The first time I saw my father cry was also the last. As if often the case with men of his generation it took the death of his mother to grant a license, however momentary, to weep openly. For the first time, my dad had become mortal as he abandoned his frayed mask of manhood. That afternoon, I realized it was secretly something I’d been hoping he’d do my entire life.
Though I’ve always had a rather delicate relationship with the world, The Appian Way to my own sensitivities rarely blocked, my dad’s pain solidified what I’d always sensed about true masculinity: Vulnerability is courage, not weakness.
The power that lies in other men adopting the same view can hardly be overlooked, especially today. It seems tolerance has been abandoned out of fear, spirited debate muddied into inflexible waters, and the unfamiliar interpreted as inadequate. We don’t need a new breed of man but for the dormant ones already within to rise up.
For too long, poor conditioning has led to many men’s deepest selves to be muted, relationships to be confined, failures linked to self-worth, and a skewed perception of behavior that is acceptable, and more importantly, what is not.
To blame conditioning is not the answer. Inquiry is. By examining how traditional norms of masculinity have helped disguise our true portraits we can liberate ourselves from thinking that is out of date. In time, we can redefine for ourselves what masculinity could be.
Many years ago I found myself on an impromptu fishing trip with my family’s old neighbor, Noonie. I was just a few years out of college and desperately trying to find some direction in my young life. The opportunity to share the afternoon with someone so wise and thoughtful seemed not only fun but a bit like destiny.
Like many men of his time, Noonie’s thoughts were vetted, placed through a rigorous self-scrutiny exam before being voiced. He spoke only if he felt he really had something worth sharing.
As the two of us sat in the boat I noticed Noonie gazing out on the calm surface of the water. He looked as if he were caught in some trance of self-questioning, searching for the answers on a deserted lake. Moments later, he broke the silence and started to open up about his experience during World War II.
“We were so young,” he said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. It was scary as hell and I hated most of it. But you know, when I look back on my experience with those guys it was probably the best time of my life.”
Moments later he drifted back to an unapologetic silence for the rest of the day. In his fleeting vulnerability, I understood how even the most stoic among us can get a little nostalgic when the days behind outnumber the ones ahead. There’s a bias to gaze on the path already trekked.
Still, I remember thinking a man I admired had only shared a fraction of what made him whole. I longed to hear more but knew his deepest thoughts, neurosis, and hopes would lay forever dormant in a few short years. The idea I’d never know more about him or many of the men in my life tore me up inside.
My experience with Noonie reminded me of how I once tried to preserve my own susceptibility. The summer before my senior year in college my angst seemed to know no bounds. While friends were sitting poolside and bouncing from one house party to the next I stayed cooped up at home overwhelmed by the world, trying to find the source of my restlessness.
When I finally opened up to my parents and friends I was met with a boundless sense of compassion that inspired me to never retreat within myself again.
I am not implying we go around brooding all day but rather find the courage to share bigger pieces of who we are so we can start to form the unabridged versions of ourselves. In time we may grow to be less afraid of feeling. Tragically, too many men cut those very emotions off at the pass because expressing them is rarely celebrated.
If we can sidestep the need for ceremony, we’ll gain a clearer view of the rewards that come with openness. First, by sharing our fears and admitting to our imperfections we raise the men of tomorrow to do the same. When we share our fragility we start to reclaim our humanity.
Vulnerability also brings us closer to the important people in our lives. To love someone is to express a reverence for their presence, however imperfect. How strange is it then that so many men can do it for others but not themselves? Real intimacy with the ones we value most is sacred ground but must first be extended to ourselves in order to be refined. It requires both a desire and a curiosity to explore the depths of our awareness.
In time, self-knowledge gives way to self-compassion, which extends to those around us. We begin to appreciate the many shapes, sizes, and colors of our counterparts. We grow to respect how some work with their hands, while others love other men. Instead of being threatened by the nuances of manhood, we can accept and contribute to its culture with tolerance.
But that reverence must be extended to everyone, especially women. It requires we interact with co-workers, classmates, and even strangers as if they too were our mothers, daughters, and sisters. That the dignity and respect we offer knows no bounds or exceptions; that we seek community rather than leverage. Offer greater regard instead of dismissal. Always cherish and never coerce. If true change is going to take shape, women must ultimately be able to view us as their allies.
True vulnerability is another way of saying I want to learn more, try harder, and that I’m willing to listen with the intent to truly understand for the sake of all of us.
Male vulnerability is an invitation to set ourselves free. It’s an important step in allowing one’s self to feel moved, lonely, lost, angry and joyful without ridicule or exile. But mostly it’s about making the choice not to harden at what frightens us but find the courage to delve deeper into ways we can be more compassionate to ourselves, and those around us.
The bravery to be unguarded is the first step in becoming the better men the world needs us to be.
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