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Men & Their Emotions

Where are the men who are healthily in touch with their emotions, and why is this so rare for us to encounter?

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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.

e

5 comments on “Men & Their Emotions

  1. Nathan Lee

    Hey, I’ve been reading your stuff for a while now and I think emotions are important to experience and feel, even as men. I have been thinking about this a lot lately because I have ALWAYS been highly emotional, I would explain it and have heard it described of me as being a “passionate person”. For a long time I feel like I might have thought something was wrong with me because I was male and comfortable expressing emotion and passion. Since I did not fit the worlds mold of how a man was suppose to express emotion it caused me to not always be as confident as I should have been. I was the small kid, that was no good at sports, awkward with girls, was a christian and hung out with the other outcast kids. Recently, much change has happened in my life and as a result, PRAISE GOD, has driven me even closer to God than I have ever been in my life and as I have discovered God more and more in the Holy Bible the more I have realized that America has the MAJORITY of things dead wrong! We as Christians especially Christian men are falling into the trap of deception that Satan has set up around us because Satan is prince of the world. Satan is deceiving us on what it means to be Christian, what the church should “look like”, confusing us on love versus lust and a host of other things!

    Your posts about systems reminds me of how this world is a FAILED system and it ALWAYS will be that way because it is tainted by SIN. Jesus has defeated SIN though and as Christians we fight from a position of victory so we are able to have hope, confidence and perseverance in this fallen world. This morning in church we sang the old hymn, “Because He Lives” as I sang I thought about how that is the answer to “the system”- “because HE lives I can face tomorrow”, it sings of the new born baby and how he can face uncertain days BECAUSE HE LIVES.

    See I have been struggling lately about how as a suffering servant that the Bible calls us to be- WHY do I get to live in America? Why do I get to have resources and abundance? I feel the answer is because God has specific purpose for me here in America and He needs me to be available to live out that purpose.

    Which brings me to another point and reason I like reading your posts, I am still single- I turn 32 in April and I am painstakingly, desperately single- it kills me. I identify with your writing because I feel the lamentation come out in it. Its as if girls are detracted rather than attracted due to the convictions of Christ within my life. God is using the DEEP desire to find a wife I think to heal me and improve me and it is my hope and prayer that somewhere at the end of this refining period there is a girl in my future. A girl is not the answer to my problems but she is a desire of my heart and God grants the desires of our heart if we ask in accordance to God’s will which means everything we do INCLUDING our marriage must glorify Him so I must pursue girls in such a way that glorifies God and have faith that through that an alignment will happen and God will grant the desire of my heart.

    God is bringing me to Himself and showing me that I need to fully grasp my emotions and be the man He called me to be. He is healing my self-image and making me see that in the past I have tried to be what the world wants me to be rather than what He wants me to be- thats a hard pill to swallow! Much of my loneliness might be self-inflicted because I did not prioritize relationships instead I put my ambitions and ideas before God. That does not mean that I have not served God or followed Him its just I have not always fully surrendered to Him. The fact is I have been saved since 11 years of age and have served God faithfully in His church the majority of that time, I have hardly missed any Sundays but I still got it wrong throughout my 20s- God has kept me and looking back shielded me from a lot but lately I am feeling compelled to break out and really be the man God made me to be and I PRAY that a beautiful, sweet young girl is a part of those plans and soon!

    I have no idea what the future looks like for me but I am going to persevere, embrace my emotions despite my gender, and just serve God. Keep up the GREAT work with your post- I feel that as long as you write them as an overflow from what God is doing in your life then God will use you to help many people. I got your book the New Lonely for Christmas and I read it and I am about to get your book Tall People- trying to finish up school first which should be by April 1st. Look forward to reading more of your stuff!

    Much Prayers, Nathan Lee

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  2. Great job exploring true masculinity and how to bridge the gap between men and their emotions! As a female, I know that often I feel as though culture definitely does everything it can to tame men. But they were meant to be wild (love John Eldridge’s book) and that includes the riskiness and bravery of vulnerability and emotions. It’s definitely something that women need from men as well!

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  3. Pingback: Weekendlinks | Strength of His Might

  4. I like this discussion as this has been a backstory in my life as far back as I can recall.

    Ethan, I’m a generation ahead of you, and the influences I grew up with might have been even more fictional. The actors and icons I recall are men like John Wayne, and Charlton Heston, and Kirk Douglas in cinema, and Jack Webb (Dragnet), Efrem Zimbalist jr. (The F.B.I.), and Clayton Moore (The Lone Ranger) on the black and white tube.

    These guys were tough as nails, usually oozed with testosterone, and the only time they displayed emotion was in an appropriate love scene, (BTW, Silver Screen only, never on the tube).

    Possibly, though only hinted at, were the ideas that hidden emotions were a driving force behind any plot themes. It was only acceptable that these were acted out in an unspoken way, maybe as a ‘far away look in the eye.’

    I believe, in order to conceal his true identiry, the relationship I had with my father was sparse, I only saw certain sides of him. I remember as a kid, in a group gathering I made an attempt to confront him on something, some kind of dramatic scene like I might have seen in a movie, and his response was, “Don’t ever talk to me like that again!” And the sad thing was I never did talk to him like that again.

    As males, we didn’t want to be called out in any way. The status quo was an unspoken creed, something implied and never explained, derived but not taught. The term “unquestionable” comes to mind.

    The culture I grew up in cast males as emotionally independent and self-sustaining.

    “I am a rock, I am an island,” mocking lyrics from a contemporary 70’s songwriter.

    Anytime I saw an emotion in a man, other than anger, it was believed by me, to be from a source of instability, or even worse from a lack of masculinity.

    It was only when, in my mid 40s, (when I began to hang out with Christians, I should say people who were seeking Jesus), that I began to hear and see legitimate emotions and feelings in stable, and unquestionable men.

    Yes, the status quo is man-made, a defense mechanism of some sort, but it is not God’s design. We need to seek Him.

    Thanks, Michael.

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