I remember when I decided that I would never cry again.
My older brother was a different kind of kid – sensitive and smart, uncoordinated with a lisp. This made him an easy target for bullies. I remember being in the playground one day, and another boy was teasing him. My brother burst into tears, only increasing the mockery and derision from his peers. He was called a “sissy”, a “girl”. Back in those days, I would cry when I felt like it, when I needed. After that day, never again.
Of course, this has led to many problems for me later in life. In my twenties, repression of emotion led to depression and the inability to process my experiences. Marginalising my emotions has left me unable to process significant life events, and left me disconnected from my loved ones. Because I denied my own emotions, I denied them in other people, leaving me callous, and ignoring the effect my behaviour had on others. If I hurt someone’s feelings, well, they should just do what I did and stuff those feelings away.
As a teenager, in explicit and subtle ways I was told that I must never show any weakness or pain. Failure to do so would result in questions about my toughness, and more importantly, my manhood. I grew to ignore the messages my body was telling me. Going to the doctor was a sign of weakness, so I ignored my health, and let conditions fester. Just like with emotions, denying my own physicality and ignoring pain led to a denial of the physicality of others. I was not conscious of the physical damage I could do others, because I believed pain was something that could be ignored until it went away.
The irony of the version of masculinity that I was sold was that it was actually weak. It was always under threat, and constantly needed to assert itself. In that version of masculinity, respect only came through the domination of others. I would constantly tease my friends and run them down, and they would do the same to me. As an adult, I look back and wonder why we would treat each other so badly, when we liked each other so much. But it was our normal.
The weakness of this masculinity was also demonstrated by how easily it was threatened. Not only did each of us cause great injury to ourselves out of our fear of being unmanly, but any idea or behaviour that seemed to threaten this masculinity was punished. Any guy who acted “girly”, or displayed any sign of femininity, was punished. The worst thing a man could be was gay – it was the worst insult and fiercest accusation that could be made. I look back with great shame at the way we ostracised and abused my fellow classmates who were out, and the damage we must have caused others who were too afraid to come out. I won’t be able to explain that to my children.
The worst part about my behaviour in my teens was that I should have known better. I had a strong faith, which meant a great deal to me. I had strong female role models in my life, whom I admired and respected. I thought deeply about the right way to act in the world. But my behaviour had been shaped by the dominant culture I was in, and I needed Jesus to save me from toxic masculinity.
The first way Jesus worked in this area of my life was to change my heart and remove some of the anger. My mother told me once that when I was 15, they were really worried about my violent behaviour, as I would terrorise my brother and was getting stronger than my dad. But one day, I just stopped being angry. Looking back, I can credit no one else but the Holy Spirit for that change in me.
As I became a young man I was fortunate to have a variety of older mentors. As followers of Jesus, they showed me how to live an embodied faith, one that recognised the role of emotions in our lives and embraced them. They lived loved and showed emotion, modelling what it meant to be a complete person. They patiently guided me to get in touch with my feelings, and to understand how other people experienced emotions. This was as much a journey of “unlearning” as learning; I had to reverse years and years of repression and thinking, a journey that continues to this day.
Ultimately, Jesus has brought me freedom. Freedom from anger, jealousy and shame. Freedom from the need to prove myself, and to make myself bigger by making others small. He freed me from insecurity, and allowed me to accept myself, all of me. Jesus freed me from toxic masculinity.