Tough Enough

I had a dialogue about Toxic Masculinity with a Tim Gittings, a reader of this blog, and he was generous enough to submit this blog entry:

Tough Enough
by Tim Gittings

I come from a long line of settler-colonialists. I am a child of the American West. It doesn’t matter that I actually spent the vast majority of my life in the Midwest, I was shaped by those wide-open spaces, those rugged, individualistic values, that weathered sense of masculine strength and resolve. Toughness is the cardinal value of my upbringing. My parents tried their hippy best to give me more nuance but my grandmother’s taciturn sharpness and gun-locker closet were always a match for that soft pull.

Another way of looking at all of that is that I was a small boy, small by any standard, who grew up feeling a little out-of-place, so I grabbed on to an ideal of tough masculinity to help give me a sense of self that was more durable than the little physical shell that could only run or endure.

Either way, my masculinity, and, by extension, my value as a person, was determined by my ability to take whatever life hit me with and not flinch. What could not be met with fists would have to be swallowed and forgotten. Weakness or vulnerability were the enemies that would bring me low, and all the punches and shouts were just reminders to do it better next time, to be tougher next time, to not let the hurt show. The pain was always my fault.

But I grew to question much of the masculine code I bought into as a child. I wasn’t satisfied with my relationships and their limited capacity for deeper emotional connection. In particular, I wasn’t satisfied with my relationships, friendship and otherwise, with the women in my life. There was a distance there – of objectification, of fantasy, of fear, of unexamined expectation – that I sought to understand and change (and, if I’m being completely honest, atone for). That led me into Women’s Studies and Feminism. Since then, I have worked to unpack, question, and dismantle the harmful conditioning of our society’s construction of gender. I get it wrong a lot of the time still, but I try.

Except where I don’t. That’s when it comes to me and that rusted armor of masculinity that I insist on wearing even though it drags me down and keeps me from feeling the world around me. I won’t take that off because, deep down, I am petrified that I won’t be safe if I do.

Okay, poetic and abstract is all fine and good, but let me get to the real of it. I struggle with depression, with alienation, with self-imposed isolation. I have a lifetime of experience pushing my body way too far trying to keep up, trying to take up space and make myself safe. As I get older, that works less and less. My body breaks where it used to bend. And then it is like all the negative voices in my head are suddenly proven right, that I am small and weak and vulnerable, and I withdraw behind doors of anger, and isolation. I know this, or, I’m finally figuring it out, but it’s taken me years and years, not to mention some suicidal periods of time that I barely survived to recognize that there is something here that maybe could be fixed, or, more importantly and accurately, that deserves to be listened-to and addressed with the same compassion I would give anyone else in my life.

“Masculine is tough. It’s strong. It’s proud. It’s disposable. Men are meant to use themselves up.”

“The world is hard. You didn’t have it that bad. Suck it up. Get over it or end it, but quit wasting my time.”

The voices sound something like that. The voices could be radio sports announcers, or movie-trailer voiceover guys, their voices are rough and deep and more masculine than mine will ever be. These voices don’t get hurt, they just get angry. Trauma is what happens to the other guy. These voices take what they want and don’t apologize.

And it is so much easier to harm myself, to tear myself down, to break my fists against the walls, to drink to drown, than it is to take those first steps towards some vague notion of self-compassion. “Compassion” feels weak. “Healing” feels soft. I know, I mean I really fucking know, that the world can be hard and unforgiving and it often has no mercy for the weak and vulnerable. I become immobilized by fear when I think of taking this suffocating armor off because I know the way Masculinity polices its own.

To say I need help is to say I’m broken, is to say I’m weak. At best, I will be shunned, at worst I will be attacked; like I already am inside my own heart and mind. Anyone that needs the illusion of safety or the precarious identity of Masculinity more than they need the truth of themselves could be threatened if we question our construct. We all bought-in at some point, we all know the rules. It’s so easy to let the game go on because it gives us a community, it gives us easy, clear rules for how to be, how to act, how to see, and all it asks is that we turn a blind eye to the damage it does to ourselves and others.

But there is so much damage. There is the obvious, odious, destruction from Masculinity’s war to define itself by what-it-is-not – that rightfully deserves the lion’s share of the spotlight – but there is also a vast, unsettled sea out there of men suffering in silence, cut-off from one another, scared, scarred, and weary; a vast, seething sea that lashes-out in anger at all around its edges in repetitive waves of eroding, generational violence.

Masculinity is nobody’s friend. It feels like a shield, that if you wield it well enough it can deflect the doubt. It feels like a sword, like power, like sharp, pointed strength. But the thing is, it’s not just your shield and sword, it’s the whole battle, and every threatening edge, every keen blade or gruesome blunt club is just another instrument to keep you armored-up or to cut you down.

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