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We get called stoic, distant, assholes, angry and bitter, we are never doing what we are expected to do or it looks like we just simply don’t care. All these descriptions are mostly the descriptions of someone who’s scared.
Somehow the world forgets that men are afraid sometimes too. We aren’t supposed to be frightened though, we are men, manly men, and men aren’t ever frightened, but we do become frightened, it changes how we act and we do our absolute best to make sure it never looks like fear. We are supposed to face all our fears head on and slay them like a knight slays a dragon. Have you seen dragons though, they’re huge, they breathe fire and there is almost never a room full of treasure or a princess on the other side. No at best we hope no one will notice and we can calmly continue our lives. So where do we go when we are afraid, when we can’t slay our dragons?
My female friends often ask me why men behave a certain way. You see they are looking for a date and they are looking for men who are confident and fearless, real men. How little they know. Rejection hurts, it’s hard to not take it personally when you have to put your heart on your sleeve and ask someone to judge it worthy. When a man freezes from this fear of rejection he won’t ask her out, he won’t take his heart out because he is looking for surety, to know it’s safe to do so. He will hang around like a lost puppy dog never sure what to do. When a man fights this fear he gets bitter, all women are such and such, women are lesser beings. He never takes his heart out but instead shields it with anger and women are the enemy combatants, enemies waiting to be conquered. The men who flee — unanswered texts, unanswered calls, the silence after you thought all was going well — yes these men run rather than face the possibility of being rejected. All these men have nowhere to go with this fear, in endless loops the pattern repeats, almost date after almost date. Courageous women can break into this cycle, whether she wants to is another matter altogether.
My married friends sometimes ask me what is wrong with their husbands, why they are the way they are, lazy, resentful, morose and distant. They married a brave man, a real man. How little they knew. Often a man will do his duty to his family, especially if there are children. He will give up his passions and dreams to provide and protect. If enough time passes he will have discovered he threw out the part of him that made life worth living as well. After a time he is scared, scared if chases his passions he won’t be able to provide and he will no longer be a man. If he freezes he becomes stuck in a soul crushing job, robbed of energy and the will to be active. If he fights it he runs from job to job, never quite following his passions yet never quite remaining as the provider, always something bigger and better around the corner and always someone else’s fault as to why he never makes it. If a man flees he quits, simply gives up his life, gives up his job and gives up his dreams never to try again. He’ll never be good enough so why should he try. These men have nowhere to go with this fear, an endless circle of being stuck, never quite employed or fully unemployed and only life shattering events will move a man from this loop.
I often hear it asked, from friends, from family and by the media, why can’t men be more vulnerable, why can’t they express themselves and open up their feelings. This is something men find very hard to do; we have been trained from birth that our feelings are unimportant. We are hugged less, comforted less, and by the time we are five we have already started to learn that to be a man boys don’t cry. We know we face ostracism and shame if we let our true selves be shown to the outside world. So we don’t.
We replace vulnerability with emotional control and feelings with actions. Those of us who freeze become the stoics, nothing touches us or gets past our cool exterior and no one can see the turbulent waters underneath. Those who fight become the aggressors, the world is a battlefield we must fight on and life is a struggle that must always be won. Those who flee withdraw from life, they insulate themselves from the outside world, meek and shy at the thought of what may result if they are forced to feel. It is rare that a man will truly escape from his own prison, if he does it is often only with his partner and possibly his closest friend. We have nowhere to go with this fear and in times of great distress we are painfully aware of how pitiful and small the prison in our heads is.
There are many men who have not learnt how to slay their dragons. These dragons represent some of the most important things in our lives, the partners we end up with, the career we work in and our very ability to cope with life and yet there is no dragon hunting school. We end up lost in featureless plains, stuck on a battle field or hiding in a cave, and we know that to seek help is fraught with shame.
The answer to our problems is always “Just do it”, “Man up” or “Grow some balls” and we know it, we have heard it many times before. Yet what we need is a mentor, a friend, a confidant, someone who has slain the dragons and can show us the way. Above all we need a safe place where the shame of not being a man is held outside. We need someone who can show us that the flames are more smoke than fire, that the dragon is half blind and crippled in one leg, that if we are knocked down we can get back up again. But good friends are rare, mentors are rarer and safe places are harder to find than Eldorado.
We are men though, so we muddle through. We know we have nowhere to go with our fears. So where do we go when we are afraid? The answer is we don’t go anywhere, we get stuck in actions and behaviors that are not acceptable.
Some of us get stuck in a fear track for a while, some of us for a long while. Those of us who are stuck, we earn those descriptions above, yet the shame of being less than men is worse. We are men, we are afraid, yet in a world where we can’t express that we must pick another action. It takes us time to learn to slay dragons and sometimes it can cost us more than we would wish to face those dragons and move on. So if you see a man who fits those descriptions, instead of thinking he is a prick — that being a fearless man he should be able to deal with dragons — take a moment to consider whether he might have the very real human emotion of fear, and maybe, just maybe, he hasn’t yet learnt to deal with his fears yet. He isn’t uncaring, unfeeling, a brute or a wimp, he’s just a man, a real man facing dragons he has yet to slay. Before we judge him too harshly, who amongst us can truly say we have conquered all of our fears? I can’t.