Are You a Man or a Mouse?
I have the pleasure of facilitating a men’s group every other Saturday. I say pleasure because the men in the group always challenge my thinking. Every meeting yields at least one or two interesting and thought provoking themes. The most recent meeting was no exception when the theme was something, though not foreign, but, is unfamiliar territory for men: vulnerability.
Essentially the group processed what it means to be “vulnerable.” Like most men, a few equated being vulnerable to weakness. This is sadly understandable. Traditionally, little boys have been socialized, by and large, to be competitive, ”tough,” and above all, to not cry. Perhaps the way we are helping our boys become men is changing but, for my own and the current generation of men, boys have been told that “big boys don’t cry.” As if crying is a mortal defect rendering the afflicted to a life of shame and societal ridicule.
As I thought about this topic and the discussion which ensued in the group, I thought about how men’s estranged relationship with being vulnerable has been reinforced. There are role models for men which uphold alleged ideas of what a man is “supposed” to be. In my day (that’s right, I am now old enough to have “my day”), one such character was played by the actor Steve McQueen. McQueen often played the “cool loner.” He starred in “Bullet” in which he played a rogue detective which gave him license to drive his Ford Mustang at a high rate of speed through the entire city of San Francisco. To an adolescent boy’s brain, what could be “cooler” than that?
Much like Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” which followed a few years later, McQueen’s character broke rules and disregarded convention in his effort to bring justice. These characters as well as others, are archetypes which reinforce men’s stereotypical beliefs about what is “male-ness.” The archetype is a variation of the hero in literature. Strong, brave, capable, resourceful. The shadow side of course, is often violent, disdaining of perceived weakness, mildly misogynistic at least and next-to-impossible to connect with emotionally. This archetype above all, views vulnerability as worthy of contempt.
If the Steve McQueen and Dirty Harry characters are on one end of a pole, on the other end is perhaps the mouse. Or to be more precise, shyness and timidity. Fearful of his own shadow, socially awkward and pessimistic about the prospects of ever being successful, the mouse is an idea that almost everyman fears. The mouse embodies what many men fear they will be if they are not “strong, brave, capable and resourceful.” However, both are extremely difficult to connect with emotionally. Thus, both lend credence to many men’s mistaken acceptance being emotionally cut off from others as a result of their “male-ness.”
The idea that one is either a man or a mouse is a uniquely male way of viewing almost anything. Black or white, right or wrong, good or evil, for or against. To many men, you’re either one thing or another. You either are supportive or you’re not. What many men fail to recognize is that it is possible to be both a man AND a mouse. That the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, just as there are strength in numbers, there is strength in recognizing that sometimes “strength” can be weak and “weakness” can be strong. That vulnerability once embraced can bring the “hero” home once and for all.
How you ask? By challenging the oft-held association that to be vulnerable is to risk emotional or psychological breakdown. it is not. Vulnerability is about risk but, not about risking life and limb. To be vulnerable means to take the risk to allow your needs and desires to be known. And it means that you recognize that once known, you may still not get what you want or need. The point is this: Being willing to be vulnerable acknowledges the possibility of disappointment. At the same time, recognizing you do stand a snowball's chance in hell of getting what you want or need, if you fail to make yourself known.
Being vulnerable also acknowledges that failure is often a precursor of success. That, often more is gained by attempting something just beyond our known skill level. Being vulnerable embraces the risk of either greater closeness or distance from others. Being vulnerable recognizes that we are stronger when connected to others in real and meaningful ways. That being vulnerable allows us to be seen, Truly seen.