Here’s the most irritating spiritual truth I know: if someone is doing something that drives me crazy, it means I want to change that same quality in myself. So, if I’m complaining about how someone’s a bad listener, it means I want to listen better. If I’m complaining about how someone lies, it means I want to be more truthful. If I’m complaining about how someone is distracted, it means I want to be more present.
There have been many times I’ve wished this wasn’t true. How tempting it is to believe that the world would be a better place if only everyone else would get their act together. I could be at peace if other people would quit bugging me, saying stupid stuff, or infecting me with their fear and worry. It’s the fear and worry that really gets me. I was doing fine until some clown started fretting out loud about something I hadn’t cared about five seconds before and now I’m worried, and I hate being worried about anything.
Fear is a kind of contagion that has but one antidote, which is love. This is a little tricky because fear always sees a problem and wants me to do something right away to fix it, and love never sees a problem. Love accepts things as they are. I don’t like problems, I want my life and the world itself if possible to be problem-free, and I have learned to believe that problems don’t solve themselves. Except when they do.
I’ve been reading a lot recently, particularly on this website, about what is called “toxic masculinity.” I even wrote about it (here and here), albeit indirectly. While I am quite clear what is being referred to when one talks about it, I don’t think that term is helping the conversation it’s trying advance. In fact, it’s probably cutting the conversation short.
Toxic masculinity is just toxic behavior, and all toxic behavior, no matter who’s doing it, has the same root cause: fear. No one is angry unless they’re afraid. No one is violent unless they’re afraid. And all fear begets more fear until it is met with love. I understand that naming something toxic masculinity is an attempt to stand up to certain behaviors that have intimidated and frightened many people–men and women alike–for a long time. I understand it’s a way of saying, “Shame on you. You’re making everything worse for everyone else. Knock it off!”
But by assigning this behavior to men alone we undo ourselves. First, it suggests that there is something wrong with certain men because they’re men, that they’re masculinity, their maleness, was the source of their violence or cruelty or bullying. After all, no one is talking about toxic femininity.
By the way, I’m glad we’re not talking about toxic femininity. It would be just as useless. It would give me permission to cede the only power I have in the world: the power to change myself. If I found a woman’s behavior abusive, or irritating, or even frightening, instead of asking myself how am I like her, how I would like to change something in myself, I could chalk her behavior up to this obnoxious quality only women possess.
Which is exactly what the concept of toxic masculinity offers women. I know women are trying to get their power back with this word, that they feel powerless–as I have–in the face certain behaviors, but that power won’t come from seeing another person as somehow utterly different from yourself. That power won’t come from shaming, won’t come from more anger. The power we all want, the power we spend all our days craving, comes entirely from love. It’s the beginning and end. When I look at the world without love, I am blind.
Toxic masculinity is a phrase without love, and so, in the end, it’s a phrase without power. Love is not love unless it’s for everyone. That said, I know people will go on using that phrase whether they’ve read this essay or not. They will go on using it until they learn through their own unique, personal experience that it isn’t bringing them what they want. They will go on using it until all its juice of anger and judgment has been squeezed from it, and they are left with this dry, dead thing, the husk of an old idea that we are somehow different from each other.
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