I have heard this question asked in many different tones lately, but rarely with curiosity, concern and a sincere desire to understand.
As an ally to men since the beginning of the Men’s Movement of the late 80s, I would like to share, humbly as a woman, a bit of what I have gleaned over the past thirty years for anyone with a desire to understand those guys—our brothers, fathers, sons, friends, and lovers, or anyone who grew up with men’s conditioning.
The first phrase I learned to say as a toddler was “Bad boy!” It was my weapon to get my mother’s attention when my older brother was doing something I didn’t like. It was the lens through which my mother, a product of her culture, related to children who had inconvenient feelings or uncooperative or unsavory behavior. From a very early age, I learned to relate to boys as their victim (and sometimes I was!), their boyish energy is often seen as inherently oppressive to others. In turn, they learned to see themselves as bad boys and to try very, very hard to be good ones.
I recall witnessing a lively soccer game taking place among the boys of a third-grade class, while the girls finished lunch nearby. Suddenly, there was a loud thump and Phoebe, the blond foster child in the class, was thrown to the ground, the recipient of a soccer ball to the head. “Who did it?” came the blaming growl, as Phoebe, in tears, received tender attention from the few adults and the girls. The identity of the one at fault, the boy who had accidentally kicked the ball into the crowd, was sought by all in a mean frenzy. There was no tender attention offered to him and his experience—only an energy of “Baaaaad!” He didn’t get to talk about how it felt to have unintentionally hurt someone or be supported to move through his own shock, or cry himself. In fact, he received no free attention at all to digest what had happened; he was too busy fending off the energized animosity of the others.
When my daughter was about three, one of her best friends was a boy of the same age named Noah. Like a lot of boys, Noah was a little bit slower with his language acquisition than Sophia. He went through a time where, feeling frustrated that he couldn’t get her attention, he would hit her with whatever was handy. One day, it was his Tonka dump truck, straight to the head. When we asked him what was going on that made him do that, he said in his nasally little boy voice, “I wanted Dophia.” We gently explained to Noah that there might be other ways to get Sophia’s attention and created space for him practice some of them. Noah wasn’t a bad boy—he was a boy who felt frustrated and had a passionate desire for the company of his friend but lacked in language and skills.
We started to notice that Sophia, despite towering over Noah with her sturdy body (she could lift him easily), began acting like a small, frozen flower when Noah would push or hit her. Family get-togethers or playdates would often involve some kind of incident whereby “bad boy Noah” pulverized “sweet and innocent” Sophia. Before our eyes, we watched as the two children played out the cultural patterns around them and mimicked the adults in the movies, Noah learning to take his pain out on Sophia and Sophia learning to play the frozen, helpless victim.
Sophia’s godfather, Michael, gave her some aikido lessons and worked with her physical confidence. He asked her what Noah typically did to her when he was too verklempt to act in a skillful manner. As she described each situation, Michael showed her things she could do to stop him, and she was able to move through some of the frozenness. One night at a potluck we heard Noah crying and looked up. Sophia sat cross-legged on the floor opposite Noah holding his wrists with just enough force to restrain him, gazing calmly into his eyes. Having been stopped mid-strike without the option to act out his pain, he had to feel it and got the benefit of a good cry from his compassionate and attentive but deadly firm friend, Sophia.
One beautiful spring day when I was in seventh grade, I stood in the field at recess chatting and laughing with my first boyfriend. All of a sudden, I noticed a strange sight: five eighth-grade boys striding purposefully in our direction. I looked toward where my boyfriend had been standing to comment on how strange a sight it was, and to ponder with him what was going on, only to see that he had vanished. He knew exactly what was going on—it was time for “smear the queer,” or whatever the latest name was for the ritual taunting that packs of older boys inflicted on the younger boys to terrorize them. This included beating them up, putting their heads in the toilet, or giving them painful “wedgies” that they would not soon forget.
Once as an adult, waiting to pick up Sophia after school, I saw two boys involved in a tussle about 15 yards from the recess monitor who was supervising the after-school care. The bigger boy was on top of the smaller boy, repeatedly punching him in the stomach, side, and chest, as he lay helplessly on the ground. I watched the older boy run off, while the monitor, who had seen the whole thing, did nothing. I went over to the small boy, crying in the dirt: “What was that?” I asked. He cried for a while and replied, “That’s my older brother. He beats on me all the time.” By this time, the monitor, not recognizing me, came over to see who I was, but still showed no interest in the boy and his experience.
