Opening Up

Michael Onsando
12 September ,2017

If there is a way I have failed my masculinity, it has been by way of omission.

I keep returning to this idea of toxic masculinity. I keep returning to the correlation between toxicity and survival – this still remains too complicated a strand for me to begin to understand, let alone write about. But I’d like to attempt to start somewhere. Especially in this time when we think about what “healthy” masculinity looks like. How can we talk about healthy masculinity before we begin to look at the things that create this toxicity to begin with?

We’ve heard it said many times – we start off so well and then delve into forms of toxicity. These things have been explained away, a lot of this hides under “boys will be boys.” How do we begin to unpack the things that get in the way between (us?) men and ourselves? Many words to say ‘Yes, the patriarchy hurts men – but how?”

I begin with Mark Mason:

“When prodded by Robbins, his reasoning for wanting to kill himself was that his life insurance policy would pay enough to support his wife and children after he was gone, whereas if he stayed alive, his family would be saddled by debt and left broke. When Robbins threw out the obvious point that while his kids would grow up with financial stability, they wouldn’t have a father, the man calmly asserted, “Yes, exactly. That’s the idea.” (…)It’s not just that he thinks his kids would be better off with money than with him, it’s that he believes his only value as a person is his ability to make money.”

Before I say anything on that I’d like to stop by Brene Brown. In Rising Strong (listen here) Brene talks about shame and she speaks of meeting a man who said the following statement:

“We (men) have shame; we have a lot of shame. But every time we reach out we get the shit beat out of us. And before you say anything about those mean fathers and those coaches and those boyfriends; my wife and three daughters, who you just signed those books for? They would rather see me die before I fall off my high horse.”

Vulnerability is messy.

There’s no other way to put it. There is little cleanliness or space for tiptoeing around one’s vulnerability – particularly when it comes off the back of years of suppression. This is what many men deal with. This becomes increasingly complex when we remember that nothing happens within a void. That unlearning toxic behavior first begins with identifying this behavior within oneself.  Especially because the habits we try to understand  – the things we try to catch – are fleeting. Coming up against our own histories of what weakness is and venturing into a world that is quick to shove one back in their shell it makes sense that we quickly unlearn vulnerability. And, once vulnerability is unlearned it becomes harder to tolerate in others (who are you to speak? Haven’t we all managed to suppress this?)

But this isn’t even about vulnerability.

In Mark Mason’s essay quoted above the man in question sees his value as his ability to make money.  So much so that he imagines his own death would have no impact on those around him outside their loss of financial status.

These are the stories we are told.

The patriarchal narrative – find a good job, make money. The more money you make the better a woman you’ll get. The position of a man is not to have emotions, but to provide and solve.  Money is often the solution. The position of the man is to have money and to provide security(in an abstract way – whatever this means can be shaped depending on what’s going on). And make decisions of course – decision making is key.

This is not something we did not already know, but I’d like to think about the kind of environment that is created by these rules. What forms of hearing and unhearing are developed towards this end.  If, for example, a man is to be stoic in the face of even the fiercest of emotional assaults, what parts of himself need to die for him to be who the world needed him to be?

I’m trying to think again, from the place that a child is a child. We come into this world with both our hearts and minds open (for the most part). What experiences do we learn?

When I first came into this idea of feminism I was astounded. In many ways it gave me the language to connect with parts of myself. In many ways it gave me the language to disregard my own pain. Now I find myself trying to understand just what this intersectionality looks like. I ask this particularly because this was around the time I was out of work and really trying to define value for myself. And the things that were given to me as indicators of value were being branded as toxic – or damaging. The instinct to protect, for example, is one instinct that constantly comes up against the need for agency. Protection many times means denying one the ability to make their own choices (I know where this roads leads and it is horrible, so I refuse you to go down it). And working through these issues needs one to be vulnerable enough to admit what is going on – (perhaps my masculinity refuses to allow me to see you at this time) and for that vulnerability to be received and understood as opposed to slammed shut. Perhaps this is why I keep going back to what happens when truths collide. Is there space for more than one form of vulnerability at a time? Or must it happen in turns, allowing negotiations of truths as people work towards a common truth?

Even as I write this I wonder if there is such a thing as a common truth.

So maybe not a common truth but a truth that accepts the multiplicity of truths. That accepts the fact that all we have to go on is the information we have. And all that we are doing is using the information we have to navigate the world to our own forms of freedom.

So maybe a question today – even as we demand that people be open and vulnerable, are we making a space for it? Or do we continue to insist that people give us weights that we lack the tools and capacity to carry?

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