A Letter To Masculinity

MasculinityDear Masculinity,

Who are you?

Because no one seems to know for sure.

Growing up in a small, blue-collar town in the rural Midwest, I was pretty sure you had dry-calloused hands with grit underneath the nails. I thought you drove tractors and thrived under the hood of a car. You wore strong aftershave—the kind of sharp-scent that dominated every room you entered. You drank beer on Saturdays and watched football on Sundays. Back then, you were big and hard and there-but-not-there.

But then my parents joined the local golf club.

And I got confused.

You still wore the aftershave, but you were different. You made enough money to leave work and play golf in the afternoon. You always had the newest clubs. And, sometimes, you seemed less concerned with your score than with the length of your drives. On Tuesdays, you never missed a men’s night dinner at the club. And, afterward, you sat at the bar, playing dice games I couldn’t understand. You still drank the beer.

And yet.

Other people told me you’d never be caught dead on the golf course. They said you play basketball and baseball. (And they said you play even when you’re injured.) They said you only eat red meat and you get inked and own a motorcycle and you don’t need sunblock and you probably don’t feel things like the rest of us. They made you sound solid and unshakeable.

But then, just as I was getting comfortable with who you might be, my world got turned upside down. Again.

I went to college—a kid-from-the-corn thrust onto a campus four times the size of his hometown. And there, people didn’t seem to like you all that much. They blamed you for most of the crap that happened in the world. At best, they seemed to think you weren’t really needed.

But they were just as confusing as you.

Because the ways they talked about—the ways they slammed you and dismissed you—reeked of the very qualities they abhorred. Your critics were strong like steel, and vicious like a razor.

They were like peace protestors throwing bombs.

And, Masculinity, I don’t think I’m the only one confused about you. Ironically, part of my job now is to talk to all sorts of people about you. Every day. And they all seem pretty confused, too.

Masculinity, I thought I should let you know what a mystery you seem to be to everyone around me.

But I’m also writing, because there are rumors going round.

The rumor is, you can take many forms. The rumor is, you can drive a motorcycle and a golf ball. The rumor is, that’s all just the smoke-and-mirrors of culture and heritage. The rumor is, you’re all of that.

And so much more.

The rumor is, you are Courageous—courageous enough to touch the feelings inside of you, even when they are big and painful and self-shattering. I remember watching Michael Jordan win his fourth championship, all strength and skill and determination. But, Masculinity, I hear it was you-in-him who sobbed in the locker room afterward, clinging to a trophy and letting go of your murdered father.

The rumor is, you are Strong—strong enough to be weak. You know your weakness is your vulnerability, and you have the strength to live in it, knowing life and love explode in the weak, vulnerable places.

The rumor is, you have a Death Wish—you are willing to sacrifice your ego on the altar of accountability and apology and a bottomless love. You are willing to be eviscerated by anything that equalizes you.

The rumor is, you are a Defender—you defend those who cannot defend themselves. You stand between your wife and the part of you that is inclined to dominate her. You seek out the dwelling place of the powerless, and you protect them from being used. Your only allegiance is to those who need mercy. You were Martin Luther King, Jr., standing on his bombed-out front porch, defending the White police officers, because they were suddenly powerless against a vengeful “Colored” mob.

The rumor is, you are a Provider—you put food on the table, but you are also happy to set the table. You provide a space where your kids can be kids and your wife can feel free. You provide a sanctuary where feelings of safety and belonging can take hold of the ones you love.

Dear Masculinity, I hope the rumors are true. I hope you are all of these things.

And if the rumors are true, I hope you show up soon, and I hope you stay for good. In me. In my boys. And in the men all around me.

Dear Masculinity, where are you?

Kelly

Share Your Comment: Have you spotted Masculinity? Tell us what he looks like; share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Jen Poulson

    I felt masculinity’s affects when my big, strong 17 year old boy gives me a hug & says – “I love you Mom” before he goes to hang out with his friends for the evening.

    Great article – thanks!

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Yes!

  • gwalter

    I think he got all sensitive in the 70s, trying to give women the space to be real people too. But instead of empowering women, he got all weak and wishy-washy, wimpy, and uncentered. I hope he figures it out and finds his purpose again – I too hope those rumors are true.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      “daddytude.com” is an awesome name. Purpose would be another great quality to add to the list of rumored Masculinity!

  • Kelly

    I’ve spotted masculinity! My husband, John. The funny thing is that he is often confusing it in a single form, and not the many beautiful forms you told of at the end of the post. And another thing, John and I are always so annoyed with the many, many commercials that portray husbands as buffoons. If the rumors are indeed true, perhaps we will get a break from the “useless American dad”.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Kelly, I always get so annoyed reading the Berenstein Bears books to my kids, because Papa Bear is such a hapless goof. Last night, he ruined Thanksgiving because he was obsessed with winning a pumpkin contest!

  • Christi B

    I saw you, Masculinity, just yesterday evening! I saw you hard at work in the man who bothered to get a gate pass so he could meet his wife and daughters right as they got off the plane after 21 hours of travel, who showed tenderness by giving each a huge unashamed hug and kiss in front of hundreds, and then showed strength and endurance by hauling all their luggage, the same man who put his girls to bed late that night and then left very early the next morning for his military job defending the freedoms of his country! Yes, Masculinity, I say you are still here in some very special wonderful men and you are all the rumors say you are!

    Thanks for a great post, Dr Flanagan!

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Beautiful, Christi.

