Boys to Men: The Evolution of the Masculinity Paradigm

Not long ago, my 4 ½ year old granddaughter, Charli, and I were playing while her little sister napped. She was smitten with some superhero character she had seen on TV and began to act out a battle scene. But, when Charli got a little too rambunctious I said to her, “Be careful honey. You don’t want to hurt me or I’ll cry.”

She scoffed at my admonition and matter-of-factly replied, “Boys don’t cry!”

“Everybody cries Charli,” I responded. “Even boys.”

“Not big boys,” she snapped.

I was taken aback by her innocent recitation of cultural stereotyping. So, I said to her, “Sweetie, that’s not true. It’s okay for any boy to cry if he’s hurt or sad.”

“Oh, okay,” she replied, as if she had seen the light, before changing the subject and resuming our game.

Wow! Where did this notion come from? TV? Kids at nursery school? Older kids? Adults? If this is what a 4 ½ year old girl thinks, boys don’t have a chance.

Ironically, I had been studying the paradox of masculinity for months. The long-standing cultural view that my granddaughter learned, by some sort of osmosis, is just not true. Boys and men cry all the time. We have feelings of joy, sadness, hurt, loneliness, fear and many other emotions that can trigger tears. So what?

Here’s the problem. Society has taught us that to be a real man, we must be strong, tough, stoic, invulnerable. We must be driven by power, success, money, and sexual conquests.

Do you realize how ludicrous that is?

Healthy masculinity doesn’t impose such archaic labels on manhood. It’s simply about being yourself, being hu-man. Real men have empathy and integrity. Real men hold themselves accountable and learn to embrace vulnerability. And, real men yearn for genuine relationship with other human beings.

Society tells men we’re not permitted to feel, which isn’t psychoneurologically possible. Men feel as deeply as women. We’re just not supposed to show it. So, we hold it inside where it festers until it spills out, usually in some sort of violence. When we cease to feel, we cease to exist.

Joe Ehrmann was a tough-as-nails defensive lineman in the NFL for a dozen years. He was a prototypical he-man. He was also an angry man. As a young child, Joe’s abusive father bullied him into submission. “My father’s concept of masculinity was that men don’t cry, men don’t feel, men don’t need, men don’t touch — that if you really want to be a man, you learn how to dominate and control.”[i]

The tipping point came at age 12 when Joe was violently raped by two vengeful men, which hastened his descent into a sea of shame. “It hemorrhages your soul for a lifetime,” he said. “I’m 63, and my life has been a long and painful journey. It didn’t have to be this way if society wasn’t so shameful, and if I’d had the help [afterward] that I needed. I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through that.”[ii]

So, you see why Joe was angry.

But a seismic shift occurred in Joe’s brain in 1978 as he watched his little brother Joey suffer and die of cancer. He was devastated beyond measure and decided to become an agent of change. Joe derided what he calls false masculinity. “False masculinity creates a paradigm that basically sets men up for tremendous failures in their lives. Because it gives us this concept that what we need to do as men is compare what we have and compete with others for what they have… It leaves most men feeling isolated and alone. And it destroys any concept of community.”

So, Joe Ehrmann set out to create a new definition of masculinity, personified by these tenets: accepting responsibility, leading courageously, and enacting justice on behalf of others. “Masculinity, first and foremost, ought to be defined in terms of relationships. It ought to be taught in terms of the capacity to love and to be loved… Success comes in terms of relationship.”

I knew who Joe Ehrmann is but I didn’t know the depth of his convictions. And I knew nothing of his quest to eradicate society’s long-held, but erroneous definition of masculinity.

