It Takes Men and Women to Develop Healthy Masculinity
It only took the first day of high school baseball tryouts for me to face my first major challenge in emerging manhood. I was a promising freshman pitcher, hoping to perform well on the junior varsity, playing the game I’d loved so dearly ever since the day I could hold a bat. While I had several years of baseball experience supporting my fragile 15 year-old identity, this day exposed me to the brutal ecosystem of the adolescent male pecking order.
“Dude, nice legs,” our varsity catcher and senior cool-guy snickered in front of his varsity teammates as my best friend and I ran past.
“Seriously, do you shave them? Oh, you haven’t gone through puberty yet,” he continued with the disdain, as other seniors (those I so wanted to impress!) laughed.
I muttered something in flustered defense (‘No, I don’t shave them, I just have light-colored hair, man!’) to cover my morbid humiliation, and of course, not-so-hidden pain. I’d been humiliated in front of my most important peer group in the worst way an adolescent boy can be: my manhood had been mocked.
I use this example because it is so commonplace. This is not an epically dramatic horror story, the likes of which we read about on the news involving violent intolerance, real bullying, and the like. So please interpret my story for what it is: a symbol of the every day arrested development of boys and men.
Make no mistake, this male dynamic is not exclusive to adolescents, and many of us don’t fully grow out of it. In high school it’s leg hair and approval, in college it’s often substance use and competing with male peers for “scoring” with women. In young professional years, it is about stomping on our peers for the boss’s approval, and the “old boys’ club” perpetuates…
For many men, our template for relationship with other men is born from this deep need for acceptance with the culture of masculinity.
Here is where the shadows of masculine culture need to come to light! We as a culture spend so much time being critical of men (and women, of course): Our behavior, our beliefs, our preferences, our needs, many are as culturally unacceptable as they are disowned by men themselves! All of it creates such a vicious cycle where ultimately very few people end up deeply satisfied. While the feminist movement has been strongly in the works for ~50 years, and overcoming the social and professional oppression of women (I’m writing about the US here) has great mainstream awareness and cultural momentum, this is not the case for men.
On the contrary, so-called masculinism is not even a word I think I’ve ever heard until writing it just now! Finding compassion for the struggles of men of today (while acknowledging male privilege) – just like we are doing for the struggles of women -promotes and supports healthy masculine development and accountability! And in my estimation, the world needs both healthy women and healthy men, so if I’m pushing any –ism here, it’s humanism!
Three concepts we all can apply right this second to evolve the world of men and women:
- Rites of Passage – What was, in tribal times, a deeply spiritual ritual where boys became men, either through a series of physical, psychological, and spiritual tests, has been as dissolved as the cultures that created it. Because the power and intentionality of male rites of passage has been so diminished for several generations, most adolescent men today are trying to figure it out themselves. Freshmen carrying water in high school sports, fraternities and hazing practices, bachelor parties, and gang formation show us that young men – and the people they may hurt – desperately need this experience to be healthier. Men have learned that their power comes from dominance over all others, and this is not sustainable.
- What you can do today for a man in your life: Listen for a man’s inklings to grow and stretch in this way and honor this part in him by supporting his process. Whenever you get a chance to validate or acknowledge a young man or boy in sharing power, do so!
- Boys need Men – Men need to step up as mentors, leaders, and hold sacred the masculine values and strategies we are passing down. We need strong healthy men who are connected both to their heart and their spine to show us how to be men. Everyone can benefit from a man who finds his strength in vulnerability, his power in authenticity, and his leadership in shared power.
- What you can do today for a man in your life: Don’t allow men to be the whipping boys! We are getting much more aware of when women are the targets for minimizing jokes, stereotypes, and the like (which is awesome progress). Women and men alike, catch yourself when you start perpetuating media-driven beliefs and stereotypes about men (“they don’t know how to express their feelings,” “men are pigs,”).
- Even if it seems true for you, it’s not helping. Instead, challenge the men you know to stand behind who they are with integrity and honesty, not shame and doubt. Bring the best out of them with compassion, not judgment.
- Supporting a man’s healthy masculine will bring forth more of his healthy feminine – We must be very conscious of the strategy of over-feminizing men. While it is clear that most men can use some coaching on vulnerability, many hide this part of themselves for fear of being judged by other men. As in my initial anecdote, most of us learn at a young age that our “softer” qualities are not welcome in the world of “real men,” so criticizing, judging, and being demanding us for “not being vulnerable enough” is not going to be effective.
- What you can do today for a man in your life: If you are frustrated with a man who you’d like to be more open with you, imagine his feminine self as a wounded dog. What compassion and open heart can you bring to this part of him now?
In the end, I believe we all need each other, regardless of gender, so by supporting the best in others, we also allow for the best in ourselves. Hey, I ended up an All-State baseball player as a senior, so I hope that anything is possible!