Why the disconnect between men, emotions, and vulnerability is more fraught than we know (or want to admit)

I can’t tell you when it started; only that it’s always been a part of my life. Implicit and explicit reminders that capital-m Manliness has always been, and shall forever be, the purview of Manly Men who refuse to engage in that “touchy-feely bullshit”, as some of my former friends used to see it.

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Don’t get too close. Don’t touch. Don’t hug. Don’t be weak (or at least don’t let your weakness be seen in public). Don’t engage feelings. Don’t be vulnerable. So much proscription — and for what?

Two decades of isolation, rejection, emotional pain, and self-directed hatred apparently. Something that even a decade-plus of therapy couldn’t resolve with any real level of decisiveness. Two decades spent in isolation from other men. Two decades spent denying, burying, burning-down, and rejecting the full spectrum of my own lived experience and the fullness of the life that was trying to be seen and valued. Two decades spent in isolation, rejection, and patient rage waiting for the opportunity to “escape” and start living a glossier, happier life exemplified and objectified on screens, in books, and in magazines. Two decades waiting for depression, post-traumatic stress, and despair to go on permanent holiday and for joy and peace to come rushing in to fill the void (or at least an absence of pain).

Two decades spent destroying my own humanity and empathy to try and belong; to play a part in humanity in a script that was never meant to be real or realized.

My experience isn’t unique. In the age of #MeToo, “woke” culture, and exposure of toxic masculinity, men are being told they have to step up their game. That the world won’t wait or accept the perpetuation of a system that so readily traffics in the pain and misery of that which is Not White, Not Straight, and most explicitly Not Male.

That women, people of color, and the LGTBQIA communities are finding their stride and their voice in the face of rage-fueled and troll-laden Chan Culture, political and historical revisionism in the form of (mostly white, straight, and questionably Christian) males defending “The West” (whatever that is), and heightened tensions or outright violence can and should be considered culturally remarkable. That spirits are not crushed, but instead are fully participating in society as the vanguard of a new sociopolitical vision should give us all some small measure of hope. That men haven’t succumbed en masse to their worst instincts, given how heavily men have been indoctrinated, should give us all hope.

That men are spending time interrogating feelings they’ve largely held close to the chest with other men in the room itself should be a laudable and triumphant accomplishment on its own merits. The fact that a magazine like GQ is publishing, and indeed actively engaging in anything even remotely critical of prior concepts of masculinity in the 21st century, is itself remarkable.

That men more broadly are opening their mouths and their hearts, if not with a therapist or their partners then at least willingly with each other, is a cultural shift. That I see more men becoming more deeply connected with each other, more accepting of (and even outright exploring) the many shapes that their sexualities may take, and more readily accepting of criticism should be seen as a victory of sorts.

But is this all “too little too late”? Is there any time left to make a difference in how men interact with the world and themselves in order to save what remains of it?

We are not yet at a point where young boys and girls can be safe around each other or themselves. We are not yet at a point where adolescents and young adults can safely interrogate their views of themselves, their peers, or the world writ-large without repercussion. We are not yet at a point where men of all ages, classes, and identities can readily and safely explore who they are and how they interact with the world without someone else proscribing them.

How are young people supposed to be introspective and grow into participants in a brighter future when their experiences are being proscribed by a Puritan doctrine and outdated mores?

Meanwhile we’re all front-row to the horrors of an unchecked culture-war revanchist ideology. Seldom a day goes by where there isn’t a mosque, an LGBTQIA space, or a synagogue that becomes a target of directed violence. Rather than viewing them as isolated events, we need to understand that these tragedies are inextricably linked with cultural notions of masculinity, identity, and belonging. How the dominant culture has created these false images of what constitutes ideal men, ideal behavior, and an ideal society.

How society and culture have abandoned men to the immorality and capriciousness of a culture unmoored from a ground-level understanding of reality. How society and culture have left men to the tender mercies of an economic and political system that only values them as cannon-fodder, meat-shields, and oppressors. How society and culture has imprinted upon the abandoned male gender unattainable, unhealthy, and unrealistic ideals of capital-m Masculinity.

How utterly insane men must be to continue to worship at the altar of this pernicious and false ideal of masculinity. Men tearing themselves apart, pulling at the restraints placed upon them by these ideals, rending their own flesh and the flesh of those around them in pursuit of something that will ultimately yield nothing.

Even the 13th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri would be hard-pressed to devise a more clever and cruel Hell.

Which brings me to the question that’s been haunting me every waking moment for the past decade: What will it take to change the hearts and minds of men? At what scale must we set our sights upon in order to see this completed? Can it even be done?

At the very least, there are men who are trying (“doing the work”, in some circles). There are programs that are trying to make this change a reality. One man at a time.

Maybe instead of changing the world (“boiling the ocean”, as one of my mentors calls it), maybe this is the way. Maybe we won’t be able to reach every Anders Breivik, every Dylann Roof, every Ben Shapiro, or every Milo Yannopoulis… but maybe — just maybe we can reach the right men at the right time.

Maybe we can find ways to better understand the mechanisms and reasons that violence, bigotry, and supremacy become so appealing to men who otherwise might abhor those behaviors and work to stop them.

Maybe we can save another adolescent boy from a twenty-year-long spiral of self-hatred and internalized rage. Maybe we can reach another young male and help them see that their emotions, desires, and lived experience aren’t “wrong” or “broken”. Maybe we can reach more men who are isolated and are looking for someone to help them understand themselves and the world around them.

For me, the rescuing had to start exclusively with me. I had to reach out on my own, I struggled to open up. I wrestled with my own demons, winning some and losing some. I resisted being vulnerable so vociferously in light of the rejection and abuse I faced as a youth that the groups I participated in conveyed to me at the end of those groups that I had become “someone entirely different”. Maybe if I’d have been able to access the resources I’d needed sooner, I could’ve embodied that person much earlier in my life.

But perhaps in the future, men will more readily find the resources they need (and be less afraid of seeking them out). Perhaps men will come to find that emotions aren’t a weakness, but are the vehicle by which joy, grief, righteousness, and good are birthed into this world. That without vulnerability and emotion, action is mechanistic and devoid of the very humanity we seek to engender in the world.

Maybe we can save the world, one man at a time.

Written by

Rock climber, splitboarder, voracious reader, systems administrator. Still trying to figure stuff out. My superpower is empathy.

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