Men have come under fire a lot over the last few decades. The 1950s idea of the strong laconic man’s man no longer fits into society. For some men, that is a tough pill to swallow. Fact is, our society has changed. Like it or not. I would argue this change has been overwhelmingly positive. In comparison to 20-30 years ago, things are much better for women, LGBTQ people, and minorities. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the almost daily examples of racially charged incidents, and the #metoo movement all point to the fact that there is still much work to be done.
The deep flaws exemplified by Charlottesville and pointed out by #metoo are valid. As men, we should take these issues seriously. The masculinity on display in these two examples is f*cked up and outdated. However, this doesn’t mean that men have no admirable qualities. Unsurprisingly, many of the admirable traits associated with men also make for an ideal friend. Self-sacrifice, loyalty, a tendency to think logically, an inclination to help, and so many more. It’s time to highlight what is good about being a man and cast off the negative. Men need to evolve alongside the rest of society. It’s not a bad thing. We have been given a unique gift; the opportunity to contribute to a new definition of manhood. It can’t be done alone, though.
Stand By Me
As a kid, my favorite movie was Rob Reiner’s 1986 classic, Stand By Me. It had all the elements necessary to capture my 8-year-old imagination. If you are unfamiliar with the film, I’m sorry you grew up under a rock. It’s required viewing for sure. it takes place in small-town America circa 1954. The main characters are four boys: Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern. The boys go on an adventure to find a fifth boy who has been missing. Among other things, the simplicity of the film was appealing. You knew who the good guys were, you knew who the bad guys were, and you knew what the mission was. Everything is laid out in simple, straightforward terms, much the way the world seems when you’re young. As much as I loved the movie, there was one line in the movie that always bothered me. At the end of the film, the narrator says, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” As a kid, it bothered me because I knew it couldn’t be true. As the simplicity of childhood gave way to the complexities of adolescence and young adulthood, I realized how right it was.
Wanna be my friend?
When was the last time you asked someone to be your friend? It was probably when you were in elementary school. You had fun with some kid on the playground, so you asked if they would be your friend. Throughout our lives friendships are important. Friendships can serve the important function of companionship. Humans are social animals. It’s cliche, but true. There is a huge body of research showing the mental and physical benefits of having friends. Friends act as sounding boards for our fears and dreams, our grief and joy. Yet as we move through adolescence and into early adulthood, we stop asking people to be our friends. Why? Because by asking we become vulnerable, which no man is supposed to be. Worse than that, it would mean showing that vulnerability to another man.
Friendship as a Display of Manhood
Traditional gender norms dictate that men should avoid physical and verbal expressions of their emotions. These types of expressions are what girls do. One of the first lessons every boy learns is don’t act like a girl. Men are supposed to be self-reliant, stoic, strong, competent, etc. These can be useful traits in specific situations, for both men and women. But when they are used as constraints on our behavior in all situations, we forfeit a whole range of emotions. This forfeiture begins in adolescence.
Adolescence is a weird time for everyone. Hormones are coursing through us and we have more freedom than ever before. We have no idea what we are doing accompanied by the distinct feeling that we should have it all figured out. Around this time, boys just starting to try to figure out what it means to be a man. The simplicity of the stoic emotionless man’s man is appealing. There is also an overall societal preference for this kind of man, especially in media aimed at boys. The combination leads boys to the forfeit any emotion or behavior that doesn’t parallel the man’s man model. What’s more, they enforce this standard on their friends too. Ultimately, friendship isn’t just about socializing. It is an arena for displaying masculinity. A place for them to prove they are men.
Consider a boy who just got upset about his girlfriend breaking up with him. It seems normal that he express his heartache to his friends. It is likely that one of his friends will respond with something like, “Quit being such a fag!” Or perhaps he says something like, “You’re acting like a little bitch!” Both responses are common among adolescent boys. Ask any man, he’s heard these phrases used at some point. He may have even said them. Boys say these things to assert that they are not gay or feminine. It also ensures the unspoken rules of manhood are observed. This anemic form of masculinity prevents young men from forming genuine emotional connections. We tell our children to just “be themselves,” but boys aren’t trying to be themselves, they are trying to be men. In many cases, this means they are trying to be something they have never seen in real life.
Mike is My Friend Because I’m Good at Bowling
Most male friendships take one of two forms. A friendship that focuses on activities or that is based on convenience. Men meet to do things. There is a long tradition of men getting together to engage in friendly competitions, play games, or complete tasks. Think bowling leagues, poker nights, and hunting trips. The other option is the people they see day to day. Work friends, neighbors, members of the same organization (church, lodge, etc.). You may be asking yourself, “so what’s wrong with that?” Well, nothing really. Having a friend, or group of friends, to go do things with is a lot of fun. And being friends with the guys you see day-in and day-out is good too. These types of friendships can be great. But for many men, the relationship stops there.
The interactions never go any deeper; there is no emotional connection. This is a problem for two reasons. First, it leaves men feeling that they must be competent and have something to contribute. If I’m not any good at poker, I won’t go to poker night. If I suck at bowling, I won’t go. Even if I really enjoy the activity, if I can’t at least contribute to the conversation, I won’t go. It’s not worth me being there. I’m not worth being friends with. Second, the conversations involved in those activities primarily revolve around the activity itself, not emotional disclosure. Emotional disclosure is important because it creates deeper connections between people. Lack of emotional connections leads people to feel lonely.
Loneliness in a Crowd
I think the knee-jerk reaction from some guys might be, “oh, poor baby feels lonely.” Right? Because real men don’t get lonely. Real men are too self-reliant to need anyone else, right? Wrong. Everyone needs to feel connected to others. Everyone wants to feel loved, appreciated, respected and wanted. These are basic human desires. The evidence of this can be found in how lack of connection affects us. Lonely people have poor mental and physical health.
