Anyone who reads my weekly newspaper column or blog posts knows I try to keep life in perspective through humor. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the reasons my children are still alive today. While I joke about that, for many years humor was also part of a coping mechanism from a childhood witnessing both verbal and physical abuse by the men in my family — specifically, my father and older brothers.
The good news is that each of them eventually turned themselves, their lives and the lives of the people they loved, around. It wasn’t until I became a father that I realized the impact that a childhood witnessing abuse had on me, and how some of those wounds — as both a witness and recipient — had never truly healed.
I know this because I occasionally saw reflections of my father and brothers in myself as I fought to avoid making the same mistakes with my own children; I also know this because I came to realize that as much as we want to tell ourselves we can choose not to take any baggage with us on our journey through life, ultimately it’s always somewhere waiting to be claimed.
There is no getting rid of it completely, only a conscious decision to leave it circling on the carousel.
Because I am a father with teenaged boys and girls, I stay hip to the way they communicate.
Wow… Did you just feel that? It was their eyes rolling.
Actually, I’m not “hip” as much as I am privy to how they talk to each other. While social media has opened the doors to communication in some ways, it has swung too far in others. Verbal abuse still takes place; it just happens in hushed Tweets and SnapChats instead. The result is the development of a disposable sense of emotions — a disconnect from face-to-face that has been replaced by Facebook-to-Facebook. As a result, spotting the signs of abuse has become tougher while becoming an abuser is easier. Thanks to social media, those opportunities are literally at our fingertips. For those with a hair-trigger temper, every Tweet, text or post sent in anger pre-conditions abusive behavior and makes it harder to recognize in ourselves. It becomes a conditioned response in a cycle that gets harder and harder to break.
For young men, their teens and early 20s are a time when they are defining themselves and establishing their place in a male-dominated world while, at the same time, trying to understand the intricacies of communicating with the opposite sex. How do I know this? Because, statistically speaking, I was a young man once. Trying to appear tough among your peers while still holding on to the part of you that is thoughtful and caring feels contradictory to what we’re taught about being a man. We see it in movies and advertising; we hear it in music: Being a man means being in control. In charge. In command.
Of life and our relationships.
It’s a social stereotype perpetuated mostly through media and advertising. Why? Because it sells. Body wash. Albums. Movie tickets. Clothes. Video games.
It’s baggage our culture has carried for generations.
Being a real man does mean being in control. But not of others. It means being in control of yourself enough to understand, acknowledge and accept your strengths and weaknesses. It also means never using your strength — physically or verbally — to overpower others. Particularly the women in your life, whether it be your wife, girlfriend, mother or daughter. A real man provides protection, safety and acceptance; a weak man dishes out pain, insecurity and denial. In either case, they are reflections of your inner self. The question is: What kind of reflection do you want to see when you look in the mirror each day?
There’s no denying sexism and a male-dominance mentality are still deeply woven into the fabric of our society. And while we have made strides in some areas by recognizing and discussing matters of physical and verbal abuse, that baggage is still out there circling on the carousel.
As men, we must make a conscious decision each day to avoid claiming it.