Friday Refresher: What Does It Mean To Be A Man?
By Bilal Hafeez
By Bilal Hafeez
It’s easy to criticize men for behaving in a toxic way, but how did they become that way? At one level, the issue is that boys don’t become men, rather they remain boys but in a man’s body. They haven’t been guided into manhood nor have they seen a healthy template on what it is to be a man. In fact, according to Robert Bly, the American poet and pioneer of the mythopoetic men’s movement, men end up falling into two extremes as a result– they become ‘hard’ men – bullying, aggressive and hyper-competitive, or they become ‘soft’ men – sensitive but with no vitality, nice but hiding an inner anger. So how then does one become a healthy man?
Three strategies appear to recur across cultures and time on how men can undertake this journey. And it is a journey, not a destination:
(1) Facing and overcoming your anger and shame. Men can be terrible at understanding their emotions. When women experience a challenge they often identify the emotion, express it and share it with their female friends. Men tend to do the opposite. They suppress and hide their emotions. Seething with anger, they may think they are rational and attack others with their supposed arguments – not realizing anger is animating them. Meanwhile, they could be embarrassed by a situation, whether that’s failing at work, unhappiness with their physical state (over-, under-weight, hair loss) or relationship issues. This leads to shame, which easily induces silence.
Facing anger and shame requires reflecting on your inner world. This can be achieved through meditation, becoming aware of how your body changes when you experience different emotions or therapy. Crucially, it is often easier for men to share their emotions with other men, than with women. Deborah Tannen wrote an eye-opening book ‘You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation’ which describes the different emotional speeds men and women operate at, which often leads to arguments and more shame in men.
(2) Get guidance from older men. A big part of the problem of men remaining boys is related to how we see age and manhood. In today’s society, a boy becomes a man when he turns eighteen, but in traditional cultures, forty is the age of manhood. Indeed, a Shakespeare sonnet describes it as: ‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow. And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field. Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now. Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held.’
So teenage boys may look to men in their twenties or thirties for guidance, but those men are still ‘boys’ themselves. Alternatively, teenage boys may turn to popular culture such as movies or video games, which themselves are dominated by youth. Meanwhile, if boys do interact with older people, it tends to be older women– whether their mother or teachers at school. Older men are remarkably absent from a boy’s (or even a man’s) world.
The importance of an elder guide cannot be overstated. Almost all traditions and myths have such figures. In the Christian tradition there is John the Baptist who guides Jesus. In contemporary popular culture, we have Obi-Wan Kenobi (and later Yoda) guiding Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, we have Morpheus guiding Neo in The Matrix and we have Dumbledore guiding Harry in the Harry Potter franchise.
Older men have trodden the path that a younger man is about to embark on. They often have the confidence to talk about failure. And for a younger man there can be something quite powerful about an older man endorsing and valuing them.
(3) Serve something bigger than yourself. Men want to make a difference to the world. But too easily that drive can become domineering and tyrannical. So rather than trying to control, men can shift their mindset to seeing how they are helping others. This means adding purpose to your day-to-day life. This doesn’t mean quitting your job to join a charity – after all, the paycheck helps put food on the table for you and your family. Rather, seeing how your job helps others.
Wharton prof Adam Grant found in his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success that call center workers for a charity suddenly got passion for their job when they met the recipients of the donations. Until then, the workers were demotivated by the constant no’s they heard on their calls.
If you work in finance, you can think about how you are helping others get on to the property ladder or how you are helping others grow their pensions so they can retire with a quality of life. It would also help keep you on the straight and narrow.
So, if you’re a man, start the journey to become a true man by confronting your anger and shame, getting an elder mentor and serving others.
Hope this helps,