In looking at the current men's movement and men's issues, a few observations can be quickly made. Many local bookstores offer books on men's issues. The number of books is still considerably smaller than the number written on women's issues. Groups such as Promise Keepers and New Warriors, as well as writers such as Robert Bly, John Friel, Robert Hicks and Gary Oliver, have given the movement a voice.
One such book is Gary Oliver's "Real Men Have Feelings, Too." In it, Oliver asks, "How is the men's movement different from the feminist movement?" He answers this question by stating, "The feminist movement was and is primarily a sociopolitical movement. It was in part a healthy and legitimate response to the repression, inequalities and abuse of women." Women needed to assert their rights and gain equality.
According to Oliver, the men's movement was and is different in that, "It is much more personal and relational. It's about how to be human, how to feel, how to love, how to be better husbands, fathers and friends."
Defining what it means to be a man in the current decade is no easy task. In the past, one could describe masculinity with terms such as aggressive; logical; cool, calm and collected, athletic, aloof and analytical. Now, all of these terms could be used, at times, to describe men and women in our society. Our society has long idolized the stereotypical man who can be like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood in one of their movies. Our heroes on screen and on the playing fields of many sports teams are the men who could continue to carry on through pain and agony.
Cal Ripken Jr. is one such athlete who has gained much publicity for playing baseball for more than 2,131 consecutive games -- in spite of numerous injuries and perhaps good reasons to sit and watch others play. In his book, "The Only Way I Know How," Ripken says, "The truth is, breaking Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played was partly an unintentional result of that early and then ongoing determination to keep as much of my destiny in my own hands." The realistic concern about downsizing compelled him to never miss a game. As Ripken put it, "If baseball didn't invent downsizing, it perfected the practice, which happens at every level on every team every spring."
Many men in our society today deny their feelings, including their fears of being replaced. In his book "The Wounded Male," Steve Farmer said, "Being a man in this culture makes it doubly difficult because of our restrictions on emotional expression." The messages start early with the words "big boys don't cry." As Farmer put it, "There is more support for denial than there is for real, genuine feelings. Even the most well-intentioned friends will make statements such as 'Just put the past behind you,' or 'It was meant to be,' in response to your self-disclosure."
The men's movement is putting an end to these myths about males, defined by Gary Oliver as:
- Myth #1: Men are big, brave and strong.
- Myth #2: Men aren't emotional and don't express affection.
- Myth #3: Men aren't weak, they don't break down, they don't cry.
- Myth #4: Men are great lovers and have an insatiable appetite for sex.
- Myth #5: A man's value is determined by what he does and how much he earns.
- Myth #6: Men are the opposite of women.
When we believe these myths as individuals and as a society, we limit the ways men can express themselves. Oliver said, "The myths have also produced a generation of men who have little idea of how to take care of themselves. Because men don't know how to express their emotions, they don't know how to deal with emotional pain." Recognizing that men do have emotions and that emotions are part of being human can help with the healing process. Oliver goes on to say, "Therefore, when we do have pain, we don't understand it and don't know what to do with it. So our only option is to anesthetize it. If we don't feel, then we won't feel pain, or fear or grief or loss."
Oliver cites the example of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol." Dickens portrays a man so possessed with performance and money that he misses the people around him. Oliver says:
In Ebenezer he created a character who was lonely and functionally without a father. When other children went home for Christmas, Ebenezer stayed at school, alone. He was a boy who never came close to his dad, who never learned how to trust or have a relationship, who never learned how to understand and deal with his emotions. He anesthetized his loneliness, grief and pain by studying longer and harder, and, later, by long, dedicated hours on the job. His basis for significance and security was his performance and, as an adult, his production.
The story changes drastically when Scrooge is able to see himself as he was, is, and will be in the future. There is an easier way to make the necessary changes to become more fully human.
In "Being a Man," Patrick Fanning and Matthew McKay suggest four guidelines for expressing feelings.
- Take responsibility for your feelings. The best way to acknowledge that your feelings belong to you is to make what we call "I" statements.
- Be direct. Try not to fog up your communication with vague terms and ambiguous statements.
- Be clear. The key to being clear is to separate feelings from other types of messages.
- Be congruent. If you want your feeling statements to be clear, your body and voice have to match the words.
Acknowledging that men have feelings and being able to recognize them as a normal aspect of being human will allow men to become more whole. John Friel lists seven things men want in his book "The Grown-Up Man":
- to feel more
- to befriend more
- to learn to love
- to find meaningful work
- to father significantly
- to be whole
- to heal and reconcile
The stigma attached to men getting help through a professional counselor has started to change. Unlike Cal Ripken and Ebenezer Scrooge, most men need a day off now and then. More and more men are getting their needs met, asking for help, and admitting that their emotional health is important. Ultimately the new definition of masculinity must include integrity, fidelity and loyalty.
Fanning and McKay wrote: "Above all, the ideal man has integrity. He is solid, whole, consistent. He is dependable. He tells the truth. He keeps his promises. He is honest, fair and just. He lives his life according to the consistent set of values that he has worked out for himself over a period of time."
In the 21st Century, it is essential that men and especially fathers seek to have healthy relationships with friends, families and themselves. This includes being responsible in their roles as husbands, fathers, friends, employees and neighbors. The result will be healthier individuals, healthier families and a healthier society.
Men are taking a stand and reclaiming their stake in our society. As Gary Oliver said: "The men's movement has tapped into men's hunger for relationship, community, healing, hope and recovery. Man's deepest need is to know that he is accepted, understood, loved and affirmed. Men all over the United States are looking everywhere they can, trying to find answers to their questions, relief from their pain and healing for their wounds."
The first step is often acknowledging that there is a problem and that there is a need for change.
Baptist Health Louisville is one place to begin the process of change and becoming whole. Baptist Health Counseling provides mental health assessments through the Access Center. For an appointment, or for more information, call (502) 896-7105 or toll-free 1-800-478-1105. Help is available 24 hours a day.