Growing up as a boy in the 1980s suburbs of Philadelphia, in elementary school, you could be called out at any time.
This could be because you had hair that looked too feathered, or as if your father had cut it for you, or you wore sneakers that were considered lame, or because it was discovered you liked that one Culture Club song. You could be called out because you struck out twice in gym class that day, because you liked to read, because you didn’t really care who Pete Rose was.
When you got called out, that meant you were supposed to fight that person. It was like being challenged to a duel—of fists. Usually, it would occur after school, in the upper fields, where no teachers or adults ever wandered. A dozen or more kids would gather to watch. It was high entertainment. The second worst thing that could happen was to lose. The first worst thing that could happen would be to decline to fight, or not show up.
I was called out a few times—maybe five, maybe ten. I had hair that my father would cut, I did like that Culture Club song, I struck out on a regular basis in gym, and one could probably see in my eyes that I was emotionally permeable and self-conscious—two deadly things for boys back then.
I didn’t show up even once. I simply said, “I’m not going to fight you.”
The boys would look at me incredulously. They would stare with their mouths open. Then they would sneer or laugh or push me in the chest. “What do you mean? You’re not going to fight? Are you some sort of p*ssy?”
I would look back at them as casually and calmly as I could. “I just don’t want to. It’s stupid. I don’t want to fight you. So why should I?”
This would usually end things. They would push me again, or insist I was a total p*ssy, or both, and laugh at me one last time while shaking their head before walking away with their snickering friends. Within 15 minutes, word would spread through the school, at least through the popular boys, and I would get looks and shakes of the head from them in the hallway, maybe a push or two into the lockers. In elementary school, in 1982, in America, you were not a pacifist. You were another word that started with “P.” And that was that.
To be a boy, a man, you had to fight. You had to be willing to be aggressive. You had to subvert your feelings. You had to live by the code of action, strength, and emotional vapidness.
In 2020, we’ve had a president who epitomizes these traits. A president who often waxes rhapsodic during his rallies about beating up people he does not like, such as governors, journalists, and people who believe in science and medicine. We have many men and women in red hats who will not wear a mask to protect the lives of others because, somehow, it is seen as weak. We have groups who call themselves “Proud Boys” as they march with AK-47s strapped to themselves.
It seems much of the country is acting like tough boys from suburban 1982. In other biospheres of the country, many men are going to therapy, many men are practicing more Eastern, esoteric forms of spirituality, and doing yoga, and being stay-at-home dads who secretly enjoy folding the laundry. This is not to say that MAGA citizens are not also possibly vegan pacifists who listen to Enya while reading Pema Chödrön—human beings contain multiverses within.
While much of the country currently languishes in the 1980s—or rather, the 1950s—concepts of masculinity, many of us are working hard to be a new type of man. A man who understands the joys and pleasures of his feminine side. A man who will delightedly listen to Joni Mitchell while taking a bath. A man who feels some sort of poetic stirring at the sight of red, orange, and yellow fall leaves against a gray sky. A man who will happily discuss, dare we say it, his feelings.
I would submit that the majority of the violence of this world is caused by men who aren’t able to express their feelings. Perhaps they are good at expressing anger, but not in a complex, nuanced way that acknowledges their own responsibility toward the anger, that acknowledges the individual story each person involved in conflict brings to it. These men who cannot think about or feel their anger in a complex way continue to play the role of victim. When you see yourself as a victim, you can easily believe your anger, and how you express it, is always justified, and can be channeled as aggressively as you see fit.
When men resist looking inward and reflecting on their own traumas, their own wounds, their own deep grievings, they will stay stuck in simplistic, black-and-white ways of perceiving all that comes into their world. When something comes their way that challenges their sense of self, their sense of safety, they may lash out blindly, because their structure of denial and security is being threatened. They have not developed the tools to ascertain a bigger picture of what is happening, and to develop empathy for the other actors in the play.
