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Why Does "Being a Man" Mean I Have To Be An Island?

03/19/2014 12:29 EDT | Updated 05/19/2014 05:59 EDT

I should start off by saying how sheepish I feel writing about this topic, and maybe that fact alone attests to why this needs to be out in the open instead of repressed behind conventional social mores. In no way do I mean to diminish the importance of addressing the debasing of women in our public media and the subsequent physical and mental abuse that this entails, nor do I wish to turn attention away from the widespread bullying that so many adolescents endure -- sometimes with tragic results. What I see echoing behind many of our societal ills is the corrupted message we deliver to the young boys in our society about what it means to be a man.

Fortunately, living in a culturally diverse and progressive city like Toronto, I have come to take the issue of inclusion for granted, as reflected in the open expression of ethnic, sexual, and religious diversity. Sure, there are still roadblocks along the way, but without a doubt, freedom of expression is embedded into the fabric of our city.

As a middle-aged white male who enjoys the privileges that entails, it's difficult for me to climb up on my soap box and bemoan my lot in life, yet I ask for your patience as I dig a little deeper into just what it means to be a man. The young boys in our society grow up hearing: "Only sissies cry. Don't be a wuss. We need to separate the men from the boys." We are taught to repress our feelings, to bury what we can't change, to go it alone, and to fight back at all costs.

All this chest puffing, testosterone-infused machismo leads to the moulding of desensitized frightened men who have not only a difficult time expressing their emotions to their partners but also an almost insurmountable obstacle in building meaningful and supportive relationships with other men. John Donne may have said, "No man is an island", but I beg to differ -- all men are islands, and there in lies the problem! Brene Brown has written extensively about how vulnerability lies at the heart of shame and how what we seek most in life is connection with others. I can't help but question a culture that prioritizes a man's ability to bury vulnerability as weakness cloaked in a tattered robe of shame.

It seems only logical that teenage boys are drawn to violent video games that subconsciously feed their need for dominance and create a virtual world of camaraderie with other online teens who themselves are subjected to male isolation. If we are to believe what Brene Brown and countless psychologists propose that true connection stems from being vulnerable in front of others, are we honestly willing to relegate half our population to social-psychological isolation?

Even upon a quick introspection of my life, I can clearly see how this be a man philosophy has played out. After the disintegration of my parents' marriage when I was nine, I was raised by my father. I can remember how hard it was for him to express his emotions to us and how I felt embarrassed seeing my dad in the role of primary caregiver. I am also a victim of childhood sexual abuse, and as a boy and later as a man, I carry the added "baggage" of abuse that other male survivors have in tow.

It's one thing being abused as a child, but when you are a young boy abused by a man, your sexual identity is called into question. It's this added dimension that makes disclosure among men so much less common. Moreover, when I look at my closest relationships, the vast majority of them are with women. I socialize with a lot of men, but I've always had a difficult time opening up to other men, being vulnerable in front of other men, and therefore, these relationships tend to be more collegial and superficial.

So, as is often said, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." What can I do to affect change? For one, I am making a conscious effort to interact with my own son, now in his early 20s, from a more authentic and emotional centre. I make certain to hug him and kiss him, and tell him I love him as often as I can. More importantly, I'm honest about my own insecurities and vulnerabilities.

What I'm struggling with most now is how to bring this same level of "openness" to the relationships with other men I'm close to in my life. If you're a man and you're reading this, I'd like you to consider the following question, and to answer it truthfully: Are you able to let down your defences long enough for other people to really get to know you? And if you're a woman and you're reading this, I'd ask you to consider that "your night in shining armour" may be delayed because he's too afraid to let you know that he's too scared to get on his horse.

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