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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.”

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