When Men Make “I’m Sorry” Into a Weapon
And suddenly, I’m seeing it in my hand. This club. It is a shock to truly and finally see it.
We all have our personal histories. I have mine.
Decades ago, my story became monolithic. It ceased to be a collection of distinct events, instead becoming a larger singular narrative.
The story feels very big and very old, a heavy stone, sitting in my gut. It raises hackles when I examine it. When I approach it, it shifts into something angry and raging; something locked away at the bottom of the basement stairs, threatening me with every step I take towards it.
In first noting its presence decades ago, I saw and understood its damaging influence. This is an important first step in learning who we are. To put a crucial little bit of space between what we feel in the moment and the much longer history of our lives that informs and drives those feelings. We come to understand that our response to this world is not just a response to what takes place around us, it is filtered through the history of relationships and events that make up our story.
I have tried to go down into the darkness and deal with this thing, this stone. I have warily circled it. At times, I have laid siege to it with too few troops and too little commitment, eventually backing away, satisfied that I put it on notice. An act of self-reflection and of courage, yes, but also a plateau.
What made this angry thing? Who put this here? My absent father? My overwhelmed mother? A fifty year-old divorce? Violence? Being a victim? Being invisible? Is this thing still growing and changing right now, or did what made it finish its work long, long ago?
The history of my life, my actions over decades, I catalogue and assign good and bad values. I shame myself or I give myself a bit of credit. “I did all right by that person.” But this thing in my gut is always there. Jump scare lurching up, creating this low buzz of anxiety like the throb of engines underground.
I have written about our bullying dominance-based culture of masculinity for over ten years. The more I deconstruct our cultural narratives of what a “real man” is, the more my sense of agency grows. I’m seeing the patterns of how I got here, the reasons for every act of policing and violence that made me wary and uncertain about what other boys and men might do to me even to this day, are still doing to me, over and over in my stories.
After years of examining what our abusive culture of masculinity does to boys and men, and how that intersects with my own stories, the question arrives, like an old man walking up a road. Slowly.
“What is your shame? Even to this day?”
I go looking further into my abiding sense of something having been taken away, of having been cheated, and bingo, there it is. Stop right there. Being cheated.
And a chip flakes off of the stone in my gut.
Being cheated. Hold that one idea.
I was clearly cheated. Yes, I was. You’re goddamn right I was. I was cheated out of a chance to be a complete young man as I went through the process of growing up; to become the bright, confident, caring person I could have become. Instead, for a long time, I was stunted, broken and angry.
Dozens of beautiful, potentially life-long relationships and friendships came and went. People drifted past, disconnected. Isolation was there, regardless of who loved me or where I was. Loneliness, an old record skipping, skipping.
“This is a good life but I still feel anxious.”
“This is a good marriage but I’m somehow missing it.”
So I work and work to prove I’m a caring person and a good partner, like I’m paying off a debt I can never pay off. Like I’m making up for some huge emptiness. Like I’m not enough.
“I was cheated. Yes, I was. I was cheated out of being a whole person and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
I’m on a tread wheel, making up for something. Erasing my failures, my shame, but it never ends; the debt accrues, growing. And the thing in my guts shifts a bit. Massive, immutable. Impossible to name.
The plateau I reached all those years ago? Laying siege to the thing in my gut but never fully confronting it? Lord knows I tried, right? I have been careful to always apologize for its being there; always apologizing.
Men say it all the time. I’m sorry for being messed up like this. So, let me fix something. Can I fix something for you? Or you? Or you?
And we say I’m sorry for these things I’m feeling.
What did I just say? Do I say that a lot?
When we do the work to become better men. When we do the work as it is called, we confront our stories and delve into our shadows. In these moments, we are not simply seeking to put the past to rest. That is part of it, but the past is never the past. The past is right now, and the past is active, in motion, moving through our lives. The past has agency and power.
As men, we know the past is here with us, even as we lash out, or implode, self denigrate or struggle to get out of bed in the morning. And so, we apologize, for our failings over and over and over again, because we’re good men, right? Just a bit broken. Just a bit wounded. We were victims and it’s so hard, you see… What do you want me to say? I’m sorry about the way things are. All right? I said I’m sorry.
