I have always been interested in the emotional lives of men because it seems that so many suffer quite terribly in our society. The more obvious results of this suffering include domestic violence, rape, and male rage, to name a few. Less obvious, but more common, results of this suffering include depression, dissatisfaction with life, and lack of purpose. Because most men are not encouraged to experience themselves as emotional beings, they do not know how to address the basic issue of their unhappiness, and frustration builds. This is bad for them and bad for their families, so this issue interests me a lot. My son, who is nearly 5, is already teaching me how to understand and (hopefully) help men.
We watched “Free Willy” on Family Movie Night recently. Neither my daughter nor my son had seen it before, so it was a new experience for them. In the film, a young foster boy, whose mother abandoned him to the social services system, is struggling to find meaning and resists forming a bond with his foster parents. He gets in a lot of trouble and ends up having to do community work at the local sea park, where he meets Willy, a captive killer whale who seemingly cannot be trained. The whale and the boy form a bond in their loneliness and desire to be reunited with their family, and healing takes place for the boy. The whale becomes endangered by typical Hollywood bad guys, but everything works out in the end.
My son started the movie in my lap. After 20 minutes, he had to go get his lovie. A few minutes later, he had retreated to another chair to chew on his lovie. He cried several times and was visibly moved by the story. I know my son as a tender-hearted mush who needs—not just craves, but needs—to be close and loved. As a newborn infant, he would not allow me to put him to sleep in the nearby bassinet, which the hospital nurses insisted I do. He just cried. I worked out a solution that satisfied everyone: he slept partially inclined on a pillow between my knees, and my legs acted as guardrails to prevent him from falling. Only then, next to me, would he fall asleep. Given all that, it was interesting to me that Harry chose to isolate himself when the movie became difficult for him emotionally. What was he afraid of?
Why Do Men Not Show Emotion?
I experience my son as a compassionate, loving, kissy, and highly sensitive young man who cries if we are angry with him. I see this same softness and emotionality in most of the men I know or have known, even when it is long buried. It seems to me that most men are actually more sensitive than most women are, which is the opposite of the beliefs that we have about men. More to the point, I think that most men are so incredibly emotionally sensitive that they tend to build walls and shut down at a young age because they don’t know how else to deal with it. And when the men (or women) in their lives tell them to “suck it up,” the problem is magnified.
Of course, women are sensitive and build walls to keep away the pain, too. I’m not trying to belittle that experience at all. I have certainly lived it. I shut down at an early age because it was too painful to be open. My poor toxic parents didn’t help by making fun of my feelings (and then disregarding them). But I have always felt a kinship with my male peers, and most of my friends were boys. I understood them in ways that I did not understand the other girls. A number of years ago, when I was still searching, a psychic told me that my spiritual energy was about 75% masculine and 25% feminine. This made perfect sense to me. I have always felt like a highly masculine being in a female body (and I have no problem with that). So undoubtedly part of my quest to understand men is about understanding myself.
Nevertheless, my spirit inhabits a female body, and we make different social demands on females than on males. Our emotional nature is tolerated more—and derided more. But the scope of what is considered “manly” is narrow, indeed. Often, the only emotion that is “approved” for men is anger. That’s pretty messed up. Where are the tears of grief and joy? Where is the glint of sadness? Where is the warmth of contentment and happiness? Where is the light of love and compassion?
Fear of Failure
My son, like most little boys, loves superheroes. It’s an interesting thing, because he began to love them before he even knew what they were. Before he had ever read a comic book, seen a TV show, or even discussed it with us in any way, he suddenly began to seek out all things Superman, Batman, Spiderman… The passion was ignited by his peers, who may have experienced those things first. But I wondered, what is it about these hypermasculine caricatures (hey, I read comics, and I love them, too, but let’s be honest) that is so appealing to him?
I think that Superman and others like him embody the hard turtle’s shell that protects the sensitive man from the pain of judgment, perceived failure, and being seen emotionally. And if Superman cries for Lois Lane, who’s going to ridicule him? The man of steel is impervious to the criticism of others, and his soft, sensitive, emotional underbelly is safe as houses.
Superman comes in other forms as well. The science fiction author, Robert A. Heinlein, made an entire career out of writing about the “Competent Man.” His heroes (and heroines, who were thinly disguised men with vaginas) were superhuman in their ability to perform a wide variety of tasks and ultimately win the day. Failure was impossible, and if anyone fails, it’s surely their own stupid fault, and they should know better. Because a Competent Man can fix or solve any problem.
I fear that we have left our men with an abundance of black-and-white thinking. You are either a success, or you are a failure (conveniently undefined). You are either aggressive, or you’re a wimp. You are either strong, or you are weak. Given that failure, wimpdom, and weakness are “bad things” in our society, we haven’t provided men with a lot of alternatives. Women are complicit; we prefer the high school jock over the nerd—until the nerd is in a position to hire the jock, and then we readjust our definition of “success.”
It’s no wonder that some men act out. What are they to do? How can they succeed? Do we even agree on what we mean by “success?” How can we avoid stigmatizing our men with labels like “failure,” “wimp,” or “passive?” Is the Dalai Lama passive, or is he at peace? Do we have to choose one label or the other? Why?
The Hidden Truth
Joan Didion once said in an interview that she loved to type the words of Ernest Hemingway, over and over again. The magic, she said, was in what he withheld. I have to agree. You can read Hemingway and come away with the idea that not much is happening. Or you can read Hemingway and find a deep, deep well of powerful, unexpressed emotionality. If you don’t see and understand the withheld feelings in the story, then you don’t understand what is actually happening in the story at all. And this is the truth about men’s inner landscapes. It is deep, complex, and rich, but if you can’t see the below the surface, then you can’t understand them at all. The challenge for women is to look deeper. The challenge for men is to let others see it.