Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press

To the men who can take on anything

The audience puts on blindfolds. Through the sound system, a man’s voice fills the room. Quietly:

I had a very hard time shedding that person who’s invulnerable, who can take on anything, who can just, you know, grin and bear it.

Did your father hit you? the therapist asks.
Yes. Yes, I was abused.
And is that where you learned to grin and bear and say, I will never show you that you hurt me?
Yes. (whisper) Yes. It drove me. That’s what it did.
As in, I’ll show you?
I’ll show you.
I’ll show you. I’ll show you what?
That no one can hurt me. (crying) I’ll never show vulnerability again, because vulnerable people get stepped on. And I don’t want to be a victim, anymore.

She’s ever seen you like this?
Not until recently. Very few times, I would say.
(partner) It was new to me, how real that pain is for you.

One of my earliest memories, I was like 8, 9 years old. I was in the Dominican Republic, and we were playing basketball and it got a little heated. You didn’t really want to fight, but you had to show you were tough, and that like, Yeah, I want to fight. But in the back of your mind, you’re really hoping that some adult will come and say, Now now, boys. You know. It wasn’t my case. In my case, it was, C’mere. Go kick his ass. And I’m gonna put bets on you.

So, picture this! Two 8-, 9-year-old boys going at each other in a circle, and the adults were saying, C’mon, go go go, kick his ass, no, punch him in the face. That’s the kind of environment–!

Did you get beat up?
Yeah, I got my ass kicked, real bad. Never told my parents, until I was an adult.
(partner) Because your dad said, If you get your butt kicked, and you come home–
If you come home, I’ll kick your ass on top of that.

(partner) But it also makes me appreciate, so much, how you didn’t teach our boys this.
And you, together, you let your boys cry. Right? We, in our parenting–
But a lot of that, I learned from you. You helped me a lot.
But all because you were willing– … A lot of our family and friends and just social circles, a lot of people have that mindset of, The reason I turned out the way I did, and the reason I’m such an upstanding, good human being, is because I got my butt kicked when I was a kid. And look at kids today, they have no respect.

The couple is talking with therapist Esther Perel, the brilliant thinker on relationships. This conversation, which Perel is playing for the blindfolded audience, is from her podcast, Where Should We Begin? With willing participants, Perel began making public some of her couples therapy sessions. She wanted others to know that they’re not alone.

Perel likes blindfolds in the bedroom, too, but in this case she’s giving a talk at SXSW, and the blindfolds are to heighten the audience’s sense of hearing.

“I know that when we listen, deeply, to the experiences of other people, we often actually find ourselves standing in front of our own mirror,” Perel says, “and we can see ourselves.

“We can also get inspiration for the courageous conversations that we need to be having.”

Today is as a good a day as any to ponder:

What are the messages you got, growing up, about being a man?

A father?

What role do those messages — from your family, from your culture — play in the way you show up in your relationships?

Is there a courageous conversation you could have today with someone who loves you?

Earlier in her SXSW talk, Perel identifies the “Me too” movement — and the resulting scrutiny of our social structure — as a unique opportunity to open up the boxes in which both masculinity and femininity have been locked up.

We systematically dismantle boys’ emotional lives, she says, starting with touching our sons less than our daughters. We “construct their masculinity as rooted in self-reliance, autonomy, fearlessness, competition — all things that have made men more vulnerable, less likely to live long, not the best partners.”

For that little boy still inside, what seems in order today is a real hug, a caring smile, a kiss on the forehead, a setting aside of “I’ll show you.”

While this moment in time feels like it’s women’s turn to stand up, speak boldly, and claim our right to wholeness, Perel is on a mission not to leave men behind.

“If we are going to live in true equality, we will match our intense efforts in helping women find power and voice,” she says heatedly, “with our intense efforts to help men find their heart and vulnerability.”

Rather than defining ourselves by narrow gender constructs, Perel says, “We will give human beings the opportunity to be more whole.”

Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

2 thoughts on “To the men who can take on anything

  1. We just hosted our first statewide Fatherhood summit last week and the group got very excited about moving way upstream in how we support boys to become whole men who can show empathy and softness to a child. One of our Dads on our panel is ex military and he told this room of 150 about his struggles to learn to be a Dad. He says “I was taught to be a special forces infantry, I got kicked out of all the Mommy groups in my small town” “I retired from the military to be a full time single Dad but nobody taught me to how do that”!

    1. Anne, your summit is excellent news. I would love to hear more about the obstacles that came up and the plan that evolves from your group. Are you in touch with PEPS, Program for Early Parent Support? I will connect you if not. We would very much like to help dads feel more supported. (Interesting to consider the role that the military might play. They are clearly thinking about parent education as well. Bravo to your panelist for attempting to join local mommy groups!) Hope you’ll be in touch:

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