Usually vomiting makes one feel better, yet sitting in a pool of warm alcohol that I had just violently expelled out of what felt like every orifice on my face only made my head spin faster. Surely, this would get me out of this torture my brother’s drinking friends called Caps.
“Did you just throw up your last round?” asked one of my blurry competitors.
“Yeah, I think I’m done,” I answered the identical twin images in front of me.
“You softie. Now you have to drink two shots in the next round,” yelled another competitor.
Then the whole table chanted a derogatory word at me as they placed their hands on their heads in the shape of female genitalia.
The sad part of the story is that these are men that I considered my friends. For many men, this is a common experience—we anticipate compassion, yet we are met with anger, rejection, and, sometimes, hostility.
For men displaying weakness is rarely met with compassion and often dangerous. From an early age, boys are taught to not only hide or overcome weakness, but also exploit it in others.
Many boys are teased or bullied when they display vulnerability. My 6 year old son just got bullied by a bunch of boys when they took his ball and he started to cry: “Baby girl, baby girl, baby girl,” they chanted. This was just a few weeks ago. I thought sexist taunting of young boys had changes since I was a kid in the 70s. Again, some of these boys who bullied my son were kids he considered friends.
In sports, boys are coached to take advantage of the opponent’s weaknesses. In basketball, we call these weaknesses “mismatches.” In martial arts, we call an opponent’s weakness an “opening.” As much as we would like to think differently, we still encourage boys to “sweep the leg.”
So, I’m…I’m sitting in the locker room, and I’m taping up my knee. And Larry’s undressing a couple lockers down from me. Yeah…he’s kinda…he’s kinda skinny, weak. And I started thinking about my father, and his attitude about weakness. And the next thing I knew, I uh, I jumped on top of him and started wailing on him…And my friends, they just laughed and cheered me on.
I can relate to Andrew. My socially conditioned shame of weakness drove me to the brink of destruction. At the age of 13, after a severe beating from my step-father, I laid in bed with a switch blade aimed at the veins in my wrist. I wanted to end the suffering. I didn’t want to live with abuse anymore, but I just couldn’t make myself jab the rusty blade into my quivering flesh.
I felt so inadequate. Not only did I “scream like a little girl” when I took the beatings, but I wasn’t even man enough to end my suffering. I had been raised on a steady diet of samurai films, where seppuku or hara kiri, ritual suicide, represented the ultimate form of poise, courage, and dignity.
Clutching my legs in the fetal position, I began sobbing at my wretchedness. I felt like a complete failure as a human being, but I also felt relieved to finally release the sorrow in my heart. Suddenly, my step-father pounded on the wall of my room and screamed,
“Shut up before I come in there and give you something to really cry about!”
Startled by the interruption, I froze in fight or flight mode. Adrenaline pumped through my body. Immediately, my feelings of helplessness turned to rage. I clenched my fist and fantasized about how I would take revenge on anyone who hurt me again.
Experiences like this taught me that my feelings were not legitimate—that I had no right to feel and express pain and suffering. As a man, I was taught that weakness was feminine which not only disconnected me with my own suffering, but also reinforced a sexist view of women. Weakness and suffering became badges of shame that needed to be hidden or destroyed. Since seeing weakness in others reminded me of my own inadequacies, I often lashed out at others’ weaknesses. Thus, began my journey towards heartlessness.
So when someone I loved told me that they couldn’t get out of bed due to depression, my first reaction was “toughen up.” Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get back on the horse that bucked you off. (The number of cliches for covering up weakness reveals the shame around vulnerability prevalent in our society.)
I even got angry at my lover for letting depression control her. I kept thinking about Top Gun.
“Dammit, Maverick” was how the Navy and the entire viewing audience reacted to Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s bout of grief, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.
In the film, the Navy male commanders treat Maverick’s depression in a predictable manner—they put him back in the cockpit of an F14A Tomcat. Back in the saddle again.
By sheer force of will, Maverick overcomes his depression, re-engages, and saves the Western World. Yay! Everybody wins—except for the tormented soldiers returning from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan who are living on the streets and committing suicide because they feel like asking for help is not manly.
A new investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs reports that a military veteran commits suicide almost once an hour. Semper Fidelis!
My point is that men live under the ideology that any weakness can be overcome if you aren’t too much of a “pussy.” In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, Brene Brown states, “Basically , men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not be perceived as weak.” I really focus in on the words “pressure” and “unrelenting.”
Men are glorified for single-highhandedly conquering any weakness that is thrown at them. We all cheered when Tiger Woods limped to victory at the 2008 US Open on a left knee with torn ligaments. Michael Jordan, suffering from food poisoning and a 102 fever, leading the Chicago Bulls to victory in the playoffs against the Utah Jazz remains one of the greatest sports performances ever.
It took me years to realize that some things cannot be solved with bootstraps. Too much “toughening up” leaves a man isolated, lonely, and heartless. Sometimes compassion, empathy, and lovingkindness are the appropriate responses to weakness. And sometimes we are powerless to help. No matter how big our tool set, we can’t fix everything.
Lately, when my 6 year old son cries about something that I see as trivial, I put my arm around him and try to feel his pain. I’m less worried about him growing up to be a “cry baby,” than I am him being a lonely, sexist, heartless man who lacks compassion for loved ones who have a tough time getting out of bed.