Jackson Bliss sees how men have grown up seeing affection as sexual behavior, not social behavior. And that is one of the tragedies of our times.
Once, just as I was about to step inside Union Station in New Haven, an old black guy with fuzzy grey hair and glasses stopped me on the sidewalk and asked me if I had a light. Though technically I’d stopped smoking when I’d started grad school, my bad habit resurfaced at the end of every semester because of the stress. It was reading period, so I pulled out my lighter with a little guilt and tried lighting his cigarette. The wind was strong and erratic though, extinguishing the flame every time I rolled the flint. As I became impatient, I finally grabbed his soft, wilted old hand and cupped it with mine, lighting his cigarette undisturbed. He took a big puff and exhaled. Then he nodded his head, smiled at me and said: Thank you, son. By the time I was inside the train station, I was bawling.
At first, I didn’t understand where the tears were coming from. Maybe, I wondered, it was the anxiety of having to write three thirty-page essays in the next ten days or my secret dread of seeing my on-again-off-again girlfriend in New York who I fought with every weekend like a professional scrapper trying to dodge the first inevitable blow. Maybe it was the dreary Connecticut weather finally getting to me, weather that reminded me of Dante’s description of purgatory. Maybe I was sad because I was a poor grad student from Chicago who sometimes felt lost and out of place in New England. And maybe I was just really vulnerable that day. Whatever the ultimate reason, the tears poured out of me inside the station, on the escalator and even on the train where I looked out the window to avoid the sharp looks of commuters. The real issue buried underneath my grief was the fact that I rarely got the male affection I’d wanted as a kid. And the sad thing is, I’m not the exception either.
My pops is a good guy, but he’s old school (which means he’s not very good at expressing himself). While he’s slowly learned to respect me as a man, we’ve never been very close. When we hang out in Chicago, for example, I’m almost always the one to initiate things. Because we’re different politically and professionally, we’ve had to strain to understand each other for most of our lives. When I was a kid, we never played in the backyard together (I played catch or soccer with my spunky obāsan). Because I was a latchkey kid, I only saw my parents for four hours a day max, most of our time spent in the kitchen and the TV room.
To be honest, I can’t remember my dad hugging me as boy nor do I remember him being proud of me growing up (except when I graduated from high school, which was really important to him). Even when I gave my MFA reading six years ago in nearby South Bend, I remember not being surprised that my dad didn’t show up. Now, I don’t point these things out an indictment because my dad is a good and hard-working person (and god knows I could be a rambunctious, argumentative and exasperating little punk). My dad helped me a little bit with my college tuition, paid for my final year of high school at my Jesuit prep school and remained emotionally devoted to my obāsan his entire life, even after my parents split up. He was a dad in the only way he knew how to be with me, slowly evolving once he remarried his second wife and had a third son (who he has a much more proactive and affectionate relationship with). It’s only recently that I’ve truly felt he’s proud of me for the man I’ve become, and maybe this is related to my stubborn professional aspirations as a fiction writer, to finishing my PhD and to marrying the love of my life. Maybe his recent respect for me has nothing to do with any of those things. As I’ve grown up and become comfortable with my self, I’ve learned to overcome the big issues I had with him, but I point out the scarcity of affection in my relationship with him because I think it partially explains why male approval was always so important to me growing up, why I still have a soft spot for male affection, why I still find myself seeking the respect of older men.
One of the pernicious consequences of living in a country still struggling with homophobia, social verticality and patriarchy, is not just the rigid gender roles this system imposes on men (and obviously women), but also the way it prevents grown men from expressing love, gratitude and affection to each other (and often to their sons). Because of this, many boys grow up seeing affection as inherently unmasculine because their fathers never modeled affection and unconditional love as a constituent part of their own masculinity.
Just as tragic, our system still punishes boys for expressing love and affection to each other (except in the case of sports) by subjecting them to social and sexual taboo, which means boys will grow up seeing affection as (hetero)sexual behavior and not social behavior, which is troubling. For many straight boys, affection will become gendered, the unique behavior of girlfriends, moms and female friends. While girls are victims of the system just as much as boys are, the system victimizes them in different ways at different stages (through slut-shaming, income inequality, domestic relegation, sexual objectification and ownership, for example). But one of the major systemic tragedies for boys is the ongoing poverty of male affection in their lives. As psychoanalytically unsatisfying as it is, for many grown men, there is a void inside us that was earmarked for our fathers’ attention and approval (which can often feel like signifiers of love). It’s a void we carry with us into adulthood, a void that only disappears (if it disappears at all) with friendships that are deeply communicative, supportive and unconditional. This void only disappears (if it disappears at all) with a lifetime of self-forgiveness for the emptiness we feel inside. This emptiness is not our fault, but if we deny its existence or pretend we’ve moved beyond the scene of our childhood trauma, we become victims of our own pathology, innocent bystanders in the crossfire of denial, unlovability and self-reproach.
Men only heal when we surround ourselves with others who are engines of deep and uncontrollable love, people who are compassionate, affectionate, forgiving and open with their emotions. For me, the most recent source of affection, kindness and love has been my wife, who I love more deeply than any person I’ve ever known. In high school, it was my religion and English teachers. In college, it was my brother and my friends. Someday, it will be my own fatherhood, which will give me new emotional space for repairing the tiny broken parts of me and for expressing my endless devotion, explicit love and continuous affection for my baby. Even though he doesn’t exist yet, even though she hasn’t even been conceived, my love for him is already enormous, already bigger than myself.
Photo: lenny montana / flickr