Growing up, the concept of “being a man” seemed clearer than it should have been. I grew up surrounded by uncles and a dad who were into lifting heavy weights and rock ‘n’ roll music. Their actions were always clearly conveyed a sense of bravado and fearlessness.
From an early age, I set the standards for my apparent masculinity quite high. In my small mind, there were two simple rules that all men lived by:
(1) Respect the women in your life and (2) show no fear or pain.
They were obvious additions to these with many subcategories, but these two were the bedrock of all I knew.
One incident that still resonates with me was during a friendly game of cricket between my dad and me. My dad was struck on his bare knee by a leather cricket ball. To those unaware, the ball weighs in at around 5.5 ounces and because the ball travels at a tremendous speed, the game requires a lot of protective equipment to keep players from getting injured. As I went over to check on whether my dad wanted to sit down because of the impact, he calmly walked over, picked up the ball, and handed it back to me. When I asked if it hurt, his reply was a sober, “Yes, but it won’t always hurt; it’ll stop soon.”
With a big smile, I walked back knowing that the benchmark had been set. For the next few years whenever a situation arose, I tried my hardest not to show pain. Whether that was an emotional or physical pain, my mind was set on the fact that there was no greater response a man could offer than to hide it all away.
This approach is quite common among men who like to portray themselves as Alpha Males, the dominant ones that feel no fear or pain. Crying is seen as a major show of emotion and weakness and is thus strictly not allowed. Real men don’t cry, how often have you heard that line?
A few years later, another incident once again changed my opinion of the subject and gave me a much better understanding of what it really means to be a man. My grandma, my Dad’s mother, was sick, and as we visited one doctor after the other, it seemed like there was no clear solution in sight. One day as we sat down to pray and I saw something I never expected: My dad broke down and wept. It wasn’t just a few tears, either. This sight almost instantly changed the way I thought about a lot of things.
Suddenly it was ok for men to show their feelings?
Something that had seemed almost unnatural earlier was now acceptable. In my mind, my Dad was still the toughest, strongest, and most dependable man I could count on. The relationship between crying and being a man completely changed. Suddenly strength didn’t mean that you tried to show people you felt nothing. Being a man meant having strong emotions and not being afraid to express them.
As men, we often try to curb our emotions and try to act in a way that makes us more socially acceptable. We look up to the typical tough guy and try to emulate them in any way we can. What we never see are the struggles that even the toughest of men experience.
Being a man is not about having no weakness or showing no fear, it’s about standing for what is right despite everything. I owe a lot to my Dad and the example that he set. Observing this one incident had perhaps the biggest impact on me as a person. It made me the man I am today.
Photo credit: Flickr/Lars Plougman