UNRAVELING THE KNOT

ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG

What Happened to the Tender-hearted Boys?

I woke up this morning thinking about a boy I knew when I was young. We were in the same grade and played church-league basketball and used to talk about things such as what we would do when we grew up. He said he was going to buy a nice house for his mother. I don’t remember what I said. I haven’t seen him since we were 12 or 13, so I’m sure he looks completely different now, as do I.

What I remember most about him was his big heart, which was plain to see from things like his ready smile and what he said about his mother. A kind and tender-hearted boy.

When I think about it, most boys I knew back then were some version of that, with a tendency toward kindness and wanting to get along. There were a few who made a point of being the tough guy, or they weren’t so tough but still gave off a kind of masculine swagger that put them above the rest of us. They were trying on what being a man seemed to be about from the messages all around us in movies and television and sports and politics. No one called them sissy, fairy, or mama’s boy (‘faggot’ and ‘queer’ were not yet in vogue). They never let on that they could ever feel afraid or want to cry. And you did not mess with them. If there was any messing to be done, they would let you know.

It was an act, of course, put on for their benefit as much as ours. We were all coping with the same demand to blend in with the masculine landscape by distinguishing ourselves enough from girls to raise no doubt about our claim to boy/manhood. The macho boys had their way and we had ours—being careful not to show our vulnerability and tender hearts—but it was all driven by the same fear of being caught on the wrong side of the line separating men from everybody else. And by the rewards of not being counted as a girl.

This continues, of course, long after boys grow up. Several years ago I was speaking at a college and met with student leaders. During the conversation I asked the young men in the group what kind of support they needed to work with women to end sexual violence on campus. One of them replied that he wanted male faculty to show up for the Take Back the Night March and other events, that it would mean a great deal to him to have that kind of affirmation and modeling from older men.

Later in the day I met with a small group of faculty, and when they asked about my conversation with students, I told them what the young man had said. In the moment that followed, you could have cut the silence among the men with a knife, no one looking at anyone else. I sat there wondering what had I done, until it dawned on me that the silence among these professors—sophisticated, grown men with power and position—was laced with fear. And what they were afraid of was what male students—their students—would think of them if they appeared in the company of women in a march against other men doing whatever they want with women’s bodies. They were afraid of being unmasked and unmanned, called out as soft sissy-fairy-faggot-gay-mama’s boys by the fraternity brothers leaning out the windows as the marchers went by.

When I stop to wonder what becomes of all the tender hearts that boys start out with, I often remember that day. Many men go on trying to enact what they think a real man is supposed to be—logical, aggressive, even violent, buttoning up emotion, striving for control inside and out with hearts so hidden it can make you wonder if they were ever there at all, if this is just what it means to be born male.

Others hang on to their hearts to varying degrees, but let them show only in the safe, protected space of intimacy, with children and families, perhaps, or women who will not judge what they see. In the company of men, however, it can be as if they are someone else, saying and doing things they would rarely if ever show the women in their lives.

This includes blending into the silence about what other men do—the sexist jokes, the subtle and not-so-subtle disparagement of women, the violent displays. It’s what is required in exchange for being left alone, unmolested, unchallenged, unharmed, a grown-up version of what they learned to do as boys. What remains of their full humanity—of compassion, tenderness, and vulnerability—they keep carefully under wraps. They may watch the football games, and even enjoy what they see and talking it over with other men later on. And if they don’t, they are skilled at the knowing smile, the nod, the listening without actually letting on who they really are, how they feel, closeted human beings, afraid to be outed and their manhood put at risk.

Some years ago, I was in a small men’s group, the four of us meeting every few weeks over dinner to talk about our lives. I had known each of them for years. One night we stopped at a liquor store to buy beer to go with dinner at a restaurant that didn’t have it on the menu. I was at the cooler case, looking through the glass at row upon row of different brands, unused to buying beer, unable to make up my mind. The other men stood by the register, waiting for me. Finally I sighed and grabbed a bottle and approached them with a ditzy little shrug, apologizing, “Too many choices,” and then the man behind the counter says, under his breath, “Wrong time of the month?”

It took me a few beats to realize what had just happened, still doubting he could have said what I heard. No one moved, my friends standing by, looking on but not meeting my eye, and then suddenly I was alone.

I paid for the beer and we walked out onto the sidewalk and then I asked the question and they nodded, oh, yes, that’s what he said, and I remember how they had stood there, my friends, while I took the hit and they remained impervious, better him than me, high school all over again. I felt shaken, not so much by the man back in the store, but by my friends who were content to say nothing, knowing without a doubt what he had meant, what he was doing, not only to me but to all the women he was using as a form of insult, and seeing the confusion on my face, and yet leaving me there. Every man for himself.