Lewis Howes, another former football player, is a disciple of Ehrmann’s proposition. Howes wrote a book called, The Mask of Masculinity. In it, he writes, “Almost every man has a story in which he learned — through pain, humiliation, or even force — how he does not measure up. When that happens to him, masks become more than a way to hide, they become armor. Because every man must be invulnerable and tough, emotions are carefully managed and suppressed. There can be no crying, no pain, no feeling. A wall is put up between him and the world to protect him, to pretend he doesn’t feel the things he does because weakness is an invitation to scrutiny and judgment and rejection.”[iii]

Howes points out a shocking fact in his book that men in the U.S. are six times more likely to commit suicide than women. Six times! Jesus Christ! That sure as hell should tell us something. It should scare the living shit out of us. Men are unwittingly, but methodically killing ourselves. If not by suicide, by heart disease, or stroke, or cancer brought on by the intolerable stress associated with isolation and silence. And if we survive those things, we live an unfulfilled life hiding behind our masks and taking refuge inside our cocoon of secrets.

It’s all bullshit, and it ruins lives every single day. These myths engender deep layers of shame that calcify and become toxic. It turns us inward — afraid to speak — and denies us the opportunity to create intimate relationships with other men — and women.

Sadly, the sentiment my granddaughter learned is just the way it is. So says a significant and alarming documentary film on this plague called, The Mask You Live In, which should be mandatory viewing at every single school in the country. It should be shown again and again until its message sinks in.

The Mask You Live In trailer.

Psychologist Niobe Way is one of the numerous educators that appear in the film. She says, “If we’re in a culture that doesn’t value caring, doesn’t value relationships, doesn’t value empathy, you are going to have boys and girls, men and women go crazy.” Psychiatrist James Gilligan concurs: “Whether it’s homicidal violence or suicidal violence, people resort to such desperate behavior only when they are feeling shamed and humiliated or feel they would be if they didn’t prove that they were real men.”[iv]

Benjamin Sledge is a combat veteran and recipient of both a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. He’s now a writer and artist who feels passionately about what he calls the fatherless generation. “While men desperately crave emotional intimacy with other men, some of us have built up callouses so tough that even the notion of deep connection is considered effeminate. Instead, men lash out with deadly violence and dive head first into a synchronistic digital intimacy as opposed to real relationships.”

“In my line of work, I counsel a lot of young men through porn addiction. They always come in thinking porn is the issue, but it’s always symptomatic of something much deeper. Out of each man I’ve counseled, I’ve discovered that they all lacked emotional intimacy with their dad growing up.”[v]

So, the question becomes how do we as a society create meaningful change?

Glennon Doyle, author of “Love Warrior,” sets forth an ambitious but imperative plan of action. “It requires us taking apart what our culture has taught us about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. To realize how much we’ve been poisoned. To strip down to who we actually are.”[vi]

Thankfully, there is now a burgeoning national movement to educate men about the true definition of manhood. Organizations like Evryman[vii] and ManKind Project[viii] are connecting with thousands of men via social media, podcasts, men’s groups, and retreats. Thank God for them and for leaders like Joe Ehrmann, Lewis Howes, Benjamin Sledge, and an ever-growing army of crusaders who are actively engaged in advocacy, education, support, and encouragement. Together, they are determined to move the needle one notch at a time and change the masculinity paradigm forever.

So, fellow men of the universe, figure out who you really are and just be that person. Be yourself. Don’t be afraid to express your feelings. Don’t contort yourself to fit into somebody else’s definition of a man. Why would you want to fit neatly into some generic box?

Be courageous. Be vulnerable. Be who you are. And, if somebody doesn’t like it, tough shit.

[i]Season of Life,by Jeffrey Marx | Simon and Schuster | © Jeffrey Marx 2003

[ii]Former Colt Joe Ehrmann to Speak at child sex abuse summit,by Mike Klingaman | Baltimore Sun | March 18, 2013 © Baltimore Sun

[iii]The Mask of Masculinity,by Lewis Howes | Rodale Welness | © 2017 Lewis Howes

[iv]The Mask You Live In,by Jennifer Siebel Newsom | © 2015 The Presentation Project

[v]Benjamin Sledge | www.benjaminsledge.com

[vi]Love Warrior, by Glennon Doyle | Flatiron Books | © 2016 Glennon Doyle

[vii]Evryman | www.Evryman.com

[viii]ManKind Project | www.mankindproject.org

I cultivate and correlate human stories.

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