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The Fragile He-Man

My Dad hated to apologize for anything. “It’s a sign of weakness,” he’d say. True, he was a hard-headed Calabrian but I still thought that was a bit extreme. He was also a devout Catholic, but his concept of what a man should be wasn’t guided just by his beliefs. It began with his childhood role models back in the archaic toe of Italy.

I grew up for years watching my father confront, scream at and lambast his employees and family. I was afraid of and sometimes hated him but still, he was my role-model. I emulated his good qualities and avoided the bad ones as best I could. I internalized his fortitude but played down the macho image.

We like to think of ourselves as self-possessed,
but the fact is we all rely on a gender template

I didn’t want to pretend to be strong. I wanted to be strong. To my mind I was utterly different from him, but at the end of the day who knows? Like father, like son, no?

We like to think of ourselves as self-possessed, but the fact is we all rely on a gender template. We learn and grow. We fiddle with it, but big chunks are firmly embedded in our psyche. It takes practice to uproot them. I’m still stopped dead in my tracks by the realization that something I’ve just done, that I wished I hadn’t, came verbatim from my father. Oh my God, I’m him!

How human is that? I can’t imagine any other animal agonizing as we do about how to be. We always want to know the right thing to do. We also want to be sure of ourselves. It’s not easy. Moral guides are necessarily broad and open to interpretation. Look at how many otherwise good Christians favour guns, capital punishment and war.

For me, manliness has become about not giving in to testosterone. Women understand this about men. Having wrestled for millennia with the male need to be right and in control, they’re particularly sensitive to how stupid it makes us, especially about our own feelings. A man who can expose his feelings and cry openly is admired and prized by women.

In our attempts to do the right thing, we worry so much about what might happen that we miss what’s actually happening

On the other hand, no one likes a weakling. Our mindful ability to transform ourselves lies in knowing our feelings as we feel them and seeing our raw motives plain as day. Whether or not we exhibit those feelings is another matter, hopefully one of good judgement.

I try to keep my neurotic anxieties to a minimum. In our attempts to do the right thing, we humans worry so much about what might happen that we miss what’s actually happening. I’m quite sure that when Dad held his head up and refused to apologize, the aggrieved parties saw him as anything but strong. Nevertheless, he was unwaveringly sure of himself. That’s why when I notice myself swaggering like him, a red flag goes up. Before any harm’s done, I wonder, “Why am I so sure of myself?”

It doesn’t matter one bit whether I’m better or worse than you at something; the testosterone-fuelled drive to be better has no bearing on my intelligence, creativity or happiness.

Ask my family about me and they’ll tell you I was always strange. In my youth I acquired many unusual opinions, often for no other reason than that they were unusual. When I realized that they were all letting me down I switched tactics. I started to shed them instead.

For example, I turned my back on competition and found out that it doesn’t matter one bit whether I’m better or worse than you at something. The testosterone-fuelled drive to be better has no bearing on my intelligence, creativity or happiness. I stop to consider whether I’m acting out of strength or weakness. I’ve learned to live with the fact that I don’t have many answers, and that’s become my greatest strength.

Self-doubt’s depressing, but self-inflation is just dumb. I went almost nuts writing early drafts of my memoir The Novice. I thought the protagonist should be heroic, but the more I painted myself that way, the less believable ‘I’ became. My wife and my therapist read early drafts. Both said the same thing: ‘Be yourself when you write; be vulnerable.’ It was strangely difficult to figure out what that meant but sure enough, in time the protagonist became believable, likeable … strong. I adopted the same philosophy for life itself. It’s working out.

As Freud noticed, we cultivate our inhibitions until we intuitively fit in, but knowing when to let go of those inhibitions is anything but intuitive. It takes constant, conscious attention. It’s hard work, but worthwhile. To be blindly bound by the actions of those who went before us, to keep pounding our chests in search of attention, is something that humans alone can choose to stop doing. That’s when free will is a blessing.

