by Neal Lemery
What is it to be a man in these times?
There are a lot of mixed messages, and outright confusing and contradictory “principles” and models for behavior. It is easy to get lost in the wilderness of our social contract.
The “#MeToo” Movement and the rhetoric and behavior of popular politicians and popular culture figures send conflicting messages. One is often left confused about what is accepted, what is appropriate moral behavior and thinking. Political and religious leaders, who should be exercising healthy leadership and conversation about these issues, are themselves in the center of the storms of outrage, of being called out for their own transgressions and immoral acts. And, their failure to be effective spokespersons for what should be healthy masculinity.
For many of them, there seems to be no consequence for their words or their actions.
The goalposts of morality and decency seem to have fallen into quicksand.
For most of my life, the most popular “templates” for manhood involved being the tough, aggressive guy, who was focused on “scoring” with women, drinking, smoking, and pushing others around in order to get his way. Aggression and being emotionally cold were the benchmarks of a true man, the battle flags of male privilege.
The “soft” man was seen as weak and sissified, certainly not a real man. The consequences for that were brutal: verbal and physical abuse, ostracism, and being branded as “not a real man”, inadequate, a failure. Shame and guilt were powerful weapons to destroy a boy’s soul.
When I was growing up, the real question of the day was “how tough am I?” The unforgiving world of the school playground was also the world of work and the world I grew up in and raised a family.
That methodology of raising boys unfortunately remains a part of our culture today, often perpetuated by our language, marketing, politics, and acceptance of the idea that such thinking and acting are just who we are, inadequate and deficient as men. A big challenge I faced when I was raising my kids was to not repeat the harmful actions and words of those who raised and influenced me as a kid.
Treating others with kindness, being artistic and creative, being one of those “sensitive, soft men”, was subject to being thought of as not a real man, not “macho”, and certainly not a role model. Unless, of course, you wrapped yourself in the armor of a warrior, and couched your rhetoric in the language of the soldier, the athlete, and an all-around tough guy. Only a few savvy men were able to pull that off.
I struggled to find a new template, new words, and new actions. The role models for that were few and far between. Yet, I am grateful for their courage, and for showing me that there was an alternative path to masculinity.
A lot of that attitude of intolerance, of cloaking one’s self in armor, so no one could see your tenderness, or get close to your kind heart, has eased off lately, in spite of the power and tenacity of the “old thinking”. Change is scary, and acting differently leads one into uncharted waters, marked with fear and self-doubt. Even toxic familiarity offers comfort.
Today, I see young men publicly being attentive, kind fathers. They speak out about treating others with kindness and compassion. They not only “talk the talk”, but they “walk the walk”.
Expressing your creativity, and being open about one’s fears and uncertainties, and struggles to be a good person are becoming widely accepted and appreciated. The times, they are a changing, and that is good news.
The good role models, the brave men who cracked open their own armor, and were able to express their worries, their doubts, their insecurities, have taken a lot of heat. They have often been shamed and derided, mocked and scorned. Years later, when we take another look at what they’ve said and what they have done, what they have revealed about their innermost selves, we often just take such courage for granted, and assume that we as a society have always explored those issues, and those personal stories, with sensitivity and appreciation.
We live in challenging times, but we always have. Engaging one’s own courage, determination and self-confidence to know and live your own core values, to truly be yourself, to be genuine, has always been challenging. You need to take risks, and to step out on shaky ground. Each one of us has those doubts, those uncertainties inside of us.
“What is it to be a man?” I still ask myself. Each day offers a new challenge, with obstacles both inside of me and in our society. I often think it is easier if I just kept quiet, if I just put these questions aside, and focused on something else, anything else, for the day ahead. But, healthy masculinity, true manhood, calls me to take on these questions, and to take a hard look at myself, and to take steps today to be a real man
Neal Lemery, a retired judge and now a community volunteer, is the author of Mentoring Boys to Men: Climbing Their Own Mountains, Homegrown Tomatoes: Essays and Musings From My Garden, and Finding My Muse on Main Street. More information is available at http://neallemery.com