Loneliness is associated with social anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. Men are four times more likely to die from suicide than women. In terms of physical health, loneliness is associated with obesity, elevated blood pressure, and compromised immunity. The #1 killer of men in the U.S. is heart disease. One major contributing factor to heart disease is high blood pressure. The primary cause of loneliness is lack of emotional connections to other people. Our lack of connections is literally killing us. In order to form deep emotional connects, you must have someone to share your emotions with. A real man, by traditional standards, does not have emotions beyond pride and anger. And if he did, he certainly wouldn’t tell anyone. Without emotional connections, a guy could have lots of friends but still feel lonely. Social pressure lead guys to feel reluctant to share their feelings, Yet, many studies indicate that men do want to have emotional connections.
I feel the Same Way, Man!
So why do men have difficulty forming and maintaining close friendships? Well, they do, sometimes. Recent surveys show that most men have a woman as a close confidant. Usually their wife or girlfriend. There is nothing wrong with that, an emotional connection with another person is almost always a good thing. However, a woman is never going to truly understand and relate to the lived experience of a man. In the same way that a man could never truly understand the lived experience of a woman. When an emotional connection happens between two men, it permits them to reshape their own masculinity to allow for a range of emotions.
When a guy expresses himself to a woman, he’s “sweet.” When two guys express themselves to one another, they’re validated in a deeper way.
The moment one guy says to the other, “I feel the same way,” it acknowledges that men can have a range of emotions and that having a range of emotions is not unmanly. Ultimately it is critical that each man proves his manhood to other men, not just to women. Having a man acknowledge and relate to an expression of joy, sadness, anxiety, fear, loneliness, or love, means that those emotions are valid expressions of manhood. Yet, in our youth, we conditioned each other to avoid these expressions. Homophobia plays a big role in this restriction of emotion. This is the source of the “no homo” phase that was popular not long ago. Perhaps it still is in some circles. “I love you, man. No homo!” is a guy trying to express himself, but he fears that his friend will think he’s gay.
This defines men in only negative terms. A man is not gay. A man is not feminine. A man is not emotional. A man is not weak. It doesn’t allow us to say what a man is. And the truth is, a man can be a lot of wonderful and positive things. He can also be gay. He can have a soft side. He can be emotionally expressive. He can make mistakes. He can have moments of weakness. He is human and capable of a wide range of things. As Walt Whitman once said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
A Brotherhood of Men
One admirable male quality is that we tend to be solution oriented. So you may be asking yourself, “what do we do now?” Well, I think men need to establish a third kind of friendship. A true friend; a brother. I think that we are all brothers, and as such, we’re all in this together.
Encourage your brothers to feel comfortable expressing themselves. Support your brothers by working toward forming deeper connections based on emotional intimacy. We need to be strong enough and brave enough to vulnerable with each other. It will require a willingness to share our emotions and bare the weight of our brothers’ emotions. Be brave enough to take the first step; express yourself. This is one way we can help redefine masculinity and promote mental health.
It won’t be easy at first. It will feel awkward to share your emotions. Expressing emotions is something most men do not have experience with, so they aren’t good at it. This means men risk a lot by expressing themselves to one another. First attempts at emotional expression will be awkward. You might also feel incompetent, something no man is supposed to be. It’s ok. Do it anyway. It will get easier.
In some cases, it will require tough love. You’ll have to call your brothers on their bullsh*t. When you hear someone say something like “no homo,” address it. Don’t let it slide. It is not enough to behave differently. You have to say something. Just say something like, “Bruh, check that “no homo” shit. That isn’t cool.” If he pushes back, educate him. Having emotions isn’t bad. Being gay isn’t bad. A person can be emotionally expressive and still be a “real man.” Regardless of their sexual orientation.
There are plenty of guys out there that will disagree with me. They claim that we need to rediscover the masculinity of the past before feminism ruined it. First off, feminism didn’t ruin masculinity. Masculinity was f*cked up all on its own, feminism just held up the mirror. The social changes that happened due to the feminist movement have been important and necessary. I have a daughter, a wife, sisters, a mom. I want a world where they are free to pursue their dreams and can expect equal treatment. Not because I need to protect them and defend them, but because they are human and deserve the same opportunities as everyone else. People, societies, the world at large, all evolve and change. Time only moves in one direction. There is no going back, only forward. So while I disagree with these guys on a fundamental level, they’re still my brothers. And I am obligated to call them out. We all need to lead by example, talk to your brothers. Connect with them and don’t be afraid to call them on their bullsh*t. It might be difficult. One thing I can say for sure, men are up to the task.
My Ah-Ha Moment
In doing the research for this article, and going through the writing process, I had a kind of “ah-ha!” moment. Well, in truth, it was more of an “Ah, shit!” moment. I realized I have been guilty of some of these mistakes. I have avoided friends due to, what I felt like was, a lack of competency. I have steered conversations away from emotional disclosure. I have avoided friends because I felt inadequate compared to their accomplishments. I talked only about myself in an effort to prove that I am worthy of friendship. In short, I wasn’t a good friend. So to all my brothers, I am sorry I fell short. I’m sorry I let my own ego dictate how involved I was in your life. To Justin, Will, Brian, Jake, Nick, Chad, Andy, Joey, and all the men I’ve known over the years, I am truly sorry. I love you all. Hit me up, let’s reconnect.
The narrator in Stand By Me was right, we don’t ever have friends like we had when were 12. Maybe that’s because we stop being a friend like we were when we were 12. We stop being open and honest and caring. We stop being completely authentic in the way that kids are. I know we can all do better, because I know I can do better.
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