1) How do I behave to be considered a “real man”? What do I have to do to fit in with other men and not be ostracized? How do I avoid getting emasculated?
2) What are the qualities of admirable men that I can aspire to and emulate? What kind of actions could I take to make myself proud as a man? How can I lead myself and other men to create a better future? How can I challenge myself and my friends to grow? What can I do as a man to better my own life and the lives of those I love?
As boys and adolescents, most of us contended with the first set of questions in an effort to not be socially ostracized by our peers. Through teasing, bullying, jokes, and other forms of cultural transmission, we learned that we would be threatened or deficient at some level if we weren’t “man enough.” We consumed ourselves with proving that we were, and in so doing, many of us lost contact with nobler, articulated visions of the men we wanted to become.
During our development, most of us created a threat-based radar against assaults to our masculinity, and we learned to behave in ways that minimize those threats. For instance, by age 9, most boys have mastered holding back tears in public. Younger boys talk about “sharing secrets” with their male friends and know the value of showing emotions and pain, but by middle school and early high school, most of these boys will shut down their willingness to be vulnerable because they’ve learned it’s not considered masculine.
What’s the alternative to this narrow, threat-based construction of ourselves as men? For a start, let’s begin to frame the journey with the second set of questions. Here I’ll call it “aspirational masculinity,” but the branding is less important than the intention and process. Critically, we want to ask a different set of questions that frame the journey towards manhood as inspiring and positive rather than restricted and maintained by threat.
Let’s begin to build a culture around how we can become the best men possible, with few restrictions on how we must behave or express ourselves. That way, boys and young men can look ahead towards manhood with relish and purpose. Instead of slowly restricting and suffocating ourselves into “acceptable” ways of being, we can expand ourselves and grow into the men we yearn to become.
Self-Definition is Key
As kids, we often get prompted to dream about the professions we will occupy as later in life. Rarely are we asked what kind of men we want to become. More often, our culture tells us what we have to be, what we should be. That isn’t ok for women, and it’s equally not ok for men. If we focus our efforts on boys and young men exploring the question of “what kind of man do you want to become?” we give them the freedom to dream.
Just as intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic motivation, so too is self-defined masculinity better than externally defined masculinity. When we frame manhood from a place of “should be” or “needs to be,” we are taking away the power of choice, and when we don’t choose it, we lose freedom. We also miss out on the confidence and meaning that comes from successfully embodying the ideals we’ve chosen for ourselves in the short and long term.
Let’s Help Guide Our Young Men
First, we can help boys and young men explore the traits they admire in both their real and fictional heroes. Through exposure to archetypal stories, comic book characters, and historical heroes, we can provide them models on which to frame their journeys. We can have them imagine what they’d want to be written on their gravestones. And we can help them connect their collected virtues to actions and self-built maps on how to get there.
Central to our effort is the notion of helping boys and young men move towards “wholeness,” which is admittedly a vague term. Here, I mean not having to actively shut down parts of ourselves—our natural expressions—in order to conform. It’s the process of undoing the structures we’ve created by disallowing expressions and behaviors that are natural to us, for instance expressing emotions like sadness and fear.
If we take away these pressures and form inclusive ideas of masculinity that don’t require disconnection and repression, then we can move towards being more “whole.” In effect, we can liberate the energy and effort we expend to conform to a restricted sense of masculinity and use it to more productive ends. We can move towards a culture where men can be cared for emotionally and not need to resort to repression, self-medication, and in the extreme, suicide.
Make Your List
In the spirit of self-definition, I’ve included my list of qualities I want to embody as a man. Here I’ve included many qualities that have been traditionally associated with masculinity, but these qualities look good on women as well and don’t belong to either gender.
- Integrity: living in accordance with my values and what I’ve said to others, keeping commitments.
- Strongly directed action.
- Emotional fluency and openness.
- Owning my experience, actions, and word.
- Courage: feeling fear while acting to benefit me and/or others.
- Fearless love (as opposed to loving someone but controlling them).
- Protecting and advocating for disenfranchised and vulnerable people
- Willingness to stand up for values and self in the face of obstacles and criticism.
- Setting boundaries as a form of honoring self and others—what I’m willing to do and not willing to do.
- Mindfulness/Presence: the willingness to be with arising experience in a nonjudgmental way, including thoughts, emotions, and sensations.
- Assertiveness of needs and desires. Trusting that they matter and are important.
- Balanced relationship to power: neither avoiding power nor abusing it. For me, it’s about the application of power in service of the world.
- Respect for others: empathy, honoring boundaries, and seeing “humanness” in all.
- Grounded/Equanimity: mental and emotional calmness in the face of uncertainty, drama, and suffering.
The Evolution of Manhood
When the culture of masculinity starts to feel good again is when men talk openly about honor, integrity, honesty, and courage and we support each other with love and challenge on the way to manhood. We can think about the journey to manhood as a hero’s journey: one where we will stumble, fall and get back up, and then fall again, all the while growing towards ideals that inspire us.
For more than 150 years, women have been asking the question of how to unbind themselves from restrictive definitions of womanhood and the roles that go along with it. For men, our clock is just starting. Who will we become? What shackles do we want to cast aside that don’t serve us? And 150 years from now, what culture will we have created around manhood?
I hope that we dream from a place of aspiration, a bright-eyed, ambitious, and hopeful view of ourselves that will invite boys and men into visions of manhood that inspire and challenge us in equal measure.
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