I have been thinking a lot lately about the separation from the true self most men choose to go through as boys as part of the masculinization process. While most men grow up with the effects of this and many continue to exhibit teen-age humor or actions (gay jokes, jokes about the weakness of women or the womanizing of other men) as a result and continued affirmation of this, my own experience was very different.
Terrence Real says in his book I Don’t Want to Talk About It, “Boys and men are granted special status, but only on the condition that they turn backs on vulnerability and connection to join the fray. Those who resist, like unconventional men or gay men, are punished for it.” (Real, Kindle location 2674) This struck me, as I was and am unconventional and was picked on because of it.
Where most boys accepted and embraced competition early on — via sports or other means — I did not. From an early age I was in wrestling, but I never did it because I wanted to compete formally. What I liked was trying to get out of holds and preventing the other person from getting out of my holds, but with no real end to it. It was just wrestling to wrestle. That and my dad liked that I did it. It was the same with most things growing up — I never liked to race bikes — but I did like to try stunts and ride through deep puddles and odd terrains. I like the experience, not the competition. Even with video games — my favorite games weren’t (and aren’t) the ones that have obviously competitive themes such as online first person shooters. I play them, but they aren’t my favorite. I prefer games of management that can last months — such as the Civilization series — and games of exploration and negotiation.
But eventually I learned enough to fake the competitive nature — in order to fit in and stop the bullying — though I was never really good at it. But what I did find is that I started to compete with myself — with my goals. Setting intellectual goals with myself, such as grades and papers in school. I never really compared grades, but I did cultivate a sense of being better than my peers. That I was more intellectual and thought more deeply than them (though knowing full well, this wasn’t true). This is where I could compete though, with my mind — not my body. And looking back, this was the case all my life, it’s why I was picked on and bullied as kid because I was the computer geek, the smart kid. Not that my grades ever reflected this intellectual prowess — they didn’t — but it was there and I used it in other ways. I used it to get out of fights and demean those that picked on me in a way such that they didn’t realize I was demeaning them. I used it to defend myself, to ward off the competitive nature of my peers growing up — to try to stand outside that, while at the same time wishing I were part of it.
So, this is what I am seeing…this cultural force to set rules around what is masculine and what boys/men should do or engage in. This schism that I felt, and I am sure many others felt, of being on the outside, not fitting into the mold pressed upon boys growing up and confusion and pain and depression that causes.
Real, Terrence. I Don’t Want to Talk about It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. New York: Fireside, 1998. Kindle.