The 19th of November every year is commemorated as International Men’s Day. It is a day set aside every year, to appreciate men in all spheres for all they are and do. As tends to happen on similar commemorative days, a lot of messages go out, mostly appreciative ones thanking men for all their awesomeness, complimented with specific stories of the wonderful sacrifices, gifts, support and more from fathers, brothers, husbands, etc. More recently, the range of goodwill messages has extended to those encouraging men to speak up or talk to someone when experiencing any mental health challenges. And this is not without reason; men, and mostly younger men, are approximately four times as likely to take their own lives, thereby having the highest prevalence of annual suicides worldwide. Clearly, men who struggle with mental health issues are at risk. This is quite despairing and shows that these supportive messages are not misplaced.
To this end, a lot of recent campaigns have focused on getting men to open-up, letting men know that it’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to cry or express themselves when hurt, and that ‘it’s okay for everything not to be okay. And that’s a wonderful thing, especially as it attacks the culture of impermeability, where men must be seen as being impregnable all the time. The cornerstone of toxic masculinity is based on its biggest fear, that of being seen as weak. For most men of different generations, at key moments during their upbringing when a vulnerable moment came up, they are admonished to bottle it up, to hold it in, to…Be A Man. So, considering the many changes in today’s world, what does that phrase really mean and, is it still relevant?
The traditional view on what a man is can easily be summarized in one word…STRONG. That’s it, nothing else. The definition of what strength is has varied over time in line with human development. In prehistoric times, it probably meant being able to go hunt for whatever creatures roamed the earth and subdue them to bring back food for the family/community. With communities becoming more complex, it expanded to the ability to cultivate a farm, master a trade, provide leadership to others, fight wars, etc. The background of this role is probably based on the fact that mankind has spent more time at the lower end of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than any other, over its history. For the uninitiated, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ranks the range of human needs from physical survival requirements at the bottom, to self-actualization aspirations at the top. Thus, since the earliest and most frequent experiences of human history have more likely been spent in survival mode, this has probably been most responsible in defining the male gender’s role as a source of strength.
An example of this ‘men-as-strength’ view can also be seen in religious expression worldwide. From the middle east to Asia, West Africa to Europe, and so on, the strongest and most fearsome gods were mostly all males. Most female gods were given roles of fertility or harvest. But gods of war, thunder, fire, and any other fearsome elements were almost always all men. This filtered down to the worship of gods, as the lead worshippers i.e., priests, imams, diviners etc, were also almost always men. In some way, this male dominance in godly access may have led to the entrenchment of patriarchal societies worldwide, but that’s a discussion for another time and place.
Do note however, that the roles of men are not uniform across geographies, as other factors like culture and religion influence local interpretations of the male role. In some Asian societies like modern day Japan, till today 74% of men hand over their entire monthly salaries to their wives who are responsible for all spending approvals. The women then give the man a living allowance. This is unlike what obtains in most climes. In many parts of Africa, the women perform as much as 70% of all the farm work (despite owning the least amount of land) while men languidly take care of the animals. There can also be a cultural transplanting aspect, as seen in the effect of European colonialism on many locations in southern Nigeria which stripped women of power in favour of men, thereby installing a westernized interpretation of the role. It is possible that the widespread impact of colonialism may have led to some degree of uniformity, such that the ‘general’ interpretation of the male role today is mostly based on some variant of the Western view.
Setting the history lesson aside with a hearty welcome to the 21st century, and a lot has changed. More humans at any time in history live well above the survival phase of Maslow’s chart. Technology offers multiple conveniences at the touch of a button, the rights of marginalized groups (women, people of colour, the poor, etc.) are improving, albeit slowly. However, with clarity and progress, often comes some confusion. With women having more earning power and since violence is no longer a daily thing for most people, what exactly does the male role require today and why? For today’s man doesn’t quite need to operate in survival mode but he can’t go ‘hands-off’ either. For all our technical and cultural advancements, our primal natures still dictate a lot of what we do and how we relate. Therefore, the question of how to integrate our primal conditioning to fit today’s world is still an evolving one.
In addition, an issue with a strength-only based leadership system (cough, cough, patriarchy) is the potential for abuse. The saying goes, he who pays the piper dictates the tune. To wit, men have typically controlled more resources at the expense of women, hence thrived as sole decision makers. Sadly, in many cases, controlling resources was not enough, they imposed control over women as well. Misogyny thrived in many different forms in different cultures due to the way society was inadvertently or deliberately designed to deny women of economic or political leverage. While this has changed and is changing in many parts of the world, in some parts it may be comparable to medieval times (e.g., in Saudi Arabia a lot of restrictions on women are the norm) due to varying cultural norms. With today’s women having more financial and economic leverage worldwide, a lot of men who define themselves by how they dominate women, or how they restrict women’s agency, or simply how they emasculate and oppress women are struggling in a world that expects women to be treated with dignity. This is another tenet of toxic masculinity, that idea that being strong means one must oppress the weak.
That said, the ongoing transition process from a strength-only view of manhood to a possibly more rounded form is, like most transitions, messy and confusing. This is probably due to a wide range of varying and mostly opposing expectations. Modernists say the strength-only view is outdated and men should be more domesticated and can fully depend on his wife as the primary breadwinner. Traditionalists rebut by arguing that all is okay; he should still bring home the bacon and get treated as a king at home. “To be ‘strong or not’, and ‘how strong is too strong or not strong enough’ are some nuances that keep being fought over every day.
