement very much.
THE WARM MAN
This is the very opposite of the cool man, what I call: the warm man. The warm man does not put out many fires by himself.
He is, instead, very much alive to his own anxiety.
He would ‘drop the gun’ and would tell you quite candidly he had done so. What is distinctive and admirable is his relationship to this anxiety. He is aware of it, honest about it, funny with it — and yet not overwhelmed by it.
The warm man has a good sense of how demented and fragile we all are.
So he goes out of his way to reassure, to be forgiving, and to be gentle. He has tried very hard, at times, to get things to work out better for himself.
The warm man has known many sorrows: he has done stupid things; he has lost people he loved; he has made daft decisions. His weaknesses have made him immensely generous to others.
When the waiter spills the cocktail, the warm hero laughs (he has spilled a few himself) and leaves a generous tip if he can. When he doesn’t hear or doesn’t remember someone’s name, the warm hero is ashamed but frank and says — sincerely — ‘I’m sorry and very embarrassed, but it’s slipped my mind… forgive me, …’
When they’ve messed up at work, the warm person admits it, feels sorry, openly apologizes, and explains how best he can what actually went wrong and how he might be put it right in the future.
The warm man’s essence is vulnerability well-handled; he is conscious of his flaws and failings but uses this knowledge to become interestingly humorous and a rich source of sympathy for the secret troubles of every life he encounters.
Ideally, one day, it will be as desirable to be called warm as it currently is to be labeled ‘cool.’
There will be lists of the 40 warmest men under 40; boys will come home from school and complain to their mothers: ‘I can’t do it, I can’t, I don’t know how to be warm’; and in the secret soul of every man there will be a quiet, steady yearning to be as warm as they possibly can.