This Thing That We’ve Been Calling Masculinity

For a few weeks, I’ve been wanting to write about what I’ve been seeing and experiencing lately amongst males. What happened tonight in the election helped me to make it happen. I know most of us have little room to take in anything more right now, so just hang with me for a quick personal story, and I’ll get to the bigger picture.

I recently had an experience that surprised me by surprising me. I went to the birthday party of a friend who is new enough that I didn’t know most of her other friends. Late in the evening, upon leaving a drink with one of her male friends while I walked outside, I realized that I felt completely safe to do so. Not unchecked safe. Full presence and awareness safe. While feeling safe with men is not at all new to me (and while that’s not been without plenty of challenges, I feel very grateful for that), somehow this stood out to me. This man and the others were strangers. And yet I had absolutely no doubt that they were safe. I know that that is a packed statement in itself, because plenty of people have been hurt after being sure that they were safe. That crossed my mind, too. But I could feel it viscerally, and potently. And it was awesome. And as I said, I was surprised. Feeling that safe in vulnerability with strangers was new to me. And through that novel experience, I realized how often I’d actually felt unsafe with strangers.

If you’d asked me a few weeks ago how safe I feel around people I don’t know, I’d have said, “Quite.” And that’s how it goes. It is safe to assume that the fish has not yet discovered water. Only when I felt a change did I realize what I’d been swimming in. This is what happens when change occurs. We become aware of what was before.

I felt terribly grateful that evening. I was teary. It was like a big ol’ game of trust and I felt caught and held perfectly. This is the current state of gender relations, I thought, if only one newly sprouted branch of it. For me, feeling safe in a group of strangers is hugely about how much more complexity we have invited into gender notions.

As I began to write tonight, I reflected on my post about the hashtag movement “#MasculinitySoFragile.” What I realized more than ever before is that it is. It is fragile. As fragile as any other construct that is too rigid and too small.

But we have been rapidly expanding what masculinity (and femininity) means. We’ve been dissolving gender norms and expectations. This work goes back decades, but in the last several years, we seem to have almost caught up with reality. People of all genders have become far more vocal about sexism than ever before. Conversations turn more quickly to internalized -isms and the need for intersectionality than ever before.

But even when the oppressive force is gone (or is becoming defunct), we are left with the way we organized ourselves around it. Absolutely everyone can relate to this, regardless of privilege. At some point in our lives, we all experience another person’s attempt to restrict our self-expression. When that experience comes from a caregiver or other powerful entity, we organize ourselves around it in order to tolerate and survive it. So even when it’s removed, we find ourselves struggling with the same limits. Therapy revolves around this dynamic. We interrupt ourselves where others interrupted us. The work is to become conscious of those patterns, so that we have some choice in the matter. We re-organize in a way that’s uniquely suited to us, and then we constantly practice, refine or restructure it to keep to stay calibrated with our evolving needs.

As we move out of this old gender binary, look who appears: all the ickiest parts of toxic masculinity wrapped up in one individual. And only a narcissist could be such a caricature of it: no self, all artificial structure. A monster created by male socialization. Thinking about Frankenstein’s monster? Yep, Shelley knew her shit. It’s a miserable situation, and the monster is as plagued by it as the rest of us. Don’t ever think he’s not. He can still cause harm, yes. But remembering that he’s trapped inside his own tight constraints is a necessary awareness for maintaining empathy and clarity.

Ultimately, this can help us move forward. By exaggerating the character, we can see clearly its severe limitations. He is an example of what not to be, and of the dangers of trying to crush oneself into a tiny little concept. Seeing what not to do is a great way to learn boundaries when we are testing them by growing and expanding. With progress always comes regression. That’s how we integrate the progress. We move way outside of the emerging paradigm so that we can really see it before we feel able to comfortably step into it.

Even amidst my disbelief about what was happening, when I heard, “That’s it. Donald Trump is the President of the United States,” I thought, “Wow. That makes sense.” I don’t want it to. But that’s where we are. As a group, we can’t move too much faster than our slowest members. And therein lies much of our collective work. When you feel willing and able, help others to feel safe enough to speed up a bit. When they show you glimmers of authenticity, reflect it to them. And remind them that it’s ok to be afraid. We all struggle with unfolding.

So as I sit here reading and feeling about the outcome of this election, I take great comfort in the fact that I know very few people like Donald Trump. We are progressing. We don’t produce nearly as many “Trumps” as we used to. But sometimes there’s still too much fear to integrate what we’ve learned. And so we have before us the final stand of toxic masculinity before we blow it out the god damn airlock. It is the beginning of the very end of this deplorable construct. If you are already taking concrete steps towards abolishing the fear of self-expression, keep it up. Steady your hand at your post and help to provide the safe space for this country-sized tantrum. Be firm and also be warm. Work towards more critical thinking and more emotional intelligence. Constantly do your own healing work. Inspire it in others. And at every possible junction, teach it to children. Help to make it safe for people to express themselves. And in the meantime, soak up the presence of those around you with whom you feel safe and like yourself.

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