Putting aside the just-how-strong is-okay argument, lets look at this from another dimension entirely. How does the society treat men when that strength is depleted, missing or simply not there for one reason or the other? This does not include men who have never embraced being responsible. More like, what happens when the man who’s usually a backbone for everyone goes through something either highly traumatic or worse and is unable to deal with it in line with the expectations of manhood, what then? This is usually a time when the term ‘Be A Man’ doesn’t work. The pain/trauma/etc., is just beyond his capacity to endure, so again, what then? The answer usually is…nothing. Hopping back via a time machine to earlier periods when humanity mostly existed in survival mode, the only coping techniques were either suppression (which could kill you) or taking it out on someone else via anger. Teleporting back to the present and not much has changed. The late comedian Richard Pryor once joked, “After a major breakup, a woman can call all her friends over for a weekend, they all have a good cry and by the start of the next week she begins to heal. The man on the other hand, holds it inside cos you know, he’s gotta be strong; and he’s so focused on being strong, that he goes out and gets run over by a bus!” Jokes aside, his point was that the ecosystem around men asking for and getting help when emotionally depleted is not quite there. This is possibly due to 3 reasons.
First, it starts with Conditioning. Most young men have at one point, or another been admonished by exasperated parents, friends, teachers et al to stop being a girl, to suck it up and to simply ‘Be-A-Man’. This mantra eventually pervades the psyche, and men begin to refer to it at variance. This statement is not all bad, as it’s still a tough world out there, and no one wants their sons to grow up to be wusses. However, it is probably responsible for the pain suppression / emotional retardation habit common in approximately half the world’s population.
Next, is Know-How. Most men don’t know how to ask for help when they need it the most. The external mantra becomes personal and despite being in severe emotional pain, men can’t ask for help because in doing so, they see themselves as weak and from conditioning, would rather die than do that. Thus, any attempts to even try asking for help are usually steeped in shame and can come off as awkward and uncomfortable for all parties.
Lastly, is their Actual Experiences. When some break the barrier of conditioning and know-how gaps and ask for help, they saddest part is the reception/help they receive, which is usually…none. As mentioned in ‘Daring Greatly’ by Brene Brown, she recalled speaking to a man in his 60s who privately confessed that despite having a loving wife and daughter, he would rather die than let them see him vulnerable because he knows from experiences with women that they wouldn’t be able to handle it and would likely despise him. To summarize, a good number of men who have broken the conditioning barrier to talk to women are often rebuffed by the same people he’s been a rock for during their own low periods. It may be that they simply don’t have the capacity to deal with his clumsy expressions of vulnerability, or that the be-a-man conditioning works both ways and they get turned off by his unexpected vulnerability. Either way, he predictably gets the same message, just ‘Be-A-Man’, because what else is a man supposed to be but strong all the time and why are you coming to me with this weak ass shit?
The lack of general understanding and support for men’s emotional pain neither advocates the suppression of said pain nor harks to a conspiracy of hate against men. It’s more likely that our surroundings have out evolved our practices, i.e., we’re climbed the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs without culturally adapting. Therefore, a new definition needed to help foster the needed ecosystem of support. Being a man may have once meant only being physically strong, but today it also means being emotionally resilient, and not becoming hardened to breaking by denial.
So, in the words of many a song, “Where do we go from here?”
For starters, I’m no psychologist or therapist, so do have your pinch (or bag) of salt close by. However, I daresay the way forward begins with Acceptance of both the demands of the role and the pain of emotional growth. Humanity may be higher on the rungs Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than ever before, but even in today’s world the role of a man IS still to be a source of strength in one form or another. Thus, till the job description changes or till someone manages to convince us all that gender is nothing but a myth, it is what it is.
Acceptance is followed by Redefinition. Going from the basics, i.e., a man is seen as a source of strength and leadership, some degree of redefinition is needed for today’s world. Sometimes that strength may mean a man taking a backseat to his wife’s career, or maybe being the one who always apologizes first after a fight, or maybe it’s not just about fulfilling the act of provision, but how it is done. Basically, being a man with maturity, listening and empathy just may be what becomes redefined as being strong. The difference is manifests in how and by what means that strength is applied.
After redefinition comes Growth. This means one must find the tools to become stronger in different ways. As mentioned earlier, being a source of strength is standard, the difference is how that strength is applied. One must keep putting in the work to become physically strong (as needed), intellectually strong, emotionally resilient/strong, economically strong (by legal means, of course), and so on. Keep doing the work on as many fronts as possible because that’s simply the job. Once again, there are many tools out there on this.
Next is to be more Understanding of others. This starts by accepting that most people cannot see beyond the ‘Be-A-Man’ mantra. Expecting someone who has always expected perennial strength from men to have the range to handle emotional pain is somewhat unfair. Simply put, you cannot give what you do not have, hence someone (be it a man or a woman) without the emotional range required to be empathetic to a man in emotional distress cannot give it.
Lastly, Find your Oasis. The process of becoming an adult often comes with some trauma. And newsflash, no one is omni-strong, something out there will find you and either break you or cause you to crack. Thus, the burden is on every man to find either very close friends he can be vulnerable with, and/or get help via therapy (strongly recommended) as needed. Other wellness methods for improving one’s emotional muscle include journaling, meditation, yoga and practicing gratitude.
By now you’re either a fan of my proposals, or you’re out of salt. Either way, it’s clear that its more discussions and understanding are needed for our collective social evolution, else we’ll be reduced to thoughts and prayers after every suicide. Hopefully, in future the term Be-A-Man will come to mean embodying an example of what a man should be — strong, wise, mature etc., yet also flawed, vulnerable and willing to make mistakes, knowing that impermeability is not the goal and trusting that when he falls, he’ll be able to get back up, recover and keep being strong, one step at a time…
 ‘Chapter 3- Understanding and Combating Shame’, section on ‘Webs and Boxes, how men and women experience shame differently’