We tend to speak the language of desires and emotions as if they did not directly affect every element of our lives. By ‘we,’ I’m sure the maxim applies to women too, but men are especially alienated from our emotions and feelings. We deny the deepest longings of our souls for the sake of surrender to the cultural flow of ‘lone wolf masculinity,’ which litters every square inch of our society.
Yesterday I listened to an episode of the podcast Hidden Brain entitled The Lonely American Man, and my very first thought was Plagiarism!! (sarcastically, of course), because I recently wrote a post on the lack of connectedness and friendships experienced by most American men. Lo and behold, the podcast echoed my exact sentiments, but went further as it interviewed men and researchers who have been studying this trend for a while.
The thing that struck me the most, and dialed up sharp pangs of nostalgia as I listened, was when they interviewed teenage boys, some of whom were in middle school, others were seniors in high school. The younger boys talked about how much they valued their best friend and always got excited to have sleepovers and be with them, sharing their most intimate secrets…and feelings.
This is something that struck my ears as most unusual. Not because it’s bad in any way, but because it’s odd to hear a male of any age talk so openly about his feelings. These boys were young enough to have not been programmed to hide their feelings, shoving them down into a stale state of apathy and stoicism. One of them recounted how his best friend had helped him when someone in his family had died and he was able to go to his friend and pour out his grief and cry before him.
Sadly, by the time these boys had gone through high school, the shift had happened. There was a sharp retreat from feelings and emotions; these were replaced by toughness and confidence and the pseudo-ability to not reveal any feelings teeming beneath the surface.
At some point in their developmental years, these boys intuited the notion that feeling things is weak and unmanly. And it’s really no mystery where that stereotype came from: Look at our culture at large and tell me where you see a strong, emotional man with a healthy rein on his feelings. We have Thor-types, the man who is so macho and courageous that he is relatively oblivious to the weather happening within his own heart (if there is any…See also: Cowboys, James Bond, and basically any Brad Pitt character). This toughness is also seen in music, as rappers and rockers alike are too tough to do anything but get money, conquer women, and be more tough than anyone who would threaten his clique.
Alternatively, men are often portrayed as aloof and idiotic. Think Homer Simpson or literally any family sitcom where the father bumbles through life, unaware of his family, his kids, and most of all, himself. Funny? Sure. But deep….? That’s an entirely different question.
The emotional man is almost always painted as an outlier: The emo teenage boy or the homosexual. Tom Hanks seems to cry a lot, but he is assuredly the exception and not the rule.
My point is, the male influences seen across the board in media is anything but emotional, and these influences have spilled over into the day-to-day life of boys and men. The problem with quenching our own feelings, though, is that they may be shoved down in one area, but arise in another like an internal version of Whack-a-Mole. You may shrug off your loneliness and act like you don’t need fellow human beings, only to have it arise late at night in yet another episode of pornography and masturbation. You may say that your parents’ divorce or the names the kids at school called you don’t affect you, only to have the roots of your adult alcoholism trace right back to those very events.
We have the option to either embrace our emotions or escape them, drowning them in a flood of numbing agents and superficiality.
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a classmate in Chicago years ago. I asked him what he was learning from life lately, and he looked back at me and sincerely said, “I’m learning that it’s okay to be broken and vulnerable. It’s okay to let the Lord and other people love me as I am.” I was taken aback by his honesty and openness with the very deep things he was experiencing in that season. My respect for him, rather than diminishing, shot through the roof.
Ironically, many of the manliest men I’ve known have been ones who have gone through similar seasons of humility and awakening to the emotions raging inside of them, as they learned to sort them out, order them, and experience them both with the Lord and with others. Some people call it ‘soul work,’ while others consider it ‘self care.’ Whatever you call it, the important thing is to rightly recognize that the things you feel, good or bad, are very real. They are meant to be experienced and not drowned out.
Isn’t this what we see in Scripture all throughout? I mean, the Bible’s book of prayer, the Psalms, is lousy with emotion. Men soak their couches with tears, or experience such rage that they want to smash the infants of their enemies against a rock. And these are not limp-wristed milquetoasts writing these lines, either. These are songs penned by men who killed lions and bears with their bare hands, and fought in battles. Yet how odd is it to picture a Thor-like character writing beautiful poetry like we find in the ancient texts? Why is this so foreign to us today?
I think some of it, men, comes from a right understanding of our God. He is not a stale and emotionless Being, stoic and flat in the sky. We see our God as one who is alive and active, and His emotions are no different. He is grieved and He is hurt. He delights and is filled with joy. He weeps and He sings. (We are so quick to forget the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”)
To deny ourselves the experience of our own emotions is, in part, to deny our own humanity. It is also to deny the fact that we are made in the image of a very vibrant and sensitive God. (Of course, the opposite extreme of being overly emotional is viable, though this is vastly the minority when it comes to American men specifically.)
My friend Frankie wrote this beautiful clip, and I tried to trim it down but there’s so much good stuff in it I left it pretty long:
Emotions are important. Emotions are intrinsic to what it means to be a person. It is impossible for a person, a human, to think, live, act, exist, without emotion. If I devalue emotions and feelings, then it has acute ramifications for my theology at large. Our theology proper will begin to envision a deterministic god who’s stripped of a heartbeat; our anthropology will envision humans as functionally a-emotional, capable or removing feelings from the fabrics of our beings (and surely nobody will like being around us, since we can’t take a joke, can’t cry for the sake of crying, can’t be silly for the sake of being silly—indeed we will look more like Spock than the Suffering Servant); our ethic will logically lead to a strange, unrealistic, impersonal law that makes absolutely no sense with experience and can’t satisfy the longings for justice, love, goodness, or any actual desire in the human heart.
If you get emotions wrong, you get personhood wrong. If you get personhood wrong, don’t bother talking about God, humans, love, mercy, goodness, fear, or anything else. [American Christianity is] filled with people who look more like the pharisees than joyful poets. This strange view of emotions is not Christian. It’s not even human. It’s just absolute falsity.
It’s time to be done with bad theology. It’s time to view emotions rightly. It’s time to live life to the full. It’s time to weep; its time to laugh; it’s time to hug and kiss; it’s time to fall in love; it’s time to love so much it hurts; it’s time to love like God has loved each of us; it’s time to “live to the point of tears” (Albert Camus). Emotions are important to my view of life, my philosophy, and my theology. Emotions are intrinsic to how humans know. We cannot know or be known without emotions. My exhortation to each of you: Let yourselves feel. I know it’s the scariest thing in the world. But it’s what it means to be human. If you want to cry, cry. If you want to yell at God, yell at God. If you feel scared, tell somebody, and maybe, I pray, let yourselves be comforted. If you want to live, risk. There’s no other way to live.
I don’t know what this looks like, particularly because there is likely not one solve-all solution for every man in the world. I think some key elements are openness, honesty, vulnerability, and others with which to share and begin to open up to our feelings. Often, we cannot begin to feel things and be real with ourselves without the help of others to walk with us through those places.
So let’s continue this conversation, because it is far bigger than one blog post can cover.
May we be men who are honest enough to emote fully. May we learn to be vulnerable and expressive, rather than distracted and off-center. May we not become carried away on the tides of our feelings, but be sensitive when the time calls for it and in control of ourselves when other times call. May we experience life fully, as our God feels His emotions fully.