My father cannot tell me how he feels. It is something that does not appear to be part of his makeup. This is not unusual, it is part and parcel of masculinity. I hear it in the office every day, spoken and unspoken. Men who struggle to express their feelings, struggle to even acknowledge they have feelings, feelings long suppressed that are killing them. I see it in unmanageable blood pressure, in stomach problems that defy solutions, lousy sleep, boundaries that are never set, unrealistic expectations, deep profound depression that seems to lurk just at the edges of their lives. These men hold one thing in common, though they do not know it: they cannot speak of their feelings … ever … to anyone.
I learned my father had feelings unexpectedly, while talking to my cousin, Lisa. I heard about how he would cry with pride when talking about the life I was living, of how I had turned out, or how my brother had turned out. It was pride, it was love, it was deep. I first heard about it when my aunt, his sister, died. I spoke with Lisa more often during that time, heard about how he would express himself during visits.
It was a shock to me, completely out of the blue. “You know your father loves you very much … he is very proud of you … and he will never tell you. I hear it from him often, and he is so emotional when he talks about it.” It caught me off guard, I had presumed that he was caught up in his own life, had little time or attention for me, for my life, and rarely gave it a second thought. His job was done, I had successfully lived into adulthood, into my own life, I was my own man. This revelation was a shock to my system.
In clinic, I watch men struggle through their lives. I hear the voices haunting their minds, expressed unknowingly, in conversation. “I should be able to do that, and I can’t anymore,” says the fisherman approaching his 80th birthday still holding expectations that he can put in a day’s work like he did in his 20s. “I used to be able to focus on all of this without any trouble, I could juggle it all and still sleep, now I just get tired before I can finish the accounting,” says the businessman recovering from his heart attack.
The voices have sorrow, but when I contact that emotion, they pull back, a look of fear on their faces. They tell me how they used to “be strong” and how they used to “work hard.” They mourn the loss of the person they used to be but cannot express these feelings. They have lost big pieces of what made them feel whole, important, and useful. Yet, when asked to turn toward it, to notice how it feels, they utterly fail to do this, they simply cannot conceive of noticing their feelings.
It comes naturally to men, growing up in the culture that we live in. We are taught to be tough, to be strong, to show no weakness. Social pressures direct our behaviors, direct our focus, and teach us to conform to societal norms. Who wants to stand out, to be different? We want to fit in, to be like everyone else, and we learn to do what is needed. I see it in my father, I see it in myself, I see it in the young men who come into my office. Each of us has been told that we should not feel, we have been told that feelings are for girls, for sissies, for queers.
It is pounded into our psyche, by the coaches telling us to push through, to expect a little more out of ourselves. It is pounded into us by fathers, uncles, and other adult men who tell us to toughen up, quit crying, suck it up. In the words of my USMC Drill Instructor Sergeant Tuggle, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” So, we ignore this basic part of ourselves, we turn our back upon it, close it down, shut it off, put it away. But life does not work like this, you cannot suppress life. Like the weeds in the cracks of the pavement, it will find a way out.
Reading the words of Michael Ian Black, I am reminded again of what happens when we ignore a part of who we are, when we refuse to see ourselves fully. Cutting part of ourselves off, hiding it away, leaves us broken, fragmented, unable to be the people that we were meant to. Looking back upon the years of my life, I see where I have brought harm to others, where I have acted in ways that damaged those around me. In each instance, in no small part, the origin of the pain I gave to others arose from the pain that I had been unwilling to see in my own life.
I am fond of telling patients in clinic, “If I don’t have any flour at home and you come asking, I can give you Borax but it is hardly the same.” We give away the things we have, and if we have unacknowledged pain that is hidden deep from our awareness, then we will give it away. If we cannot see all aspects of our own lives, then we have no room to see those aspects in the lives of others. In selling ourselves and our lives short, we sell short the lives we offer to others. We sell short our ability to make a difference, to change the world in which we live.
So, what are we to do? What are men, in particular, to do?
We have a choice, a simple choice, one that is not always easy, one that is not always comfortable, but we have this choice. We can choose to live the lives we have, right now, with all their limitations, shutting away parts of ourselves because we have been told that they are “not manly enough.” We will get what we’ve got, right now, and not much more. Or, we can take a step into the bravery that we all aspire to, to be brave enough to step into the breach, to protect the ones we love, to save a life. We can step into that unknown place and begin to express what we truly feel, express what is really going on inside each of us, we can own our feelings in a way that is open and honest.
We can lead by example those that look to us, we can embody the men we would love to be, open, self-aware, and brave enough to show the world our pains. Strong enough to allow our weakness to be visible to others, true enough to be our authentic selves regardless of what society tells us we should do. That is the bravery, the manliness that is lacking in this world of conformity. It is bravery to step out and own all of who we are rather than hide away behind the façade of masculinity and bravado toughness.
Can you do this? Can you be the father who shows his son that it is okay to cry, it is okay to be visibly proud, it is okay to be visibly sad? Can you be the father that can speak to his son through a voice choked with pride and joy? Can you be the father that tells his children that he loves them, loves them deeply? Can you be the father that is more than the tough cop? Can you model vulnerability? Are you that brave? Are you that tough? It is what the world needs, it is what men need, it is what we need.