Lots has been written about manhood and masculinity. For example, Joseph Campbell’s writings lay out wonderful models of male spiritual maturity. Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself (Dr. Joseph Dispensa) shows us ways to stop beating ourselves into shame-based creatures of habit. To Be A Man (Robert Augustus Masters) reconciles the darker side of masculinity with an enlightened humanity.
I also cite Jonice Webb’s breakthrough works on childhood emotional neglect (Running on Empty), Elaine Aron (The Highly Sensitive Person), and almost anything by John Bradshaw (Healing the Shame That Binds You) on family dysfunction and toxic shame.
These and much more give men effective ways to rediscover the core of their masculine spirits. None dictate which one or two qualities define a real man.
A real man has both masculine and feminine traits. Some shared traits are physical (yes, men also get breast cancer). Most spiritual traits in men and women are identical (often experienced as a female “voice”). Nearly all emotional qualities are found in both (real men do cry, can be cranky, and have “hissy-fits”).
The expression of masculine and feminine traits can be experienced on a sliding scale and in varying proportions. Thus, we see how men and women react differently to the same events, depending on external circumstances, on the relative balance of their internal emotional “wiring”, and in the ways they’ve learned to process them.
All men are born whole: capable of being deeply vulnerable, nurturing, empathic, intuitive, loving, tender, sensitive, spiritual, creative, generous, and communicative. Whether or not these qualities show up in a man’s expression depends largely on the degree to which he has been allowed by family and society to express them without shame or judgment.
In many cases men have discovered it is dangerous to reveal their stereotypically feminine expressions and feelings, and so they create walls within to protect others from seeing their tender cores.
The bottom line: a real man is someone who defines himself. He alone has the right to express his manhood in the way that honors him and that respects the boundaries of others. This means he enjoys a radical freedom to be fully himself. This is the way in which he shows his self-acceptance. And each of us is obligated in justice to accept that expression, no matter how uncomfortable it may make us feel.
That said, we live in a culture that continues to skew the definition of masculinity into a narrow, blind alley. We still don’t do enough to protect young boys from abuse, addiction, and dysfunction in their families and by adults and peers. In fact, such matters are usually ignored until the boy grows up to be a violent, disrespectful, and even self-destructive man.
He is merely living out the way he’s been taught by others to feel about himself.
Ultimately, I don’t believe there is a crisis of masculinity in our culture. Rather, there is a crisis (for both men and women) of freedom of self-expression, of non-judgmental, non-dualistic acceptance, of toxic shaming, of prejudicial preconceptions about sexuality and gender, and of the presumption that it’s still okay emotionally and physically to abuse boys.
What can be done? It starts with you and me.
· We need time to reflect on who we are becoming, how we are expressing our cores in a healthy, life-giving way.
· We need to hold ourselves accountable, both men and women, for the ways in which we objectify ourselves and others.
· We need to take responsibility for short-circuiting true intimacy by our words and actions.
· We need help tear down the walls that surround our emotions and the self-hatred many of us hold onto.
· We need to validate our right to exist as we are, to associate with whomever we want, and to express ourselves respectfully and assertively.
· And we need to listen deeply to each other.
My focus as a life coach and spiritual director for the past 40 years has been in liberating people from their internal prison cells, their habits of self-doubt, and the false messages they’ve been living with. It’s a joy whenever a man or woman finds their own expression of their deepest self.