I sometimes wonder how men feel in our country right now. The shifting conversation around domestic violence and sexual assault must raise important and awkward questions. For the men who’ve deeply valued women and treated them graciously and appropriately for decades, how do they feel?
I wonder if some feel nervous about saying or doing the right thing. As story after story surfaces about the number of men who have made damaging choices in their treatment of women, when do other men feel embarrassed or ashamed of the rape culture in our country?
If we’re all better together, this means something when it comes to gender, too. A leader in the early church, Paul, reminds us to become all things to all people so that we can share a story of wholeness.
Last month we looked at what it means for women to move around in our world. This month, we take a look at what our men are facing. The growing conversation around toxic masculinity or hypermasculinity comes quickly to mind. To help us find common ground, we must name the damage caused by exaggerated stereotyped behaviors of what it means to be a man.
Men breathe in messages from their early days. Compete. Dominate. Be aggressive. Be sexually experienced. Don’t cry. Don’t show weakness. Be physically imposing. Devalue women. Suppress emotions. Rely on yourself.
How’s this going for us? Not so great. As I see women shrink in fear of the messages of shame they’ve received, my heart swells with compassion for boys and men who’ve been breathing in messages their whole lives that have pushed them back into a corner. Told them to deny and dismiss emotions and feelings. To act like someone they’re not. To add to the locker room talk when it doesn’t feel quite right. To run from the playground bully who taunts, “be a man.”
Women aren’t the only ones holding deep shame. I think men are, too. I asked a friend for his perspective on hypermasculinity, and he shared this reflection on extreme self-reliance.
“Guilty as charged. Between the stoic style I was taught by my Germanic parents and the expectations I picked up from society I have spent my adult life chipping away at this tendency towards self-reliance and toward letting others ‘in.’” Listen to the boys and men in your life. Ask them what it’s like to be them. What messages do they pick up in subtle and overt ways? Which ones have they internalized and feel are true? What if they’re not? God created men.
To be fully alive, whole, grounded in who they are and who they are not. God wants men to feel safe and confident of their place in this world. We all benefit when boys and men get to be fully themselves.
Jenny Smith is the pastor of the Marysville United Methodist Church. Her faith column runs monthly.