Six Reflections on Masculinity in These Rigid Times

As you can probably guess, I’m not a huge fan of the “toughen up,” “grin and bear it,” “put up or shut up” story of masculinity, mostly because I find that in the face of real conflicts of the world, the ones that could literally break a man’s spirit, these responses are utterly, youthfully fragile.

Imagine a guy who believes “being a man” is all about performance, competition and winning. Then a moment arrives where he falls short, for any reason (because he’s human and that just happens sometimes as a part of our condition). The fragile facade suddenly see this as something horrible: anything less than being a dominant winner means being weak, soft, broken, a loser, a failure… la la la. And since all of these are unbearable ways of seeing oneself, this guy will likely turn to blame, to shift the spotlight off his fragile self-image and onto something else. “The rules were stupid!” or “He cheated!” or “It’s all your fault!” when in truth things just don’t work out sometimes, and it’s no one’s fault, there’s no one and nothing at all to blame. Most of the time things don’t work out and there’s literally no one to blame.

I have very strong personal feelings about what it means to be a grown up man (not that I’m there yet but, hey, still). For my own sake and maybe for discussion, I’d like to try to lay out a small list of traits I try my best to live by, but also accept in myself if I ever fall short for some reason, knowing that I can always start from scratch, all over again, anytime I want.

1. Being a Man Means Being Clear: I sense that a major part of what it means to be masculine is being clear with others about what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling. I know that we often mistranslate this as “action-oriented” though: men are seen as deciders, who’ve made up their minds, answer with hard yes’s and no’s, or act entirely out of the emotion of the moment. There’s nothing wrong with these things of course, but clarity seems most important to me in the sense of knowing what’s happening inside and being able to translate that to those around me. In short, waiting (sometimes a while) until I have a very sharp sense of what’s actually driving me, thinking through a reaction that’s 100% “what 100-year-old Great-Grandfather Tony Chavira would do/say about this” (whoever that is when he arrives), and speaking my truth from that intensely authentic place as often as possible. In short, once I’m clear about what I’m thinking and feeling, and come to my wisest available response, I can translate that to you. Still, I have to be 100% certain on my end that I’m coming from a place of thoughtful authenticity, not knee-jerk reactions (which are most often old behaviors I’d rather let go of at this point, to be honest).

2. Men Balance Empathy and Self-Compassion: I’ve heard that “being a man” means “being there” for others. That masculine presence, that certainty, plays a big role in what people think of in a strong male figure. “Being there for his family!” And don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely amazing to bring the strength of that empathy to others… whether that guy’s your brother, father, friend, whatever, there’s something very validating about speaking to a guy and relating, something that helps sustain that solid life foundation, gives you strength to move forward. On the other hand, have you ever met someone who is all empathy? Often they’re exhausted, reacting with anger or tears or frustration constantly, totally worn out from everyone around them. In short, his boundaries are constantly being overtaken because he is actually too empathetic. So there for everyone else that there’s nothing left for him. Here’s is where I think about self-compassion: that being a man also means checking in with yourself and saying, “I can empathize, but I can’t let this person’s issues become my own. I need to do the things it takes to live happily myself.” Probably 95% of the time this means basic self-care: sleep, exercise, eat, etc. But sometimes it’s more critical, and means being very empathetic to others while holding that hard line: “I know you’re having a difficult time, and I want to be here for you, but I have more self-worth than to be dragged through the mud, treated poorly or put down, even by those I love most.”

3. Grown Men Move Really Slowly: It’s a staple of movies to watch action stars make pretty huge decisions and power forward. And yet, who in life makes all their decisions like that? Whether the outcome is good or bad, or you personally think that leaping head-in is foolish or brave, I sense we all know deep down that taking just a moment to clear our minds, set ourselves up in a stable place, and take actions from our best possible selves leads to the most powerful, honest outcomes. Sometimes the best possible male self knows his answer intuitively: “This is right for me, so let’s do it.” But of course no two decisions are alike, and so taking fast, decisive action really should be the exception, not the rule. “But Tony,” you might think, “real men take action!” And you’re right. When the time is right, and feels right, they take action. Because they can trust their intuition and have patient. So relax man, because if you’re able to settle, and take things one step at a time, the right time will always, always arrive.

4. All Men Self-Doubt: A real man doubts himself. He doubts his path and wonders if it’ll lead him no where. He wonders if he’s doing right by others and by himself. He may even be very afraid that it won’t. All men feel this, it’s fine. This fear is real as it gets: it’s ancient, primordial, and therefore the most true. So let it be true. Have this common experience with me and all your brothers, and when you doubt yourself, know that you’ve joined the eternal, ageless brotherhood.

5. Men Can Become Close and Ask For Space: No joke, every guy I know struggles in literally every one of their relationships with the feeling that they are (1) too close to that person or (2) too far away from that person. The feeling itself, of course, is just fine, and sometimes all it takes noticing that “hey, I need some space” to — BANG — watch the feeling pop like a balloon, then move on through life with no real adjustments needed. Sometimes it’s a friend I haven’t seen in months, or years, that I miss and want to become closer to. Sometimes it’s someone I see all the time, and think is amazing, but still need that space from at the moment. For situations like this, I always refer back to Item 1, to be clear on my end, and then approach the person with my truth, whatever the outcome. Most people will appreciate your honesty (we’re only human after all, and all need a little of both). Those who don’t — demand I remain close to them or further away — reveal to me the limits of their ability to handle clarity. If I speak my truth and am shamed or guilted or threatened or denied, what other options do I even have but to let that person go? Back to Item 2: I have too much self-compassion to empathize with our interaction, where I’d give me empathy than I’d get.

6. Men Spin Their Wheels: I think it’s a staple of all guys to try short-sighted stuff out once in a while. Most of the time things will not work out, so be prepared for that outcome, but do give yourself the space to try it out. Learn to paint then lose interest, get really into dirt biking for a while, get too drunk by accident on a Wednesday, take a job you hate for the money then promptly leave it. There are no mistakes in life, after all, and only so many of the same kind of short-sighted decisions before we wise up. So yeah, I think it’s a very male thing to try a lot of short-sighted stuff out. How else are you going to learn what you like? (All cards on the table, I’ve tried and promptly let go of a ton of stuff, so even if this isn’t a “guy” thing, I’m just going to say it is to e-high-five those who do this too).

That’s all I can think of for now but if you can think of others that help define what real, authentic and open-hearted masculinity is like, do let me know, I’d love to read them.