  • Sandy

    This very feminine reader is crying a few tears on her side of the screen because this is the masculinity I’ve been waiting for my whole life. I’ve only seen glimpses of him. I hope he shows up for good, too.

  • aduoldlife

    So beautiful. It gave me strength in knowing it is a wonderful thing to be true to yourself doing the very best you can at each juncture in life. I am amazed at your insight and blessed by it.

  • Kim

    As a mom of three boys, I LOVE this post. My two youngest aren’t quite in the world of “masculinity” yet…they’re homeschooled and that gives them a lot of freedom to figure out who they are. My oldest, 15, just finished his first year of public high school. He’s on the baseball team. He takes Chinese. His friends are boys and girls…and I see him trying to navigate his way through this new world, trying to figure out a definition of masculinity for himself. I’m going to have him read this post, to open his eyes to the many ways that masculinity can show up. Thanks for this, Kelly.

  • Jen Gorham

    This past weekend we had “Jesus” teaching the kids the sermon on the mount. He said, “Blessed are the gentle.” And I got stuck there because I fight everyday the stereotype that says my son has to be strong which does not include his gentle spirit. May I never forget this blessing from the Lord, and cultivate the personality with which God gifted my son. Thank you Kelly for a great post.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Yes, Jen. Maybe masculinity is having the strength to embrace who we were created to be, even when culture and circumstance is telling us to be something different!

  • Zalika

    I will be waiting for “A Letter to Femininity” 🙂

  • peter walhout

    Thanks, Kelly, for talking about this tough issue. I agree with Zalika, though, and am curious: How is masculinity any different than femininity? Is it less than feminine to be strong, a defender, courageous? Is the overlap between the two categories so broad, that we are just talking about personality traits rather than ‘gender roles’?

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      These are great questions, Peter, and I’d be curious what other comment followers think. With this post, I was hoping to expand the idea of masculinity, to take qualities often associated with stereotypically masculine features, and to cast a broader vision for those characteristics. I suppose if I were to do the same thing for femininity, I might identify stereotypically feminine traits, such as beauty, and expand those, as well. For instance, whereas our culture emphasizes physical beauty, I might try to emphasize other elements of beauty. More specifically, Mother Theresa may not have been “beautiful” by modern standards of femininity, but here care for the hopeless was far more profoundly beautiful. I suppose the overlap in masculine and feminine traits might increase when thought about in this way. Others?

      • Jonathan Chayce Dickinson

        I think the key difference is how those traits are manifested. For want of a better example, the masculine is the provider of sanctuary and the feminine is the provider of love; the masculine is strong to the external (the world), the feminine is strong to the internal (the family). That explanation is very antique and patriarchal, though.

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  • Elaina: PTSD-is-Normal.com

    My Best-Friend-Husband is the man you describe, and more. During the Vietnam War he was a 19 to 23-year-old United States Marine, risking his young life to make the world a safer and freer place. In an era when other young men were burning their draft cards and running away to Canada, he followed his father’s and grandfather’s example and joined the military voluntarily.

    Two years ago I sat beside my husband in Federal Court and sobbed as he told a Washington DC judge that, although he had believed at the time that he was doing his patriotic and manly duty, he now believes that what he was ordered to do in Vietnam was a moral crime.

    My Best-Friend-Husband is 6’3″ and weighs around 300 pounds. He rides a motorcycle in the Patriot Guard, protecting Veteran’s funerals from hate demonstraters.

    My husband watches cooking shows on TV. He collects cookbooks. He does our laundry and our grocery shopping, and he is the primary cook in our family. Everything he makes in the kitchen tastes like LOVE.

    Tiny children, and animals of all kinds, both wild and domestic, are automatically drawn to my husband. To the babies and toddlers, he is like Captain Kangaroo. To the animals, he is Dr. Doolittle.

    One day when my husband was bringing in bags of groceries he had just purchased, a wild bird flew in through the open door of our house. Immediately it panicked, flying in mad circles all around the rooms, searching frantically for an escape. My husband talked softly to the bird, and it soon stopped its mad dashing, and settled on a nearby window sill. Although the bird was making distressed sounds, he allowed my husband to pick him up in his big hands. My husband carried the bird out into the yard, then opened his hands and told the bird that he could fly away now. I watched from the doorway, as the bird continued to sit there on my husband’s palm for several seconds, looking at him curiously, before finally flying away.

    Four days ago my husband had surgery at a VA Hospital. Although his surgery was not very serious, two of his Vietnam Veteran buddies drove over 300 miles round trip to be there for my husband and I during his surgery. While the operation was going on, one of the men referred to my big bearded bear of a husband as “Gentle Ben.”

    That’s my husband. I am proud and honored to be his wife.

    Elaina

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Elaina, Thank you for this tribute to your husband. Make sure you share it with him!

      • Elaina: PTSD-is-Normal.com

        Absolutely, the first thing I did after posting this, was share it with my sweet husband. Then I edited it a bit, and made a post out of it for our blog. It’s now my favorite blog post… and I suspect it is his favorite as well, especially since the first thing he did was post it on facebook.

        Love isn’t about perfection, it’s about appreciating the wonderful qualities that are there, despite the imperfections we all have. The thing I like best about my hubby is that he loves me unconditionally, just the way I am, and never tries to change me. That, and he makes me laugh every single day. Priceless!

  • megha

    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful read.

    I was inspired deeply.

    http://starlinkfoundation.wordpress.com/2013/07/05/letter-to-masculinity/

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Megha! I just saw the TED talk in your post, too; thanks for sharing!