Chasing Dragons With Plastic Swords

Boys—we marvel at the playful energy they bring into our lives. They chase each other around the yard with plastic swords and sometimes unite to team up against the neighborhood dragon. It’s a ubiquitous image, harmless and fun to watch from the back porch. Yet, when rough and tumble play turns into painful cries, we also witness most boys draw the line and stop the game with alarm and concern. Why? Because it is in boys’ human nature to empathize, emote and relate.

We see early evidence of this when young boys put their plastic swords down and climb on to our laps to read and snuggle. Rather than struggle alone in silence, they will also cry for our help to battle the monsters under their bed. As they grow from land rovers to tree dwellers, they enjoy intimate conversations and sleep-overs in the tree fort with their buddies. They seem eager to explore both the natural world of snips, snails and puppy dog tails, as well as their humanity in the sugar of relationships and spice of emotions.

So, how is that we switch from the boy who knows when to draw the line and the man who does not? The boy who will ask for help to the man who suffers in silence? The boy who finds human connection in non-sexual touch and conversations to the man who obsesses about sex? To a binary societal attitude and belief that boys are made up of only snips, snails and puppy dog tails and girls with sugar and spice and everything nice?

boy covering his face - cryingWhen we learn of their acts of mayhem and violence or we hear women complain of men’s stoicism and controlling ways we often say, “that’s just the way guys are.” Well, it’s just not. In fact, we have to actively train and socialize males to make that switch from empathy to violence, community to isolation, openness to insularity, and interdependence to defensive autonomy. This toxic socialization process is solidified in the compulsory uttering, “Boys will be boys” when we highlight toughness while ignoring or shaming tenderness. This is an expired societal attitude and belief that perpetuates the problem, rather than naming it.

In our work with men at the Men’s Resource Center, helping men through their struggles with anger management, a mid-life crisis, sexual addiction and a host of other issues, we’ve come to discover that men from all walks of life struggle with society’s expectation that they “act straight,” “tough it out,” and, all in all, “be a man about it.” In general, when men ask for help with “the struggle”—going to counseling— they often confirm their internalized societal belief that “I am weak or girly.”

This learning process begins when we instruct our boys to repress their emotions and turn away from their pain. It has become so common that most of us feel like it’s ‘normal’ to tell a boy to “suck it up” or “don’t be a baby.” But, when we do this we’re actually creating scenarios in which we reward boys for their lack of empathy. When boys learn that understanding and coping with their own emotional and physical pain is something only “sissies” do, then they come to expect others to just “toughen” up, too. It is time we turn in our expired beliefs about men, examine our biases and distortions so we can socialize males to be more fit and whole.

For a long time, feminist thinkers have argued that our society has problems solving our gender specific issues because they are an almost unspeakable part of how we identify ourselves and each other. We link men and violence like baseball and hotdogs. When men attack others or retreat into man-caves, we assume it’s a natural part of the male gender. But it’s not natural, and it can truly be devastating. It’s this kind of thinking that allows us to overlook the root causes of violence, and to do things like miss the obvious fact that all our school shooters have been male. So that, as we look for solutions to this most egregious problem we ask just about everything except, “What’s going on with our boys?” If females were shooting up our schools at the same rate, we certainly would be asking, “What’s going on with our girls?”

two men sitting on bench looking out onto a lake

Betty Friedan called the widespread unhappiness of women in the 1950’s and 60’s “a problem with no name.” Although the women’s suffrage movement had been active for decades, this “naming” of the problem finally sparked a national conversation on the state of women’s happiness. Yet, the state of men’s emotionality remains in the margins of our discussions despite Floyd Dell in 1914 predicting that “Feminism for the first time will make it possible for men to be free.”

We can’t begin to solve problems until we can admit to them, and we can’t admit to them until we can name them. In our most recent book, co-author Charlie Donaldson and I sought to give a name to the underlying issue that has plagued most of the men we’ve worked with. We’ve found that the same core problem that creates men who are violent in big ways affects men who try to have everyday relationships and find that their masculinity gets in the way of their intimacy.

In our book, Mascupathy: Understanding and Healing the Malaise of American Manhood, we contend that most American males are socialized into a pathology of masculinity we call mascupathy. Mascupathy creates an imbalance in one’s humanity by exaggerating the hard aspects of humanity (i.e. masculine energy) while minimizing the softer aspects (i.e. feminine energy). Males are pressured into being tough, aggressive and in control. They are shamed for “not being man enough” when they show sensitivity, fear, and ask for help.

This persistent pressure to fit into the man-pack results in men who sacrifice half their humanity in the relentless pursuit of masculinity. Our purpose in developing the concept of mascupathy is not to demonize men, but to facilitate an understanding so that Floyd Dell’s vision of liberating men is finally realized.

When we examine men through the clear lens of mascupathy, it should not be surprising that men develop issues with anger, violence, emotional illiteracy and intimacy. And we will also clearly recognize that the presence of mascupathy is precipitously creating men’s own demise while women are ascending in a world that is embracing humans who are cross-trained in both the soft and hard aspects of their humanity. The alpha males of the 20th century are now deemed “Mad Men”—they just aren’t fit for a world that prizes a masculinity that is in the service of their full humanity,

Two men talking to each otherWe can cross-train males without losing their masculinity. We can and must teach them that competition is appropriate on the ball field, but not in an intimate relationship. Since we want men to get help before their life is broken or in crisis, we have to help boys see that they aren’t rocks or islands but human beings and that asking for help in times of trouble is smart and courageous. If we want men to talk about their feelings rather than act them out, then we have to teach boys the art of intimate communication—about the language of emotions. Yes, we can raise boys with a wholehearted and relational masculinity, rather than socialize them into the debilitating and dangerous condition of mascupathy.

It is our calling in these difficult and confusing times to name problems, and be courageous and innovative in our solutions. We have to accept and address mascupathy, because grown men don’t run around in the backyard chasing dragons with plastic swords. Mascupathic men, cut off from their heart, transform mythic dragons into their wife, boss, co-worker, school, or country, and yell, hit, shoot, or lob bombs and terrorize. Yes, most men put down their swords when they arrive at manhood. Yet they still feel fearful, lost and vulnerable when attempting intimacy, so they retreat to the creature comforts of the man-cave.

In the new millennium, we need men who have the courage and skill to go to both the ends of the earth and their soul; change a tire and a diaper; open up in the boardroom and the bedroom. We can prevent mascupathy and treat it, rather than throw our hands up, turn the page, and mumble under our breath, “It’s just the way guys are.” It just isn’t, at least it doesn’t have to be.

Randy Flood, MA, LLP

Randy FloodEvaluator and Therapist; Director and Therapist, Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan. Randy has been involved in counseling psychology since 1992 and joined the Fountain Hill Center in 2000. He believes sitting with individuals 1:1 and in groups while they share their pain, joy, fears and passions is a privilege. He believes it is soul work: the process of taking off the social mask and placing oneself deeper into vulnerability takes courage, the journey of leaving the security of the familiar patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving to seeking new ways of living. learn more…

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