As children, we are set upon a path to adulthood. Boys are taught to become men and girls are taught to become women. We are told these are immutable characteristics, it is what is expected of us. This is the normal way of things. Men are taught to hide their emotions away from the world, to be tough and strong. To cry is to show weakness and to be weak is to not be a man. This was the way for many men, a propagation of toxic masculinity as a mold of normalcy. Why shouldn’t men be to be vulnerable?
The idea of this post came to me after watching the recent episode of Lovecraft Country. The main character’s, Atticus, father, Montrose, hides away from most of his friends and family who he truly is. He projects a mask of anger and strength to hide what he was taught is a defect and makes him less of a man. His anger is fueled by having to hide what he is due to the shame he perceives it will cause. By the end of the episode, he starts accepting himself for who he is and feels and his own mask starts to crumble away.
My father was born in 1946 and was the oldest of six kids. He was born to two parents that were, at best, ill-equipped to teach their kids about empathy, love, and tenderness. They were farmers in an era where farms collapsed easily and families were left broken. He grew up fast, being the oldest. He was put to work on the farm at a young and was beat into him the importance of hard work and being taught what his father thought was a “man.” He was pulled out of high school to help with the farm. Now, it may seem like I am trying to give you a sad story to somehow create a connection with my father, that isn’t the case. I am merely explaining the situation. He came from parents that felt saying “I love you” was a sign of weakness and should be implied.
This was the same message he taught to me. We didn’t have a farm for me to work and due to the health conditions of my childhood, I wasn’t exactly the kid that could be outside all the time. That alone created a disappointment to my father. His only son appeared to be weak and sickly. The other lessons seemed to be pushed more. Since I was already sickly, it was much more important that he drove home to me about hiding those flaws. If i was injured and cried, he was quick to point out that “Real Men” don’t cry. It is better to hide my emotions and show a front of strength than to admit that I am hurting. This carried over to physical pain as well. Going to the doctor was a sign of weakness.
I am not singular in what I was taught. This is how many kids were raised. The only way to be masculine and a man was to appear as stereotypes or caricatures of the ideal. Think of movies from the 60s till even now. You had actors like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Charleston Heston, to name a few. This even branched into music with people like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and a list longer than we need to discuss. The point is this image was everywhere. It was used to sell cigarettes to young men, as well as anything else they could pin the marketing on. While at the same time teaching women that they should be submissive and stay at home.
Me being gay was just another chink in my father’s armor and made me much less to him. For me, those lessons I was forced to learn, and being gay was also a struggle. This is a community where you are surrounded by men who have learned to put up walls and wear masks all the time. You would think my upbringing would be perfect then. It was good at learning how to better put up the front of strength and hide away what I felt. So much so that I was rarely vulnerable with the people that I should. When the first man I ever fell truly and deeply in love with died, I realized the flaw in my upbringing and habits. Holding his hand as he took his final breathes started cracking the veneer that I used as a shield. I started counting all the things I never told him, how I had cheated on him out of fear and realizing how much of my life he was taking with him as he passed before me. Why do we learn these lessons in the darkest of times?
Strength does not come from ignoring or hiding your emotions. Pretending to be something you are not so others don’t see you as less is just that, fantasy. Being able to fully feel your emotions and share them with people is what creates bonds. It allows us to understand others better and to relate to them. It transcends skin color, what sex you were born as, gender, sexual orientation, and so much more. It is a way to connect at the most important and basic human levels. To be able to grow and learn, we have to recognize weaknesses.
I am still working on this lesson. Recent events have reminded me how much of my father is still in my thinking and interactions. The thing I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that men have to change their way of thinking. We have to acknowledge that our feelings and emotions are not weaknesses, they are strengths.