For in that moment, it was more than some respectful assumption that I could handle it on my own. No. In that moment, by their silence, they were with him on the other side, grateful to be there as they all witnessed the girly man on the rag unable to pick out a bottle of beer without a fuss (and who would use a word like ‘fuss’), and the man behind the counter knowing where they were. He was counting on it, a temporary solidarity among men clinging to their manhood, and they did not let him down.

And I, of course, was also silent, letting it pass rather than risk making it worse, becoming someone smaller than myself in the name of some kind of relative safety I had learned to seek out as a boy among boys.

I look out on the world and consider the destructive things men do every day in the name of manhood and masculine control, and the legions of men who stand back and watch, not wanting to draw the wrong kind of attention to themselves by daring to object, trying to position themselves in the imagined security of outward support of other men or the passive complicity of silence in the reflected glow of manhood.

What jumps out at me is how much fear and distrust there is among men, the guardedness and caution, the banter and jockeying for position and momentary advantage, even when it doesn’t seem that’s what it is. All the ways there are of trying to be safe in the company of men. Until a crack in the defensive wall creates some vulnerability and there is an awkward moment of humiliation and fear and a scrambling to set it right.

And the world pays the price.

Perhaps I am projecting my own private reality onto the world of men. That is possible. But I doubt it.

I miss that boy I knew and I wonder what became of him, who is he now. And does he remember me.

___________________

If you liked this post, you might also want to read “Fatal Distraction: Manhood, Guns, and Violence.”

8 responses to “What Happened to the Tender-hearted Boys?

  1. feminist83201 Friday, May 2, 2014 at 11:19 am

    I not only doubt it, I am sure of that. That is not your own reality, it is The Reality (unfortunately). I have seen it and lived it and I’m aware of it. And I’m from Italy so I guess that is a world problem, right now.

    By the way, it’s impressive how you were able to come to this level of awareness.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that as women, we must be aware of that for our own safety; for men, it takes much more effort to recognize this pattern.

  2. Janet Murray Friday, May 2, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    Thank you so much for this message. I had one of those tenderhearted boys. When he was three, such beautiful light poured out of his face. Now he is an addict, a rage-a-holic, and an irresponsible liar that I no longer recognize. I wonder often what happened to him. And, of course, what I might have done, if anything, to assist a different outcome. He hasn’t spoken to me in years, but I sent this to him. In case.

    I remember years ago watching a video interview of a teen aged boy who was home schooled and raised on a farm. What a magnificent man he was. I’ll never forget it.

    Mahalo nui loa, Janet Murray

  3. Anne Batterson Monday, May 5, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Thank you, not only for being a tender-hearted man, but for speaking out about a truth that needs to be aired and aired again before things can change.

  4. Andrew Tuesday, May 6, 2014 at 9:55 pm

    Thank you for this post.

    I always tell my boys that it is my job but also their job to protect their innocence.

    I personally find that the tenderness of my heart has to be cultivated. The heart can become pounded down and compacted through exposure to life and has to be lovingly dug up, just like soil, to provide the gaps for healthy air, life and love.

    If we can agree that the source of tender-heartedness is love, then I think there is an economy of love which can ensure that the heart does not harden. To steal a bit of knowledge from St Thomas Aquinas on his Article “Whether Love Exists in God?” and move from the universal to the historical: Love regards good UNIVERSALLY. Desire and hope regard good not as yet possessed. Joy and delight regard good present and possessed. And I would add one more, gratefulness and thankfulness regard good possessed in the past. So with the above, we have past, present, future and the eternal covered. We have tools to plough the field in all contexts.

    I think one of the main tools we have at our disposal but don’t use very much is thankfulness. Love is like gravity. It just is. Desire and hope can be kind of vague unless they are fixed on a known reality. Joy and delight are focussed on the immediate present good, but we all have an accumulated history of past good which we can dig up and use as fertiliser, through thankfulness for the good that has been in our lives.

    It seems very good to me that you experienced that tender-hearted boy in your life at that time. In particular, from what you wrote, he had hope for good for his mother in the future, and had joy in the present (his ready smile) so his was truly within the economy of love. It seems like a good for you to ponder on him and be thankful for his tender heart of the past, even if you can’t feel joy and delight of his tender heart in the hear and now.

    Women seem to be better than men at thankfulness. They seem much better at recalling past good with great detail. Some men are good at recalling sport statistics. How great would it be if we could use this faculty to be thankful for the good in our lives within an economy of love?

