“Be a man”, “Man up” “Are you a man or a mouse”,” Let’s make a man out of you”, “Men don’t cry”, and “Grow a pair”. These messages are drummed into men almost at birth, or at least until we feel shame.
I first earned one of these admonishments when I was 8 years old and playing shortstop in little league baseball. A hard hit baseball off the bat of a coach caught me in the same place we’re told to grow a pair. Aside from my circumcision this was the greatest pain to stoke my nerve endings to that point in my young life. In agony and rolling around the infield, I was looking for aid and comfort. Instead the coach came up and commanded me to “Shake it off and act like a man”. Did he forget I was eight years old? Strangely, I walked around the field a bit, dusted myself off and continued playing, although my little boy voice echoed at a higher pitch.
I have a basic problem with these terribly unwise notions for defining manhood. Messages of machismo are holding us back and causing damage to our society. Let’s look at the pitfalls and the results. To do this we have to look at what it means to be a man.
Is being a real man shaking off pain, not showing emotion, withholding tears, and being the strong silent type? Let’s get real. Many men withhold emotions until an outlet presents itself for one to unleash one’s suppressed emotion. The past pain becomes current anger, aggression and depression.
Everyone pays when this erupts. Our significant others, children, pets, even drivers on the road take the brunt. Experts say the physically weaker the other person, the more likely she or he is to feel the anger, and endure sometimes violent repercussions. If men express their emotions in a functional, direct, and calmer manner spousal abuse in the United States would not be so alarmingly high. Some men have forsaken a very positive message learned in childhood; never hit a girl or woman.
So, what does it really mean to be a man? First it’s not about calling forth the internal macho man. It’s about being human. Real men care for and assist the weak and vulnerable in their lives. Real men have compassion, and confidently express their emotions in a calm and clear manner. Expressing emotion doesn’t connote yelling and screaming. Instead of ramping up the overplayed macho man inside us we must further develop our communication skills of listening, giving feedback, and accepting criticism.
I learned of my need to improve my communication skills as a member of Men’s Wisdom Works. In MWW groups men learn to speak about deep personal issues, and from our peers we learn better ways of managing ourselves. We learn such skills by listening and talking openly and honestly with other men, men who’ve been there and understand the human impact and what’s at stake. This is therapeutic, but it is not therapy. We listen, but we don’t analyze or tell other men what they should do. Instead, men convey experiences in similar situations. That's not advice. That's wisdom and experience. I’ve yet to master all these communication skills, but with the help of the men in MWW I am getting better.
My temper developed a much longer fuse as I strive not to light it. I now can talk through my anger and frustration, and I even accept feedback from my wife more openly and more functionally. She says I'm a better listener.
So, the bottom line: I’ve learned to grow a pair. No, not that kind of pair. Communication and emotional balance are the pair of my being that I strive to improve. This is not for the impatient. It takes time, self-monitoring, and a commitment to improve. Thanks Group I of Men's Wisdom Works for helping me see the light and for coaching me to become a man, a better man, a real man.
Now, let's change the narrative with our sons and grandsons.