One of the things that I’ve noticed over the course of my work is that men are afraid of stepping out of conventional ideas of strength and into the fire of their own wounds. It is a bit ironic, actually. To do deep psychological and spiritual work takes a lot of courage. Definitely much more courage than pretending that nothing fazes you. But our social structure has for generations taught men that the only appropriate outward display of emotion is anger.
I have a friend. He loves all of the things that are stereotypical masculine territory: building things, fixing things, mechanics, hunting, fishing, drinking, a Hemingway of sorts. I’ve known him for years. We’ve been through some pretty intense situations together. Yet for all his manly pursuits he is afraid to look into the emotional wounds that would make him an even greater man.
Like so many men in our society, my friend is scared to death of being vulnerable. The funny thing is that this great fear of vulnerability doesn’t come from other people seeing him in a vulnerable state. It comes from his own fear of seeing himself there.
We all have masks that we are taught to wear as we grow. Our families, educational institutions, peers, religious institutions, and the media give us these masks. As we grow we internalize them. We believe in them to the point where we can no longer differentiate where the mask ends and we begin. We only notice when the mask starts to slip. Then the general tendency is to get angry with whomever, or whatever made the mask slip.
So this friend of mine, like so many other men, wears an ill-fitting invincibility mask.
Time after time he has struggled to move forward in his life: with his career and romantic relationships. Time after time he backslides into old self-destructive patterns. His plans and illusions end up broken on the floor, along with his mask. But instead of looking at himself, at what inspires him to wear the mask in the first place, he picks the mask up off the ground and sloppily ties it on as soon as possible.
The thing about this invincibility mask is that no one believes it. Not my friend. Not the people that know and care about him. Not even the men who feel comforted by seeing someone else wearing an ill-fitting invincibility mask. No one buys into the charade, but everyone is complicit in it.
So why not drop it once and for all? Well, because it is scary to face the wounds that we carry. The wound we have sustained and survived throughout our lives linger with us, looming over us until we heal them. After years of working through these things myself, then guiding others through the same process, I am convinced that 90% of the wounds we suffer as adults are repeats of those we sustained but didn’t face when we were younger.
I was a lot like this at one point. My invincibility mask was also ill-fitting. I tried to plaster it on with macho BS like drinking, fighting, womanizing. These are the trends of my culture: little boys that never grow wear ill-fitting macho masks well into their seventies and eighties, then they die. But wearing this mask ran me straight into a wall, literally and figuratively.
What I learned from that experience was that what matters in becoming a man is whether or not I have the courage to put the mask down. I had to stop and look at all of the places where I still carried the open wounds of my upbringing. I also had to take full responsibility for where I was in my life. Not partial responsibility, none of that childishness. I had to own it all.
That was and continues to be the most challenging work. Accepting what you’ve gone through and grieving for it is not weakness, it’s medicine. The potential for wholeness, for becoming complete human beings, both men and women, comes from our willingness to go into the deep dark spaces of the soul that need to be healed. It comes from allowing ourselves to feel the deep sorrow that we carry: for our families, our communities, our planet and ourselves. Otherwise we move forward like lost children in ill-fitting masks.
When we live wearing our ill-fitting mask of invincibility, we are stuck in a place of shaming and deprivation. We attempt to cover it up with the generic mass-produced assembly-line mask of manhood. The only way through this is to put down the mask and embrace the wound.
This is not easy work. It takes courage, it takes guidance, it takes a community that can and will support you. In our society there is much talk about everything that is wrong with men, but there is little support for men to drop their invincibility masks and step through the fires of their wounds. This is work that must be done for men by men. It is the only way that things will change. It is the only way that masculinity will heal.
This cannot happen through the intellectualizing of all of the ills and evils that men have committed. It is not about the emotional or psychological castration that often comes from self-serving people that hide behind the banner of feminism (which is not an indictment of feminism, but of those that use it to project their wounds onto others). It is about men creating the container where the emotional alchemy can occur for one another. It is about men learning that there is more courage and strength in putting down the ill-fitting mask of invincibility and walking through the wounds that keep them stuck in a perpetual shamed adolescence. For years I have been doing this type of work with men and learning from mentors and teachers that lead the way. We have options in how we can collectively move past the stage of shame, but first we must admit that we are stuck there.
This is a critical time in human history to take up this work. It is essential that we become the elders that our future generations need for the survival of humanity. We need true leadership, leadership that is based on the wellbeing of the whole of humanity and our more-than-human relations. It’s time we healed our broken masculinity. The only way we will get there is by dropping our masks, and stepping through the fire of healing our wounds.
Previously published on Tending the Fires
Photo: Getty Images