By the time a man is 35 he knows that the images of the right man, the tough man, the true man which he received in high school do not work in life.
Here’s something you probably don’t know about me: I miss stuff.
For instance, American Idol was on television for seven years before I watched it. Popular movies are long gone before I hear about them. Fads start to burn out and at the tail end I’ll poke my head up and notice them.
A song will play on the radio and I’ll ask my husband who’s singing it; he always knows. But I’ll wonder aloud if it’s a new song. The answer usually goes like this: “No, honey, this is an old song.”
It’s not that I don’t pay attention, exactly. It’s more like my attention is elsewhere. And usually, I figure it’s no big deal if I miss some pop culture phenomenon. What I don’t like, though, is when I miss a movement.
Bly’s book, Iron John: A Book About Men, was published 20 years ago. And suddenly men were experiencing themselves in profound new ways, talking as they never had before.
Looking back, I recall the buzz. I wasn’t totally checked out, head in the sand. But I didn’t take it seriously. In fact, I scoffed a bit, without knowing anything about it. And if memory serves I do believe it annoyed me.
Who are they, I reasoned, to need a movement?
Not my finest moment, to be sure. But I was much younger (weren’t we all?), focused on my external life. I hadn’t yet hit the turn in the road, when I learned to balance inner and outer. When I began to understand the deeper story of men and women. When I realized that women weren’t the only ones who’d gotten a raw deal throughout history.
And when it finally occurred to me that men had their own particular brand of yearning and sorrow and joy.
So Saturday night found me catching up, thanks to Dave, who recently read Iron John. Turns out that Bill Moyers interviewed Bly right before the book exploded as a bestseller. The 90-minute program, A Gathering of Men, is available online through Google videos.
As I settled in to watch, I found myself unexpectedly moved by Bly’s poetry and pronouncements.
When he spoke of the often-unclaimed grief that men feel, largely because they are taught not to show or share their emotions, I got it this time. And when he told the story of watching his nine-year-old son on the basketball court, doubled-up from the ball’s violent hit to his stomach, not daring to show tears or pain to his teammates, well, I felt an undeniable sadness in that moment.
But then I pulled back. It’s 20 years later and two generations of men have come of age. Surely, things have changed.
As I was considering this, a field of images rose up and beckoned me to look at them.
And then I began to remember.
I remembered two years ago when I was supervising a practicum of soon-to-graduate counseling students, most in their mid- to late-twenties. At the end of the semester we celebrated with a potluck. As we were clearing up, the women in the group hugged their farewells to each other. And they hugged the men, too. But the men? They gave each other a quick handshake or pat on the back. I noticed, and remarked on it. They replied, “Nah, we don’t hug. It’s not a guy thing.” Keep in mind that these men weren’t going out into the world to be engineers or lawyers. They were about to become counselors.
I remembered a few weeks ago, on the reality show Survivor, when a male contestant cried in front of another male tribe member. Although his buddy gave him some comfort, the consensus from him and the rest of the men was, “Don’t do that again. Suck it up. Be a man.”
I remembered six years ago when my husband’s brother was dying and Dave was struggling at work. It was like his grief and sadness were invisible. The message he got from his employer was, “You’re blowing it and you need to pull yourself together. Tough it out. And just get the job done, Man.” Thankfully, he no longer works there.
And of course, I remembered all the years I’ve counseled and coached both men and women in life transition, listening to them sort through the confusion and joy of what to let go and what to move toward. As is true for any office such as mine, I’ve tried to create a safe place for people to bring their emotions. And many tears have been shed there. Often from women. Rarely from men.
At the end of my remembering, I turned to the man I share my life with, and asked him if things had changed for men in the last 20 years. Without skipping a beat, he answered, “No.”
So talk to me about this. Please.
Men, do you feel like you can show tears and pain in front of other men? Or do you feel like you have to be tough and stoic? Do you even care about this? And if you’re a father, will it be different for your son?
Women, is it important for men to be able to show emotion? And what’s it like for the men in your life: husbands and lovers, sons and brothers, fathers and friends?
And for all of you, does any of this still matter in the 21st century?
WHY NOT START NOW?