[Warning: This post contains some terms that are offensive for most people. I use them here intentionally to highlight negative patterns that exist in our culture. I do not endorse their use in any way, shape or form.]
As a man growing up in mainstream American culture, I learned many lessons about “how to be a man”. Most of those lessons did not end up serving me, nor did they work out very well for those around me. And the majority of them were provided silently, implicitly, subliminally.
Through the words, messages, and actions of other (predominantly straight, white, middle class) men, I learned that I was destined to be in power, that I would be provided with easy access to resources, and that I was entitled to being right.
I learned these lessons from both those in close proximity to me and those who were visible standard bearers from loftier platforms, such as public office, the business world, television, and movies. More often than not their messages came via non-verbal communication. For example, the mere presence and sheer predominance of men in positions of power offered this default message: “men hold power”. I didn’t really need to be told this out loud - it was entirely obvious and therefore typically unspoken.
The means of gaining power was offered to me in visceral lessons over the years by boys and men of all ages. In elementary school it was through playground games like "King of the Hill" and “Smear the Queer”, which were driven by violent, homophobic, and misogynistic belief systems. And they contained powerful subliminal messages, even for a child of 7 or 8 years young: "be a man", "don't be weak", "dominate".
Later on in my school years, the taunts of “pussy” or “fag” (and other hate-filled words) were aimed at anyone who wasn’t physically powerful or who dared show any of the “soft” emotions, like worry or sadness or fear. College introduced other measuring sticks with toxic implications, such as drunken fights at bars and the persistent talk about how many women a guy had slept with.
I hoped that with independence and adulthood I might find more ease in my experience of manhood. Sadly, the maturity I had been seeking (for myself and from others) was rarely present in the working world, too.
Bullying and arrogance were dominant elements of the corporate cultures I experienced. The acquisition of status (i.e., job titles) and money became the new ways to show you had "won the game". Though it was never really recognized openly, the primary source of these behaviors were the powerful people - always men, in my case - in charge of defining values in these companies.
Yet again I discovered that to find acceptance and tolerance I had to shield my natural humanity, humility, and sensitivity behind a stoic mask.
Fear At The Top
Eventually I climbed the ladder into executive level positions in organizations. Thinking that I had finally ascended to a perch upon which I could be my true self, I hoped to begin creating a more loving environment for myself and my colleagues. Sadly, I found that the cultural forces of toxicity were too strong for me to overcome. I kept playing the game.
Since I'm a big fan of accountability, it's important for me to claim that much of what held me back from using my positions of power to effect the change I wanted to see was my own fear. I, too, had become afraid of losing the power and status that I had achieved. So I kept my head down and played by the rules.
In fact, in all of these experiences, from the schoolyard to the boardroom, I experienced incredible levels of stress and fear. Yes, I survived them well, largely due to my privilege. And I could - and can - no longer abide by them. As I’ve come more and more into consciousness about the cultural forces that felt destructive to me I have realized how incredibly corrosive and destructive they are to our society, our country, and our planet.
We Are All Hurting
The dominant archetype of the white man in Western culture, the one that has used entitlement and privilege to hoard resources and wield power over others is suffocating us all. This “standard” of confined masculinity (so aptly defined in the book Reinventing Masculinity), is oppressive to so many people - women, indigenous people, people of color, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and anyone else who wasn’t “fortunate enough” to be born a white man.
And... this is a super important distinction that I believe is holding us in a fear-based pattern: Our standard of masculinity is harming men, too.
As the playwright Eve Ensler so aptly put it:
"Well, the tyranny of masculinity and the tyranny of patriarchy I think has been much more deadly to men than it has to women. It hasn't killed our hearts. It's killed men's hearts. It's silenced them; it's cut them off."
Wow. And yes. I know this exact feeling. When I sat at the highest perch of my professional power, I was disconnected from my heart. I couldn't access it. I was silent. I was complicit in covering up my deepest desires and feelings, largely because I felt afraid to reveal my emotions lest I be castigated by other men.
A New Focus, A Different Power
I am no longer ignorant, nor am I afraid. I am no longer willing to be in denial about the destructive, disconnected patterns of power that are running so much of our world. The primary architects of those patterns look a lot like me. So I resolve to use the credentials of my professional experiences, and this "all access pass" shell that I was born into, to promote a new model of masculinity for men, both at home and in the workplace.
In the coming weeks and months I will be exploring these topics more. I will be afraid sometimes and I will do it anyway, because it matters so much. I invite your comments, questions, and conversations. I know that I need you, we need each other, to bring this vision to fruition.
I am joining forces with other men to create a massive movement that harnesses the forces of nature that are begging for men to surrender into a new worldview where love, joy, connection, equity, integration, heart-centered living, and harmony are the essential principles by which we live, for ourselves and with one another.
Jim Young is a former corporate executive, a leadership coach for men, and a loving father. His professional pursuits are aimed at helping men and organizations find new ways of being sustainable and creating environments where all can thrive. He loves to geek out on masculinity and "Teal consciousness".
When he's not seeking to change the world, Jim loves goofing with his teenagers and hopping up on stages to do live improv comedy shows with his group "Not In Charge".
If you are interested in exploring any of these topics with Jim, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to be a bit more bold, go ahead and book time for a conversation directly on his calendar.