Again and again a man would tell me about early childhood feelings of emotional exuberance, of unrepressed joy, of feeling connected to life and to other people, and then a rupture happened, a disconnect, and that feeling of being loved, of being embraced, was gone. Somehow the test of manhood, men told me, was the willingness to accept this loss, to not speak it even in private grief. Sadly, tragically, these men in great numbers were remembering a primal moment of heartbreak and heartache: the moment that they were compelled to give up their right to feel, to love, in order to take their place as patriarchal men. ―bell hooks
In 1943, I entered life a unique, loving, vulnerable, entirely authentic little being. Before long, however, in reaction to the insensitive, thoughtless, or ignorant words and actions of the mostly well-meaning grown-ups around me, I gradually began to change.
Reprimanded for being too high-spirited and boisterous (“Settle down right now, young man!”), I tamped down my exuberance and passion. Chastised for expressing my distress (“Stop that whining or I’ll give you something to whine about!”), I learned to stifle my disappointment and sadness. Ridiculed (“Boys don’t do it like that!”), teased (“Oh, is little Brucie angry?”), criticized (“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times . . .”), or shamed (“Big boys don’t cry!”) once too often, I began to constrain my animation, curiosity, and authenticity.
Thus, it became easy for me to believe that I was not OK as I was, that I was somehow not good enough, that I should be different, that I should be a “real boy”—upbeat, competitive, independent, devoid of so-called “feminine” emotions. So, in order to maintain the care and support I required as such a young age, I adopted the persona that the surrounding culture demanded. And over the years, I slowly perfected the drama, forging myself into a hyper-masculine super-jock, a high school all-star football player, whose sense of self-worth was bolstered by the admiration of fellow students, teachers, townspeople, and college football coaches. Unfortunately, I subsisted beneath my macho façade for so long that I came to believe I really was the hard-ass whose primary emotions were anger, hilarity at mischievous pranks, and post-victory exultation; who rarely interacted on a meaningful level with anyone; who almost never shed a tear; who regarded girls and, later, women, as lesser beings whose role was to serve and to pleasure men.
However, beneath my seemingly impervious veneer, I lived in constant unconscious fear of being exposed as a fraud, and I suffered the incessant subliminal shame of living as one. Nonetheless, a yearning for an authenticity long abandoned would occasionally arise in my consciousness, a fleeting awareness that a different way of being was possible . . . if only I could find the hidden passageway.
It’s not as if life didn’t send me distress signals to awaken me to my pretense—drunkenly totaling three cars, getting kicked off the UT football team, impregnating two of my girlfriends. But I brushed these portents aside and assuaged my self-doubt and remorse with copious amounts of alcohol and, occasionally, pot and cocaine.
Finally, in the middle of my fourth decade, the wake-up calls became so excruciating, so undeniable that they could no longer be ignored—divorce, bankruptcy, losing my home and business, estrangement from my beloved daughter. Conceding, at long last, the futility of my existence, I hit rock bottom. I endured my dark night of the soul, I stopped drinking and drugging, and I participated in an intense weekend workshop at which I began discarding the limiting beliefs I’d adopted and started to peel back the encrusted layers of machismo beneath which I’d hidden my true essence. Slowly but surely, I clawed my way back to the authenticity I’d known in my youth, to the reality of who I truly was, to the homecoming I’d pined these many years. And after a brief interlude in the sensitive new-age guy drama, I got in touch with my life’s purpose and stepped into my humanity, into a gentler, more responsive, more conscious masculinity. And at age 75, there I remain, making the requisite course corrections from time to time as life requires.
While progressive shifts in our culture have taken place since my youth, I believe that almost all boys still endure a process of enculturation similar to the one I’ve described; some will awaken from their domestication, as I did, but many will not. So, while I wrote this essay for myself as a journey of self-discovery and as an artifact to leave behind when I exit my mortal existence, I hope it will serve as a wake-up call to parents, to men, and to women, especially in times such as these when many are striving to create a culture in which sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy as well as racism, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, and any other -ism or phobia that separate us from one another are eliminated (or at least substantially reduced), and every human being has the opportunity to live their lives as they see fit and pursue their own unique passions, whatever they might be.
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Note: The name of the “intense weekend workshop” I mention above was The Life Training Weekend (Now the More To Life Weekend) and took place in Houston in 1986 with John Coats as the trainer.
Originally Published on BruceMulkey.com