Kozo Hattori investigates the fundamental misunderstanding about the C-word.
“How would you describe the mother who looks out for her daughter and packs a lunch for the whole family,” I asked Jett while helping him with his English homework.
“Compassionate,” Jett replied.
“She is compassionate. Let’s write that. Do you know how to spell compassionate?”
Later that night, when my wife looked over the homework, she smirked.
“Jett, you didn’t do this,” she said so that both Jett and I could hear.
“How is the mother compassionate?” she demanded.
“I forgot,” said Jett nervously.
“Come over here and re-do this, right now!”
As trivial as this example seems, I’ve seen it happen over and over with young boys and men. Whenever boys and men show or express a softer, caring side, they get questioned, shamed, or ridiculed.
Showing concern for the suffering of others often makes boys and men targets of other boys or men who are uncomfortable with any form of “weakness.” Shame researcher Brene Brown claims that men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not be perceived as weak.
I remember a friend in college calling out me and some other friends on our homophobic put downs. We used to constantly use homosexual terms, images, and accusations to insult others whom we perceived as weak.
“Why do you guys always have to use homosexuals as a put down?” asked my compassionate friend.
“Why do you care? You must be a faggot,” responded another friend.
Suddenly, everyone, myself included, released a barrage of insults on the open-minded friend about his sexuality. It was like sharks in a blood spill.
Surprisingly, women also shame and brow-beat men who dare to be vulnerable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried in front of women who seemed at a loss of how to react to my suffering. One woman actually said, “What is wrong with you? Be a man!”
As much as women claim to want men to be open, vulnerable, and intimate, Brene Brown quotes a mentor who claims that “men know what women really want. They want us to pretend to be vulnerable. We get really good at pretending.”
The problem is that if men and boys are always avoiding any sign of weakness while pretending to be vulnerable, then when are we allowed to be compassionate?
When I asked Thich Nhat Hanh about the problem with Western men viewing compassion as a weakness, he said that Western men must “have a fundamental misunderstanding of compassion. Compassion is not weakness. Compassion is strength.”
One of my clients who recognizes the strength of compassion said to me recently, “I totally agree that compassion is essential for men, but, to be honest, I never use the word compassion.” On a similar note, the men’s group that I run doubled its membership when I changed the title from Compassionate Men’s Group to Empowerment Group for Men.
These examples reveal an aversion to the word compassion in relation to men and boys. Part of this has to do with education. Another client who attended a talk I gave on raising compassionate boys went home and asked his 15 year old daughter if she knew what compassion was. After looking at the ceiling for a while, she replied, “I have no idea.”
For all these reasons, I’m no longer using the title Raising Compassionate Boys for this column. Compassion will still be the main focus of my writing, but I will not use the word compassion as much since many of the men I wish to reach probably won’t make it past the title if it contains the C-word.
In the end, it’s only a word. What is more important is the content of one’s heart.