The Ultimate Potential of Healthy Masculinity
I’m on a plane flying back to San Jose, California from Houston, Texas. My small, blue fishing rod is in the overhead bin. A couple of days ago, on a small boat, I was piercing a hook through the backs of live shrimp and casting them out into the Gulf of Mexico. It was the first time I had ever done that. The shrimp were as big as my hand, so large that when I sent a video of them to my wife, she texted back, “Did you catch all of those fish?!”
“No, that’s just the bait,” I responded.
I was in Texas for a bachelor weekend in Galveston, in a big house with a dock, on a calm canal that opened out into the Gulf. From the dock, we lowered a crab trap, loaded with a bloody fish head, into the darkness, before climbing aboard the boat on which I would learn to fish again. “The last time I fished, I was about nine years old,” I said, as one of my friends loaded the cans of beer into the cooler.
As a kid, I used live maggots for bait. I remember them burrowing into the crevices between my fingers, especially at the sensitive point where my fingers joined my hand. I preferred to keep them in the pot, but I remember a friend who stored some in his mouth. He told me that it kept them warm so that they would wiggle and be attractive to fish.
Once our fishing guide, Josh, had dropped the anchor into the ocean, he showed us how to put the shrimp on the hooks. “Grab ’em real tight so they can’t click and poke you with these barbs,” he said in his Texan accent, pointing to the two serrated protrusions, one on the shrimp’s head and the other on its tail. “Then you put the hook in here, just in front of this black thing, which is its brain.”
I tensed up and shook a little, “I don’t think I want to do that,” I said, “I don’t want to be cut.” I was also feeling weird about intentionally puncturing the exoskeletons of these little creatures.
“You’ll be fine,” he reassured me, “It just stings for a minute.”
Nevertheless, I let Josh do it for me, at least for a while. Part of me judged myself: an internal voice said, You should just do it! But I’ve learned to not push myself to do things that I’m not comfortable with; there’s nothing I should do. Even though Josh was about half my age and even though I was the one with the beard and the muscles from CrossFit, I projected rugged manliness onto him. I imagined that he was judging me as a soft, West Coast liberal. Yet he was extremely supportive, understanding, and willing to do it for me.
As the day progressed, there were times when Josh would hold the shrimp for me while I put the hook in, and eventually I was grabbing shrimp myself and doing the whole thing on my own. In a conversation that night, I discovered that Sam, who was on the other boat, had gone through exactly the same progression as me. I also discovered that Albert, who was on my boat, had been quietly and gradually developing his skill and confidence too.
While standing on the boat and looking out at horizon I thought about how I didn’t enjoy watching horror movies anymore. I said, “As I’ve grown older, I seem to have become more emotionally sensitive. Perhaps I’m just more aware of the emotional effect things have on me.”
As we fished, we talked about relationships. On the boat that I was on, three of us were trained in psychology. After we had fully analyzed one particularly disturbing past relationship, Josh summarized in his homespun accent, “We call them crazy bitches.”
The next day morning, walking out of Starbucks, Mica, one of the other psychologists at the weekend, said to me, “Fishing seems like the perfect balance of doing and not doing. A great way to spend time together.”
“Yeah,” I responded, “it’s a kind of parallel play that men are often comfortable with, like watching football together, except that you’re learning and collaborating, and there’s enough time to talk about things. It’s like alone time, but with friends.”
At dinner, as we reflected on what we had most enjoyed about the weekend, I revealed that I was really grateful to have felt emotionally safe enough to pee in front of them, something that I have struggled with since disturbing events in my childhood. I wrote about that in I Feel Terrified in Restrooms. Here’s Why.
We all agreed that the fishing had been fun and rewarding, but the best part was simply sitting around on the deck, in the sun, talking about psychology. A group of us spent years studying psychology and training together and now were were professional therapists, professors, researchers, and coaches. It was great to come full-circle and reconnect to our shared roots.
That night, in the living room of the big house we had rented, David, the groom, moved a wooden chair in front of the fireplace and sat facing us, locating himself as the center of attention. One of us told him how he seemed unusually anxious during this weekend, and that opened up an exploration of his reality. After he told us about an upsetting interaction in couple’s therapy, we pointed out that elements of the dynamic he described seemed to be occurring live, as we interacted. Because we paid close attention to him, were curious, and held him in positive regard, we were all able to discover something new about him. After this conversation, David became visibly more relaxed and he developed a more empowered perspective on how to address the issue that he had been struggling with in couple’s therapy.
David then asked his friend Daniel if he wanted to be the focus of attention. None of us had met Daniel before the weekend, and we had the feeling that he had been hiding something because he seemed to be behaving somewhat inauthentically. As we took turns asking him questions, we discovered that there was something going on in his marriage that was very disturbing to him. Through the validation of his experience, he was able to develop a profound clarity about what he wanted and what his next actions should be. We were also able to support him in uncovering that at the root of the disconnect with his wife was their mutual fear of her potentially imminent death. The recognition of the fear and potential loss led to him crying and to all of our hearts opening more.
At the end of the conversation, Daniel urgently wanted to call his wife. While we trusted him to do the right thing, we also conveyed to him that what actually leads to more optimal outward circumstances is the sustained awareness and acceptance of inner truth, of reality as it is. Action is often taken with the unconscious agenda of trying to change the inner experience, but that kind of action invariably leads to a perpetuation of the outward circumstances that originally led the unpleasant feelings. After a pause, Daniel’s wife texted him an unexpectedly loving message. Then he went outside and spoke with her on the phone, with the intention of doing his best to only honor and express what was true for him.
The next morning, Daniel was still imbued with a soft vulnerability and transparent authenticity. He was dedicated to doing what’s right for his relationship, which meant doing what’s right for him. He also seemed to feel safe with, and supported by, us other men.
It was amazing and satisfying to watch each of my old friends take a turn in supporting another friend, to see how they had each developed in emotional maturity and wisdom. It was great to see Albert, primarily a researcher and a professor, having more recently been developing facilitation skills as part of his research, be so effective in this interpersonal domain. It was deeply fulfilling to experience the way we resonated with each other, creating a supportive emotional net in which to hold the one we were focusing on. If one of us dropped anything, the others caught it. All of us were operating as one self-aware organism, recognizing and gathering-in the fragmented pieces of ourselves. There was no sense of separation between us. We were in a deep state of co-creative flow.
I suspect that our society needs a lot more of this kind of deep, skillful, emotional connection and support between men. When we men can connect and support each other, we not only live more fulfilling lives, but also maximize our potential to show up effectively as fathers, husbands, partners, and leaders.