It will likely take a generation or more for us to free ourselves. And that’s if we’re lucky enough to do it quickly.
I understand why men might feel frustrated. It’s a hard piece of news to find out we can’t simply shift our personal behavior and call sexism and racism fixed. It’s a dark realization to find out that despite all our efforts, we have still only scratched the surface of truly understanding the trauma being inflicted globally on women, on people of color, immigrants and children. It’s a shock to get even slightly woke, to begin to see the generations of trauma that can not be healed in our lifetimes or even the lifetimes of our children.
We are a generation of men tasked with addressing ongoing, systemic trauma, both ours and others. We are tasked with accepting the brutal realizations of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter and the ugly outbreak of white nationalism across Europe and America. Waves of catastrophic trauma are the result of generations of violent abusive man box culture, and because of how man box culture has bullied and conditioned men, we have have been stripped of the capacities we need to repair the damage done. We have suppressed in boys and men our deeply human capacities for empathy, emotional expression, collaboration, and connection. In the beautiful human conversation, we have been bullied and brutalized into disconnection and isolation. All in the pursuit of proving we are “real men.”
We have been cheated out of human connection by a culture of manhood that tells us independence is the most vaunted of masculine traits, that hiding our emotions makes us strong, and that being dominant is the only course of action that will keep us safe.
But dominance won’t keep us safe. The wounded world around us is the result of thousands of years of relying on models of dominance. Healing damage on the scale of what we are confronting will not happen through emotional stoicism, toughness, independence, sexual prowess or any of the other vaunted assets of man box culture. But the vast majority of men know of no other tools to apply to our shaking, shuddering world, and so we are becoming increasingly reactive and alarmed.
Man box culture teaches us to never show self doubt, to never admit we are wrong, to always have the last word. It teaches us to align ourselves with hierarchical pecking orders of dominance as a way to construct our social institutions. It teaches us to rely on power created over others instead of power created with others. But it’s a model for human society that is not working. The human experiment is faltering. And so, men’s anger surges up in the disconnect between the privileges that we continue to exercise every day, and the calamity that is modern life. Surely this is someone else's fault. Immigrants. Socialists. Feminists.
No. It is not. This is entirely on our dominant culture of masculinity, formed and framed by the man box. This is on us. And as hard as it may be to own that, we must own it if we are to save our children and grandchildren from despair and destruction.
As men, we have to admit the truth of how desperately lonely we have become. AARP’s 2010 study on loneliness shows that one in three Americans age forty five and older are chronically lonely up from one in five just ten years before. That’s 42 million Americans. Cigna’s 2018 study says that one out of every two Americans are “sometimes or always alone.” So, even as men rage on in defense of our obsessive focus on individuality and “traditional manhood,” we are facing epidemic levels of suicide, drug abuse, divorce. We are falling prey to an epidemic of loneliness, the health effects of which are equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, increasing the likelihood of heart disease, neurological disorders, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. Cancer metastasizes faster in lonely people. And man box culture is at the root or our loneliness because it polices and punishes authentic connection.
As men, we are confronting a basic truth. Regardless of how we intersect with others in terms of our individual power, wealth, opportunity and resources, collectively men have always held the levers of power in the world. A cursory glance at the makeup of the US Congress and corporate America will verify this is still absolutely the case. This makes men responsible for what has happened to women, to children, to other nations, to the economy, the environment and to all our diverse communities.
No matter our personal behavior, we collectively remain responsible for what is happening now and what will happen next. The systems that grant us the choice to behave well or poorly towards women and others, remain in place. Until those systems which advantage men are dismantled, women and others will not have equal power in the world; power needed to defend themselves; power needed to insure their equal access to opportunities, resources and rights.
And the news for men only gets worse. Not only are we responsible for our own actions, we are responsible for the actions of other men. The message we are hearing from men like Tony Porter of A CALL TO MEN couldn’t be simpler. No one gets to stay on the sidelines and call themselves a good man. If you are not actively opposing the ongoing trauma created by sexist, racist behavior, you are enabling it.
And if responsibility for all men isn’t enough to take on, we are also responsible for the actions of our fathers, our grandfathers and our great grandfathers, back across generations. Not in terms of deserving punishment for what they did, but in terms of absorbing the generational trauma generated by their choices.
