“You become a man not when you reach a certain age, but when you reach a certain state of mind.” – Habeeb Akande
“Manhood is defined and decided by the ability to nurture and to protect, by the capability to provide and to sustain.” – C. JoyBell C.
Society’s perception and requirement of men is that they grow strong enough to take anything that the world throws at them. We are expected to simply grit our teeth and take it. To show weakness is intolerable, and to reveal one’s emotions, fears, and discontent can easily have you labeled a punk, bitch, or wuss. Not long after hearing those words and seeing the judgmental stares, you can expect to be told to “man up.”
What people don’t realize is that the more men try to live up to this impossible standard of masculinity, the more men break and buckle beneath the pressure unable to to fully heal and grow. Instead, they simply become better at pretending, hoping no one will see the pain they are really in. And eventually that pain rears its ugly head in the form of alcohol, substance, or physical abuse–or worse.
I don’t have all of the answers on the best way to help men heal or come to terms with the varying levels of trauma one might experience, but based on my research, there are five powerful ways we can empower our young boys and men to not only redefine masculinity on their own terms, but allow them to set powerful examples for those around them:
Admit that men cry, too.
The longer we teach the dangerous rhetoric that “real men don’t cry,” the more we will continue to damage our boys and the men they will become, robbing them of the fruitful lessons and release that come with feeling. What’s more, just because we hide the feelings doesn’t mean they go away. And the more we tell our young men to bury their pain, sadness, depression, anger, etc. we become complicit in the dangerous consequences such as suicide, physical, mental, and substance abuse, and straight up violence. It’s time we show our young boys and men that true strength IS vulnerability.
Model the value of being a man on your own terms, fearlessly.
There’s a claustrophobic box with a never-ending list of what a man is and isn’t supposed to do. For so many of us, we learn how to be a man not by embracing who we are but choosing to silence important parts of ourselves. Yet every man–young and old–should be encouraged to explore what that means to him, and share it with those he cares about. But it must first start with society uplifting those who resist the limited definition about what it means to be a man and are reimagining masculinity on their own terms.
Encourage our boys to question everything.
Thinking critically is a survival skill, not a luxury. And the sure fire way to make any lasting change is to know what you don’t know and be insatiably curious about the world around you, and even yourself. If we care about creating environments where our young men can thrive and realize the true power they have to change the very world around them, we must push them to question, critique, and rethink. Only then can they–and we–be brave enough to reimagine and shift our collective consciousness on seemingly fixed things such as beauty, masculinity, love, intimacy, relationships, etc.
Embrace the revolutionary power of the arts.
Man-making happens everywhere. From the football and basketball fields to art classes to cyphers to dance, even down to creative writing. In the world of the arts, our young men are pushed to reimagine the possibilities and begin to rebuild not only themselves but the worlds around them. They are pushed to question, adapt, resist, and solve on a daily basis. Most importantly, it’s where they have the space to embrace and push back against what works and doesn’t work, pushing the world to think, learn, love, lead, and feel, differently.
Teach acceptance and understanding, not tolerance.
Being close-minded and set in our ways is dangerous, especially in the ever-growing and rapidly changing world we live in. Whether it’s encountering same-sex couples, wrapping your head around the varying sexual orientations and identities that exist, questioning masculinity, or experiencing people and cultures that think wildly different from you, they are all teachable moments. They all are valid, even if we don’t agree. It’s easy to erect a massive wall when we encounter things or people we don’t understand and either allow it/them to exist but ignore them or attack them altogether. But if we ever truly want to be enriched by the diversity that exists in the world, we have to move beyond tolerance and into acceptance.
This isn’t an exhaustive list by far. And I don’t believe in silver bullets, so I can’t say that these are the keys to eradicating the ills of the world. But here’s what I can say: if we don’t liberate men from toxic and negative beliefs around masculinity, we are complicit in our own demise. And if we care anything about our boys or the men they will become, we owe it to them and ourselves to rethink and question everything and making room for new perspectives and ways of being. Only then can we ever experience what it really means to be free, while rebuilding our young men (and women) so they can take the world by storm.