    That’s my main thoughts on your post and I thank you for giving me the context and space to put these thoughts down.

    As an aside, yesterday I read another blog post by Bad Catholic entitled “Netflix and Good Ol’ American Despair”. The post is about the American and modern western worship of choice as a good in itself. And how almost unlimited choice can be paralysing, forcing us to create internal distinctions to narrow the choice down. But the availability of choice makes one wonder if there was a better option just around the corner, or whether the choice was even made at all if some of the big decisions in life come with get out clauses. Your understandable reaction to choice at the beer fridge reminded me of this good blog post, even though that was not your main point.

  5. Andrew Tuesday, May 6, 2014 at 10:25 pm

    One more point. It is a point about ridicule.

    Ridicule seems to be the weapon of choice against innocence. It is an attempt to make someone appear foolish for “not knowing”. The double edge of ridicule is shown in your encounter at the Liquor Store. It demands that silence be a statement of agreement, or you too become a subject of the ridicule. It is seemingly a powerful weapon.

    The antidote is to strengthen the position of innocence. It should not be regarded as something bad to “not know”. The answer to ridicule may be as simple as “so what?”, or as Christianity puts it “be not afraid”. There is no need to rush headfirst into knowing. This is very counter cultural in Western society as we seem to want kids to “grow up” at earlier and earlier stages of development. A sign of being “cool” as a teenager is to “know”, to have already experienced something.

    When I speak to my boys about defending their innocence. I try to tell them that there is the right time in their lives for things to be revealed, for them to know, where that knowledge is useful and can bring good in their lives. If they rush out of innocence they also rush away from the joy of being where they are as kids. The problem with rushing into knowledge is that it is a never ending pursuit because it is a race against other scared little people who are all trying to “know” stuff, just so they won’t be subject to ridicule.

  6. Mike Marvin Wednesday, May 21, 2014 at 9:37 am

    Hi Allan,

    Thank you for posting this. If you projected your own private reality on to the world of men, then our private realities are very similar. I feel as if I have been able to hang on to some of my tenderheartedness primarily by having strong positive friendships. with women. Not only have they provided me with positive feedback when I exhibit kindness and gentleness, they can be quite adept at creating a safe environment for men.

    That being said, having participated in campus Take Back the Night rallies but also helped organize them, I will say that I am not sure I agree that the instructors were primarily concerned with other men seeing them at the rally. I have been to a number of such events where there was clearly an atmosphere of anger at all men. Many kind, caring men who want the night to be safe for anyone would not attend because they would feel like they were actually being blamed for the abuses that other men perpetrated. Ironically it is often the same men who chose to be abusive to women who strongly perpetuate the systems that make us feel that we have to hide our tender hearts away.

    In order to create a world where everyone can exhibit their positive qualities without being ridiculed, we need to be able to create environments where men and women can talk openly with each other. Together we can build a more peaceful world. Separating behind walls of “Male” and “Female” perpetuates the mistrust between the two groups, and leaves people who don’t associate strongly with either camp feeling isolated and alone.

    • Allan Johnson Saturday, May 24, 2014 at 6:58 pm

      As a man who has worked on issues of men’s violence against women for almost forty years, I am no stranger to being in the company of women who express anger at men as a group, which includes me. This is not surprising, since it is male privilege that lays claim to the night and makes it a danger to women. Since I cannot separate myself from systemtic male privilege, I also cannot expect to be singled out as an exceptional man who should never feel women’s anger. To do so is not only unrealistic, but an assertion of the very privilege that makes a Take Back the Night march necessary.

      Men have to ask ourselves what we are willing to deal with in order to stand up for gender justice and openly oppose other men’s violence and the patriarchal system that makes it such a pervasive and normal part of life in this society. If part of that is occasional exposure to women’s anger at men, I can only say, So what? Compared with the pervasive threat of men’s violence that women must deal with every day, it is a small price to pay. There is no safe or easy way to step up. Every time women organize such a march, they put themselves at risk. If men are serious about change, we can do no less.

  7. Marah Thursday, May 29, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    I’m moved that this article is written by a man. As a woman who had an amazing father who believed in me I have watched many of my lady friends unable to shift uncomfortable and even abusive actions by their men. However, it is easier to see the abuse of women because it is often physical or at least more apparent. As well stated in this article we need desperately to acknowledge the abuse of our men. I also watched my amazingly kind and thoughtful son experience the subtlety of the issues described here. Now in his late forties he is still a kind man. I have at times seen him more patient than myself with my granddaughters. However, something that is difficult for me to experience is how much he likes to play bloody human computer games. Damn where does that come from?

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