Even as we mow our suburban lawns and drink our artisanal cocktails, we are shaken by a dark, unnameable anxiety. A rolling wave of generational trauma, once hidden from us by our own comfortable privilege, is a wave that took hundreds of years to form and will take hundreds of years more to spend itself. The current generation of men are at the apex of this wave. Every action we take either adds momentum to this wave of trauma or decreases its impact on the generation that follows us. And because other voices besides ours are growing louder and more insistent, we are all being forced to face this painful realization.
We can no longer play by the old rules, whereby our 1950’s era cultural container made our man box lives livable because women, LGBTQ people and people of color had no choice but to play along. As others fight for equality, the cultural container that made possible a society designed to satisfy the needs and appetites of men only is fragmenting. A new culture is emerging. We don’t get to know what that one looks like, yet. And we don’t get to sidestep. We are the liminal generation. We are the middle men. We are never going to see the end of the war between the sexes even as we might work to end it. We will not know what peace looks like. The generations of men who came before us have seen to that.
If this feels unfair. It should. But know it is far more unfair to others. No matter how hard we try to be better human beings, men, and above all white men, still get to own that towering wave of trauma, as we continue to benefit from the systems that create it. If women are paid less, it’s because we are paid more. If people of color are shot dead for no other reason than the color of their skin, we are allowed to rage in the street while police quietly talk us down.
And no matter what steps we take, there are still advantages we benefit from put in place by the violence of colonialism, sexism, racism and war. My desk, my keyboard, the length of my fingers, the health of my body, the absurd possibility that I can write this article while children are slaughtered in Yemen or Syria, all these things are a direct result of my privilege. If we can’t acknowledge that fact, then we’re adding momentum to the wave. A wave that will crash down on our own grandchildren, be they sons or daughters, white, brown or black.
There is no one strong leader who will save us. No smart bomb. No tough love. No John Wayne show down. There is no neutral fix. Simply not adding to the damage won’t be enough. None of what our man box culture of manhood teaches us will fix a world informed by trauma. We must instead do something new and entirely different. We must absorb the pain of others. The massive wave of trauma enveloping our world is comprised of raw unrelenting human suffering. And absorb it we must, or what comes next my be the end of us all.
We can no longer allow our manhood to be reduced to dominance, toughness and leadership. Generations of cultural messages have wrongly gendered connection and empathy as feminine. Man box culture has bullied and shamed us into stripping ourselves of the full range of human capacities. Along with leadership and toughness, we must also embrace connection and care giving. To open ourselves up, to acknowledge and care for the suffering of others, is a step toward the divine.
And so, me must learn the art of being in relationship. We must grow our capacity to daily and even hourly negotiate our relationships in the context of a world that is continually trauma inducing and trauma informed. And what must we negotiate? The ways in which we can help heal the trauma playing out in lives of those around us. In the back and forth of relating, we must come to see and create space for the damage in all our lives. Men must stop making communication about what we want, need or require, and instead make it about holding space for uncertainty, not knowing and what is emerging. The trauma we and those around us carry is not something to be quickly solved. In a world where men have been trained to fix instead of host, repair instead of engage, we must learn to hold the full range of human emotions in the back and forth of relating.
This is a particular kind of work. We must become more relational. We must learn to acknowledge the other, ourselves and a third entity, the shared relationship; an entity that, no matter how hard we try, we can never fully dominate, control or determine. We have to accept that others will be out of our control, will hold us accountable, will ask of us patience, compassion and empathy. We have to learn to acknowledge our place in the greater network of our relationships. Only then will what we want in our own lives perhaps be available to us, not by virtue of our privilege, but by virtue of our humanity.
Men are insightful and intuitive creatures. Beneath our stoic man box exteriors we are deeply human. We have the capacity to live rich, abundant, connected lives. We can seek and give shelter, form community, express our truths and act with the moral clarity that is always born out of care giving.
Yes, of course, be tough, be strong. These are natural human capacities to be encouraged in our sons and our daughters equally. But, reach further. It is in the back and forth of connecting and relating with others that we find our purpose and our meaning. It’s well past time for us to bring into play the full range of human capacities that we are all born with. The work of generations is waiting to be done. And the salvation of our species hangs in the balance.
All we have to do, is begin.
~ Mark Greene