There it is. The club in my hand. “I’m sorry.”
Watch me hit myself with the club. “I’m sorry.”
And so, comes the moment in which it fully dawns on me. I’m not the victim any more. I’m something else.
“I’m sorry.” WHAM. See the blood spray off?
It’s a heavy powerful club. It’s dented and hard.
“Oh, you didn’t see that blow? You didn’t see my blood? Maybe you glanced away? Let me do it again for you.”
And suddenly, I’m seeing it in my hand. This club. It is a shock to truly and finally see it.
I know for some of you, this violent metaphor might be alarming, but let me ask us to step back now and I’ll try and make sense of it.
First and foremost, the club is not real. There is no blood. But this metaphor of a club represents a thing that I have found myself doing that is central to what holds me back in my own life. I suspect many men might face a similar challenge.
For so very many of us, “I’m sorry” is not an apology. It’s a threat.
At some point in my teens, my self loathing settled over everything. I chose self loathing as my story not because I had any control over what had happened to me as a young boy, but because it was the only way I felt a sense of connection to others; to confess my disgust with myself to them. Over and over and over.
Throughout my teens and early twenties, I performed my shame. It had an impact. Maybe it got someone to back off, maybe it got me a momentary expression of pity, maybe a night in someone’s bed, maybe it got me a shocked expression. It got me something. Looking back, I suspect that it was the only significant part of me I could reliably conjure up. It became my primary story; this performance of my authentic shame that I publicly displayed over and over. Maybe I was trying to purge it out. But the method was all wrong. I wasn’t seeking to change, just to vent.
But we human beings are remarkably resilient animals. We grow and change and we learn to cope. And so, as the years passed, my public shame went underground. Like many men, I grew my sense of agency by learning to earn money, buy a house, get married. These are our cultural symbols of confidence and validation. Additionally, I learned to acknowledge a more complete view of myself, reducing the influence of my shame and grief, perhaps driving it into the basement, no? Ultimately, I started asking hard questions about being a father and a man in America, getting at the reasons why one boy’s childhood could have been so systemically caustic.
In the years since, my power to design and create has grown into a substantial part of me, the result of my work to change and become a person who could love and be loved. Eventually, some peace arrived, but beneath it runs a continuing current of agitation, of anxiety; a deep river, flowing.
And so, when I fail, it’s something different. As if my failings are not simply human, but instead, proof of a larger narrative of defeat for me. A continuation of an old, old story. Proof I haven’t made it yet. And maybe, never will? What a strangely familiar and comforting idea that is…
And then I know my victim-self is in the room, in the way I can still feel the familiar in the frantic. In the way I work so very hard to display what I am learning or creating. In the way I write these articles. I am the guy in the room who’s voice pitches up, my excitement makes my words tumble out. Excitement and anxiety, blending. But I’m a good guy, right? I’m doing pretty well. I’m just anxious because I had a rough time of it.
And, sometimes, when things get raw or real or just a little too challenging… “I’m sorry.”
And then, the stone truly shifts.
It might be spoken softly, or cheerfully. It may be because I forget something from the store, or because I couldn’t quite let someone finish telling me why they are feeling hurt by me. Something little or something big, and if I’m feeling stretched a bit thin today, not every day, but perhaps today, out pops, “I’m sorry.”
And there it is, the warning.
But the conversation doesn’t stop. It goes a bit further and the basement door swings open. Something comes lurching up the stairs from the darkness. Then the room is spinning a little and my body is getting hot and… “I’m sorry for who I am.”
Not so gentle this time. Not so easily dismissed. Into the room it lurches.
“Do what I want or I will display my shame. It will show up as anger or a display of grief or disgust with myself. I will take a hostage, (me) and I will abuse that hostage until you back off or give me what I want.”
Not a confidence builder. Not the actions of a good man.
So here’s the thing about doing so called “men’s work.” You seek to deal with your past and your moods and your shame and it can feel ugly and powerless and sickening. The work is difficult, and it’s never ending, and you push, and trudge, and seek, and struggle, and you start to feel like you maybe have a handle on a few more things, and then you look down and there’s a bloody club in your hand. And you say, “uh, oh.”