When men have trouble talking about their fears, their worries, and their insecurities, they stay isolated with these dark demons. They don’t allow others to help them create a new story about these traumas, and they stay stuck in primal, immature ways of coping: through shutting out the hard parts. As they ignore these conversations and moments of self-reflection, the cancerous tumors of pain continue to harden and grow larger. No one is allowed to fully enter the attic in their soul, locked and full of dusty and cobwebbed memories and grievances that only grow more symbolic and pervasive through their being hidden away, not to be seen or thought about.
But as with all things repressed and locked away, when the Pandora’s Box is opened, all hell breaks loose.
Men must begin the hard and glorious work of letting the light into their attics of fear and shame and trauma. They must throw back the dusty curtains and watch the sunlight turn the dust motes into tiny particles of sparkling transformation.
The cliché story we hear of the teens who gun down their classmates, of the serial rapists, of the guys writing manifestos in sheds filled with plastic explosives, is that they were isolative, quiet, and calm. Calm until their ego was jeopardized—the woman they liked from afar was disinterested; calm until something challenged their sense of control and disregarded their pride. Then the violence comes.
How different things might have been for them if someone had taught them how to discuss and integrate their shadow side. If someone had taught them how to sit with their discomfort. If someone had taught them how to find the middle path of experiencing joy while sad, of feeling okay with feeling alone, rejected, pathetic, miserable, because feeling these things is sometimes part of being human, and this too shall pass.
It can be complicated, being a sensitive man in this era. We get mixed messages. It can seem that the world wants us to be more sensitive, but not too sensitive. It can seem that some women want a man who can share his feelings and appreciate poetry, yet also know how to split a cord of wood, navigate a stock portfolio, and not stay stuck in complicated emotions too long. The message sometimes can sound like: “feel your feelings, but make sure you are always still functioning and strong and capable.” It can feel as if we should be doing yoga, meditating, and cooking complicated meals, and then jumping on a white steed and galloping off into the sunset to vanquish dragons.
This dichotomy of Strong/Sensitive is tricky; just as women have been subjected for thousands of years to the dichotomy of Sexy/Take Care Of All The Chores. Just as women can be sexy when they choose to be, and also wear bleach-stained sweatpants and talk about their work issues when they choose, men can be strong sometimes, and also huddled in bed crying about something that happened when they were in middle school. In fact, the woman in sweatpants discussing a work issue is sexy—because she is being human, real, vulnerable. The man who is discussing his hurt feelings over how a friend spoke to him is also sexy, for the same reasons.
It is time that we redefine the term sexy, the term strong. It is time that we become truly progressive in our emotional intelligence, or better yet, our connection with our soul, our deepest self. We are growing in our understanding of how to be less binary with race and sex, yet I still find it hard to find men I can have truly deep conversations with. Conversations that reach into the best and hardest and most complicated parts of being human. The John Wayne strong and silent genre of man is still alive and well, even if he is drinking kombucha and knows what enneagram he is.
The modern man is complicated, and owning his complications. The modern man is strong because he can cry over old memories, because he can feel depressed and lost and like a failure and know that this is a natural part of being human. The modern man accepts that being alive is really hard and really weird and really exhausting, and pretending that this doesn’t bother him is just outdated and boring and not a good way to be healthy.
As the Buddha said, “It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours.”
This is the next big movement in the evolution of humanity, my fellow men. We must conquer ourselves. We must love ourselves while seeing our flaws clearly and honestly in the mirror of self-reflection. We must learn how to talk and listen in new ways—in ways that deeply spelunk the formerly hidden caverns of ourselves. We must air out our musty attics of self-deceit and fear and unexpressed longings for intimacy and fellowship and trust. We must talk about more with our male friends than sports statistics and beer varieties and the vagaries of women.
Until this is the new normal, humanity will not progress in any profound way. Men continue to be the primary arbiters of pain inflicted on others, through emotional and physical abuse, sexual violations, neglect, murder, war. Becoming more emotionally conscious, caring enough to do the hard work, is truly a matter of life and death.