The weaker sex? - the wounds men carry
Updated: Nov 12, 2020
I am conscious that I approach something personal here. For many, this is about our very identity and place in the world.
I also write this, conscious that so many men are quietly falling apart. I believe this can be seen in the simple, almost-stereotypical story of men messing up: ‘What do you expect? He’s a man!’ Yet, why do men mess up so much? I suggest that they are shouting through their actions, ‘I’ve had enough!’. Because speaking about - or even acknowledging - how their life is falling apart isn’t really allowed.
And so I’m also conscious that I only write this and give it words because others have given it words before me*. That it is only through their words have I received and learned words for my own experiences - and can only now speak, rather than act, out.
I used to believe we men were strong. I suspect part of me was quite proud to be part of the male clan, one of the strong ones. Over time, this unspoken assumption has been questioned and, increasingly, found wanting; I now believe we men are far weaker and vulnerable than we’re given credit for. And, quite probably, far weaker and vulnerable than our female companions. In fact, I think we’re wounded at our core.
‘The disposable male’
I received this phrase from William Ayott. As he puts it, it seems a contract was made from before time that women will risk their lives in childbirth, if men will risk their lives for everything else. It’s as if we’re stamped at birth: as a man, you need to prove your place in this world. The result is the prevalence of risky behaviour in men. The result is feeling worthless, unless we are risking all for our family or a cause. We are wounded with a perpetual sense of inadequacy that may well underlie all of our stories of strength, power and achievement.
‘Not enough father’
We live deprived of older men in our lives - and especially fathers. Rather than seeing skills and experience passed on from father to son, and thus long hours spent menially together, the industrial age has severed this relationship. Fathers work elsewhere, seeming to trust their sons’ maturation implicitly to an industrialised schooling system. Then, sons, all being well, move away from the home, from the clan, to work, to love, to live. We have largely bought into the values of developing independent, productive and reliable workers. But we are tribal creatures and we sons are left with an inner hunger for the mentoring, and simply the presence, of our fathers, from where and whom we come from.
‘Not a man’
It’s often been noted that the West lacks any cultural initiation rituals into manhood. This has a natural message to men: you are never good enough to enter manhood. I suspect that the right to be the gatekeeper of the male tribe has thus fallen on the shoulders of our fathers. This is a responsibility that they were never taught to carry, for they too were never initiated into the ways of men. Instead, we buy into the unwritten rule of an industrialised society: that we must make men out of boys so that they will become independent and contribute to society, and that the best way to do this is through criticism and toughening them up: ‘you can do better’, ‘man up’, ‘don’t be a wuss’, ‘get on with it’. Of course, these life-mottos may be helpful for social productivity, but leave men wounded with shame and grief.
How does a son experience belonging, if they are never explicitly welcomed? If they are beaten through the gates with criticism? What can they do with the fragile parts of themselves, except leave them at the gate, disown them, or at least pretend they are not there. The best they can hope for is to be tolerated.
We pass on our wounds
These are wounds of grief: at the loss of our connection to men and to our forefathers; the loss of those parts of us that couldn’t get through the gate into manhood; the loss of the wild potential we had when we were young.
They are also wounds of shame at not being enough for our fathers to be there, not being enough to be welcomed into the tribe, not being enough to belong to this world simply because we were born.
Men are taught from a young age to hide and forget about these wounds. After all, they get in the way of productivity. But if they are hidden, they are never truly felt. And if they are never truly felt, we will inflict them on others, for they cry out until they are felt by someone. And then we realise our own children are holding our wounds.
If you read this and feel some of your own wounds becoming exposed, maybe you can enjoy the fact that you don’t have to be strong, that you can be weak. Find ways to lean into the pain. This might mean reading or writing, listening to music or watching films, or finding someone to talk to and help you find the words. We need to weep our tears. We need to weep our father’s tears. We need to discover the wounds we hold and share.
*In particular, William Ayott’s poetic workshops on shame and masculinity, as well as Robert Bly’s book, Iron John.