When men learn from a young age that their very energy is a problem—when your vigor results in mishaps and injuries, when your lack of skill is met with impatience, harshness or punishment, all accompanied by an overlay of “bad boy,” you hurt. But when hurting is not allowed, because that would mean you aren’t the right kind of boy and you will get teased, shamed and potentially beat up for it—when no one patiently helps you develop the skills you need to relate more tenderly; when everything is framed through the lens of “bad, scary boys and men,” and when you have no outlet to feel, digest, and figure out what’s real or learn in a warm and kind environment; and, on top of it all, when everything points to manning up and moving on, you eventually numb your precious boy sensitivity. You realize that you don’t have a place to feel hurt in loving company, and believe that no one actually cares. Your capacity to feel, your capacity to put things into words, your capacity to care for your body and set boundaries, your capacity to relate tenderly—these are left atrophied and layered with shame, abandonment, grief, and anger, all of which you are expected to repress and numb out.
When it’s all too much and something frustrates you, the only resource you know is to push away, hit, yell, or slam the door, isolate, or stalk off. You’re hurt, you’re mad, you’re alone and you’re bad. And it seems like no one cares. And even if they did care, by the time you’re a grown man, there’s such a tangled mess in there that you don’t know how to access it, and you don’t expect anyone to have the kind of love, clarity, patience, and skill to hold a warm space for you while you fumble your way toward feeling something.
When I was eighteen, home from college for winter break, I learned from my mother that my father, the family pillar of honesty, integrity, and moral behavior, had been having an affair with another woman and lying about it for a year, and he wanted a divorce. I was in the kitchen chopping chicken in preparation for dinner, since my mother was a wreck in the bedroom down the hall. Each chop carried the fury of my betrayed teenage heart. Then my father entered the kitchen. I moved nearer to him with the knife to rinse it off in the sink (feeling quite murderous) and stopped cold. My strong, often angry, formidable father was standing with a crumpled expression of such pain on his face; there was so much shame, sorrow, and remorse in his eyes that for the first time in my years of seeing him through the lens of irreproachable family dictator, I saw him as a fallible, vulnerable, broken-hearted human being. Mercy and forgiveness flowered in my heart toward him for the first time in my life.
Right about now, many women will start to feel uncomfortable. We’ll want to say, “Yeah, but we are made bad too.” Or, “Yeah but, we are brutalized too, and generally at the hands of men.” Or, “Yeah but, they do act like assholes, what do they expect?” And I say, breathe; find a place to feel your pain and move through it—all the accumulated centuries of it. Because whatever male privilege does exist—and however we all act out in our agony—the way things are neglects, twists, and hurts everyone.
When I first started learning about men and their struggles, I had to contend with a lot of activation within me, wanting to shut them down and speak my own pain, especially if they were my partners or were angry or critical of me. I started to see that I held a victim card that could be used at any moment—you’re big and scary, I’m small and victimized; you’re the agent of patriarchal culture, I have been oppressed by you—therefore, I get the feeling space. I began seeing how I unwittingly participated in perpetuating the “man code,” on one hand demanding that the men around me be more sensitive and emotionally vulnerable while on the other denying them the feeling space to become so.
Because of men’s silence (a silencing that is part of their conditioning as men), and because so much of what men experience was outside of my own as a woman, I wasn’t aware of what was going on “over there.” Learning from men at men’s conferences, in conversations, reading articles and becoming sensitized to their experience, I began to realize that the men I was close to acted “like that” not just because they could, or were assholes, or were out to oppress me, but because they were scared and hurting, awkward and unskillful. Then I started seeing man-hearts everywhere, beautiful, sweet man-hearts tangled up in a prison of unexplored fear, shame, self-condemnation, and anger.
Why are men like that? I want to know, and I want to bring the light of understanding, tenderness, and love wherever human suffering lives. There’s room for all of us to hurt, and for all of us to have our pain heard, met and understood.
This post was originally posted on Facebook and is republished here with the author’s permission.
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Photo credit: Mark Lellouch