And then, to make it even more complicated, others in your life say things like “Nice article, only I don’t see you that way. Not at all.”
Which leaves me wondering why I’m still constructing this idea of myself as a victimized person, full of self-loathing. Why am I giving free rent to that idea?
It has to do with what victimhood and shame supplies us. As long as I’m broken, I can be exhausted. As long as I’m struggling, I can fail. As long as I’m still in that fight, I can go on being wounded and every little success I have is a miracle instead of just the baseline accountability we should all be able to be relied on to provide.
We need the story of being broken, so we can keep others at bay, so we can take a pass on being held accountable.
When you study and write about masculinity you run headlong into deeply violent and ugly ideas. Incels, MRAs, the friend zone, Chads, white knights, and a hundred other destructive misogynist narratives that ALWAYS come back to this idea for men of our having been cheated.
While the most violent dangerous victimhood narratives are foundational to both male and white supremacy, they do not exist in a vacuum. They are born out of a bullying culture of masculinity in which we are all taught man box ideas about what it means to be a man.
So, I tell my story in an effort to invite men like me to self-reflect on the more subtle ways we seek to leverage our victimhood. When we “good men” take up that club of self loathing and threaten to beat ourselves bloody in order to back others off, avoid our own accountability or coerce others to do what we want, we are coming from a place of damage and creating more of it.
Some would have us believe we men intentionally use our victimhood in this way. That we cynically trot out our self-loathing in an effort to force our wives, husbands, friends or children to shift from self-assertion to care giving. Or flay ourselves in the public square as a way to sidestep our responsibility to make a better world, performing a gaudy caricature of suffering and rage that avoids the hard work of being in community.
I don’t hold this manipulative leveraging of victimhood to be the norm. It is my opinion that millions of men truly have been cheated out of connection by a brutal culture of masculinity, and that this disconnection is so universal, we are barely conscious of it. The challenge is not whether our victimhood is authentic. God knows the world has millions of ways to shame and degrade men and women alike.
The challenge is how long will we remain stuck on the plateau? This vast space in which we remain in a decades old stand-off with our past demons instead of doing the work to reintegrate them into our hearts and lives? Yes, the first part of the work is to see and name our demons, but that is only half of the work. Many of us are at risk of remaining on that lonely plateau, where we host our demons, fearing to let go of the dark power they grant us.
No, actually, you are not.
So let me share this: I have leveraged my victimhood to avoid my responsibilities to the people I love. I have used it as a crutch and a tool and a weapon to force compliance, so much so, that some of the people who once loved me have simply walked away. As long as I continue to perform powerlessness in relation to my past, I am stealing joy from those I love. If I do not discard the club in my hand, I am failing to reach my potential in the world and others will suffer for it. For me, remaining on the plateau is an unhealthy and selfish choice. It is a place where I hold myself accountable for nothing and do my work for no one. It is a plateau of intentional self-isolation. It privileges grief as a central expression of self.
Whatever benefit choosing to center my victimhood provided in my young life, that benefit is long finished. It’s time to do our work, to self- reflect, root out our victimhood and let it go, brothers.
And so, as a father and a husband and a human being, I have a responsibility to drop this club I am carrying and walk on without it. Instead of using it when things get tough, I will have to face my demons that lurch up raging, and own the fact that I have kept them intentionally as leverage against the world.
I have a responsibility to start treating people fairly, myself, most of all. I can make the simple choice not to feed off my shame any more. It wasn’t my fault. I was too small to stop it. I didn’t cause it. And its was long ago.
For those I love, I commit to no more hostage taking, no more threats, no more abusive behaviour cloaked in shame. For those who love me, I’m deeply grateful for your patience as I took the time to figure this piece out. You are amazing people.
And myself? What am I? I am a man with lots more work to do.
I am also a loving man of integrity.
Photo by: laviebelem
Read more by Mark Greene:
Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendships of Boys?
Follow Mark Greene on Twitter: Follow @RemakingManhood