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11 responses to “The Fragile He-Man”

  1. Peter B.Jones

    Stephen,
    Thank you for reminding me of who my father was. ” On my own two feet I’ve got to meet the world alone, I’m on my own just me, independent and free, the son of my father”.

    That was a line from the first song I ever recorded. It was a battle with my father, when you are at war, you are always fighting. When you are at peace, you learn to live with everything.

    Thanks
    Peter B.Jones
    p.s. I wonder about Lance Armstrong, any thoughts from you !

  2. Ralph Chidiac

    Hello Stephen
    Nice article, and I am an expert on Testosterone having a weight lifting background where Anabolic Steroids were a common denominator and having studied it in my youth in University (Kinesiology).
    You say so what?
    Here I believe is the connection, and the applicability of MINDFULNESS to the whole recipe.
    Once we understand the undercurrent of any physiological bodily reaction, we tend to shed a light on that corner of the human brain and bring “mindfulness” into the equation, reducing our knee-jerk reaction to a socio-genetic role application.
    i.e. “we understand that NOW, Excel is running THROUGH the computer, we ARE not excel”.
    The nice thing about folk psychology, mindfulness, an ethics, is their capacity to change the story-LINE of our behaviour, but determining the ACTUAL biological impetus is the true enlightenment.
    I was 2 different people while taking testosterone (exogenously), and when I had to come off.
    Dr. Jekyll when off and definitely Mr. Hyde when On.
    Simply knowing WHO we are is a great tool, but understanding WHAT we are is indubitably more pertinent.

  3. Christina

    “A man who can expose his feelings and cry openly is admired and prized by women.”
    Really? All women? I doubt it! Women come in different types.

    1. Kilby

      Christina, what women would not admire a man who can be an hones,t vulnerable human being? People are considered stronger who can relate beyond dated, stereotypical roles, come on! By far!!

  4. Peter B.Jones

    Hello Stephen,
    I never used your line ” A big heart’s not much use without a clear head ” some times you just have to pat the whale !! I’m finding great comfort behind the lens of a camera these days, the magic is, that you have to be there to take the shot. It is not always the best shot that is in front of you. By turning slowly 360 degrees you might find something you missed, every-thing is constantly changing, composition- contrast- colour. If you get lucky, you can be in the right place, at the right time. Soon I will be a grandfather, I have much to share with my grandson. I just love this beautiful planet we call home.

  5. Jeffrey

    I am 47 and about a year ago discovered I was “adopted.” Its more complex than that but suffice to say I was left in the care of my “adoptive” family and they (or rather he, my “adoptive” father) used me to take the place of their dead child. That along with my “sister” violently beating me with a baseball bat, caused me to develop what is known as dissociative amnesia due to the trauma.

    My adoptive father is a hard core alcoholic, violent, cruel, bigoted, and quite selfish.

    The memories of my birth father (which came back after I found out the whole truth) was a burly man with a kind and loving disposition. I have memories of him wraping his arms around my mother and watching her melt in his arms. He was safe to be around, but he was very strong and a good man. He was quiet and very salt of the earth. Just by looking at him you would never think that he was anything but a very strong man.

    I was adopted at the age of 4 and 1/2.

    I am my birth fathers son and I am proud of it. I realize I take after him and my manerisms match his almost exactly. I am affectionate, confident, emotionally strong, empathetic, understanding and loving. I also got my parents introversion and higher than normal intellect. I also brood and ruminate and I can overthink thinks sometimes.

    I always knew deep down inside that I was not like and never would be like my “family”. I had already “imprinted” and the dye was set. I am thankful for what my birth parents gave me, the resiliency to deal with the ongoing trauma which occurred in my adoptive family. I did not take after my adoptive family and I rejected their ways which included substance abuse, violent tempers and overt cruelty. They were and are selfish.

    I can honestly say that I am glad I am not like them. I always wondered why I wasn’t like them, but then again when the truth came out, the final piece of the puzzle of my life fell into place. My doubts were washed away in an instant as the full memories came back and started piecing themselves back together.

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