You know those lists on Facebook that have 25 life experiences—things like got arrested, went skydiving, been to France, swam naked? You put a check next to the ones you have done and it gives you a feeling of the degree to which you have experienced life. Exercises like these give me a little snapshot of how expansive I have been in my life so far. Sometimes, it even motivates me to get more adventurous.
In my life, and in the lives of many men I have talked with, a much more fundamental and personal list has a huge impact. This is the list of aspects of myself and ways of being that I no longer have access to.
Broad categories like singing and dancing are things that many men cannot and will not do. Small things like skipping down the street are no longer an option. Hugging, taking a compliment, smelling flowers, reading a poem….um, no thanks.
In my coaching I illustrate this phenomenon with the analogy of a deck of 52 cards. When a little boy is born he has access to all 52 cards. The unbridled joy of life is not yet checked by his social conditioning. The masculinity box has not been downloaded into him so he is still free to be and do anything he wants. I have heard it said that between birth and the age of three a child belongs mostly to spirit, then from three to six a child has one foot in the spirit world and one foot in the earthly world. This period of time is when many of the cards start going back in the pack. Picture a four year old boy singing a song with all his heart only to have Uncle Whoever mindlessly zing him with a humiliating insult. The singing card may not be used for quite some time, if ever again.
For generations of little boys, the biggest cause of cards no longer being accessible is the cultural box of masculinity. A boy does not have to hear “boys don’t cry” too many times before putting that card away. Get enough toy guns and footballs on his birthday and all non ‘boy’ experiences, like playing with dolls; jacks; and picking flowers, are no longer acceptable options for boys.
The Ultimate Card Stealer—Vulnerability and the Man Box
Many of the experiences represented by the 52 cards involve personal expressiveness—and can only be enjoyed if you are willing to risk being vulnerable.
In the cultural masculinity box, personal expressiveness becomes a risky undertaking. The only mode of personal expressiveness that has been traditionally acceptable for boys is anger. Anger and rage are celebrated in music and movies, so they become things that are OK to do. Express your fear, sadness, or even grief, and you are on much shakier ground as a boy.
For most boys, vulnerability itself is trained out of them very early in life. “Tough it out, don’t be a pussy, get over it,” were mantras on playgrounds and athletic fields. They learn that safety is not exposing themselves to ridicule or criticism. The insidious thing about this phenomenon is that they do not know that it is happening. From what I remember, I was just making day-to-day decisions that kept me safe from pain. When it came time for the elementary school play I was the first to volunteer for stage crew. I probably declared with as much false conviction as I could muster, “I don’t want to be in the play,” when the truth was closer to the fact that I just did not have access to that card any longer. I could not risk putting myself out there.
As I got older I put away some of my 52 cards for other reasons. If I did not understand something or it was not what I was interested in, I made the other things wrong or “dumb,” as I put it then. I played football, so soccer became dumb. I never understood the attraction to Pink Floyd or the Grateful Dead, so they became dumb (hacky sack was especially dumb and of course, I had never tried it.)
So I probably entered adulthood with about 14 cards. All defendable and non-threatening to my vulnerability. It turned out that I could live a decent life with a limited amount of cards. A little limited, a little dull, but decent. A good trick is to hang around with other people with limited cards, and make sure there is a lot of overlap with the cards you all have.
Is That It? Can You Ever Get Cards Back?
As happens with many men, my dull, decent life was interrupted by a transformative event. Mine was a relationship crisis, but I have seen a ton of other ways that men have been jolted into change. Health crisis, job loss, death of a parent or loved one, or even just being sick of the status quo, can all be pivot points in a man’s life.
I was about 40 and my long term partner lost interest in our relationship. She went to India to find herself and found another guy. She told me she was not coming back and I was devastated. I felt like my heart was going to explode. But something in the grief felt exciting. Most of the first day after hearing this I was in extreme emotional pain, with pockets of excitement. It was like life had just opened up a little. There were other possibilities now. In one of these pockets I called up Kripalu Retreat Center and asked if they had any openings for me to come up there the next day. They did, and I went to a program called Opening the Buddhist Heart. It was amazing. Still there were the waves of pain, but I was becoming more vulnerable. I was crying freely. Talking the stuff out in the group. Then I went to this dance class where we danced across the floor in whatever way we wanted to. As I did this, I started crying tears of joy because I had never been able to let myself be this free before. Something had shifted. I had gotten a card back.
Since that time I have been on a spiritual quest, or you can call it a transformational journey, or you can just say that I have been busy collecting all the cards that I stashed away back in my youth. I went to Toastmasters and got back the public speaking card. I became part of an ongoing drum circle and got my drumming card back. I have learned that getting cards back is usually on the other side of a some temporary discomfort. But now the discomfort is not to be avoided at all cost but ‘leaned into’—almost surfed.
I do not have all 52 cards yet—maybe I never will—but life is fuller now. Fear and safety are not running the show. The uneasy feeling of stepping into the unknown is an indicator of where I need to be for growth. Like a lot of men who have been through similar journeys, I celebrate my vulnerability.
How many cards do you have? What cards did you put away that you’re ready to play again?
—Photo Credit: Flickr/Jiahui Huang