For each man, one of the most persistent questions in his life is, “Am I a man?” or, more likely, “Am I man enough?” For each boy, the biggest question is, “When will I be a man?” or, “What do I have to do to be a man?” In Carl Erikson’s new book, The Challenges of Masculinity, a longtime leader of men’s support groups unpacks what he’s dubbed Required Masculinity, “the most enforced and expected form of masculinity in our culture.” Required masculinity is “rigid,” Erikson says, “in many ways harmful to men, to people generally, and to communities.”
To find and express his own masculinity, he says each man must grapple with many challenges including: Realizing Required Masculinity’s effects • Getting away from Required Masculinity • Finding my real self • Finding my masculinity tools and intentions • My emotions • Coping with conflict • Ending my loneliness • Being a father.
Weaving external resources with his own inner journey— including years working with other men—Erikson encourages men to create a “personalized masculinity” designed to bring men the most fulfilling life possible. What follows is an edited excerpt from the book.
In my late forties, I began thinking about masculinity and what it meant. This began primarily because I hadn’t ever fit into the “Required Masculinity” system very well. At that point in my life, I didn’t like living it anymore and, on several occasions, had paid painful prices for this misfit. I realized more and more that Required Masculinity was forcing me to live for everyone else’s purposes and choices; rarely mine. Often, I was unsure whether there was even a “me” here, wherever “here” was. One day in my early fifties, I finally revolted and refused to live this way anymore, and began searching for anything and everything that might help me reach a life I liked better. My searches pushed me again and again up against the expectations of Required Masculinity, what a man is “supposed to be”—and must be. In my search, I read a lot of books on masculinity and attended men’s groups and men’s gatherings. Once this began, I cracked the iron shell around Required Masculinity and, then, absolutely everything about it fell.
About five years after taking that first step, I began to put what I learned about masculinity into what became this book. Then, I plowed through 13 years of thought and frustration, five substantial versions of the book, and a couple of plays. The issues you find here constantly waved at me from the many books on men’s issues I continued to read. They talked to me whenever I facilitated a men’s support group or met a man struggling with his life. What began as the nerve to challenge one part of Required Masculinity became my right to challenge every piece of it and to demand that Required Masculinity justify why its rules and expectations had to apply to me.
I am not a trained psychologist, anthropologist, or neuroscientist. I’m just a man with a lot of personal experience with masculinity in my life and in the lives of many other men, who has done a lot of reading and thinking about men and their stressful lives. I’m a man who has found different perspectives on masculinity for us to explore. My purpose in this book is to free you from the demands and guilt that Required Masculinity puts on you and to give you the help, permission, and courage to find a masculinity that lets you live the life your heart wants you to live.
What Are You Getting Into?
The goal here is to give you permission to search for a Personal Masculinity that you find comfortable to live with and that you believe will let you be the kind of man you want to be. Given the present “one-choiceonly masculinity” you and I face, we’re going to travel some roads you may find daunting and surprising.
My apologies in advance, men, for sometimes throwing you into what may feel like Alice’s Wonderland. My plan is to gradually reduce this Wonderland-ness for you and to lead you into a larger, stronger, and clearer understanding of masculinity than you have now. In some places, you may need to give my idea a couple of tries in order to effectively keep the power of Required Masculinity at bay and drag a different perspective into place. Please, trust me and keep at it.
We are focused here on individual men, living their real lives, not lab specimens or some philosophic, ideal man.
Masculinity is best understood as the synergistic creation of three forces:
- The abilities, ideas, and actions a male can innately have, a man’s Tools.
- The Intention with which he uses his tools.
- Acceptance or not by a man’s society of the masculinity Tools and Intentions he chooses and expresses.
I see these as a triangle. One force on each side aimed at a man in the center. The nature of a particular man’s masculinity is the result of how these three forces enhance and distort each other in him or how he lets them do this.
The Tools a man has to express himself and his life are his innate abilities, ideas, and actions. For the whole of the male sex, these are endless: from boxing to hairdressing; from steelmaking to playing a Stradivarius violin; from nursing to running a multi billion dollar-business. For the individual man, the variety of Tools is more limited but still enormous. So, start your consideration of “masculinity” knowing that each man has a huge range of Tools with which to build and express his masculinity.
Not one of these many Tools in its innate form is any better or worse than any other. They each have different effects, and these effects may be more or less desired by the man and the people around him. It’s important not to confuse the value of a Tool, say physical strength, with the value of what it is used for. Physical strength can save a drowning child or beat up a neighbor.
The second side of the masculinity triangle is the Intention with which a man uses his chosen Tools. As previously stated, does he use his physical strength and agility to save the drowning child or beat up his neighbor? In other words, what does he use his Tools to accomplish? Does he use money to buy the protection and comfort of a home for someone, or does he use it to buy a glamorous second home to show off his wealth? Does he fight to protect himself or just harm or belittle someone else?
This Intention can range anywhere from the total selfsacrifice of a Buddhist monk to the egocentric greed of a “One Percent” tyrant. Although Intentions can change from experience to experience, the Intention choices of each man seem to gather pretty consistently around a rather narrow range on the continuum through a month’s experiences. A man choosing his own form of masculinity settles on what range on the Intention scale he wants to normally operate.
The third side of the masculinity triangle is social acceptance of the man’s choices of Tools and Intentions. While our man can get total control of his choices on the other two sides of the triangle, his choices on this side are down to two: match society’s expectations and demands, or his own choices and cope with the social consequences. Deciding this will probably boil down to answering these questions:
- How unhappy will I be living my society’s masculinity choices which I don’t much like?
- How stressed will I feel playing society’s man when I really want to be my own man?
- How long will I tolerate doing what they want me to do and think instead of what I want to do and think?
- How much happier will I be living my masculinity choices than living society’s masculinity choices?
It quickly becomes evident that these questions can only be effectively answered long after a man makes his initial masculinity choices. At the time a man begins making these choices, age nine or ten for most of us, he faces the abstract question of “me or them” without really knowing the facts. We’re children at this point. Society, especially in the form of parents, teachers, and peers, overpowers us with everything else we’re learning, so it does on the masculinity issue, and we end up with its masculinity choices, not our own.
These questions, if they get to a man at all, become clear only later in his life. In my experience—and that of the men in support groups I led or participated in—that happens around age 45 to 55. However, after 50 years of living with the indoctrination and enforcement of the cultural masculinity, few men have enough independence to fairly answer the questions, let alone understand that they have other choices of Tools and Intentions.
The second most important purpose here is to encourage you to answer the four questions and then to be led through the screen Required Masculinity has built so you can make your own choices of masculinity Tools and Intentions.
Breaking out of Required Masculinity and moving into your own masculinity choices requires you to shift your old perspectives and to make a lot of changes. This may also seem to require more strength and independence than you have. Not to fear. From my own experience—and the stories told by men in my groups—your desire for a new way of living will give you more than you need to make the break and to settle yourself in your own masculinity.