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Bell Hooks - The Will to Change

"Men cannot change if there are no blueprints for change. Men cannot love if they are not taught the art of loving. Love is vital to maleness, to the spiritual and emotional wholeness men seek." Bell Hooks

I was thinking the other day about my time working with children and families in community mental health. I remember asking another therapist there how many clients on his caseload had a dad/father who was present or engaged with their families. We both struggled to think of many lower income-based families where the dad was still in their kids' lives. The percentage was extremely low. What a sad thing to think about - that so much of what is at the root of the issues of society lies with the soul of men. I think of so many people who have a dad who is no longer in the picture for various reasons: death, drugs, divorce, estrangement, etc.

The paradox of reading this book was that it was both extremely insightful, and at the same time it was difficult to digest. I thought about the ways in which society has messages about what it means to be a man. Many men struggle with the pressure to measure up, to "be tough," to not let others see when they are having a hard time, etc. Men need love/connection because they are also human, and instead they are given messages at a young age (from the patriarchal culture) that they need to conform to some really toxic ideas. These ideas often go unquestioned because they come from past generations. Patriarchy needs conformity to survive. It's interesting to think about in terms of how each of us justify poor behavior and poor management of what we are individually going through.

There was a section in the book that talked about a woman who held her dying father in her arms. She had the realization that this was the only time in her life that she had physical contact with him where she wasn't afraid of him. Then she felt shame that there was relief in him passing away in her arms and that she wouldn't have to feel that fear with him ever again. That's challenging to digest.

It's a simple (yet countercultural) message that what could be modelled to a son/daughter is a good work ethic, knowing their internal value independent of the pressure of competition out of insecurity, having a positive support system that encourages them to take risks, and getting out there to do good things in the world. Instead, men and women are damaged by men who don't know their hearts and who cling desperately to a mantra of "Well tell me the bullet-point issues and I will find the bullet-point answers to them."

I will never forget (in school) hearing the idea that most of us don't balance our strength and our tenderness well. We go to one extreme or the other. We are either a doormat and overly "nice," or we go to the other side and are abrasive/violent/and not kind to the people in our lives. Many men hide and don't show others the real human feelings that are buried deep. It comes down to challenging the toxic ideas of patriarchal dominance over others, owning our vulnerability, and stepping into harder emotional terrain with people in our lives with curiosity and empathy. It also requires us to grieve what we have lost, to process through our stories what we haven't gotten in terms of security/safety. This is all easier said than done, and also so important to do this personal work.

Your feelings matter, and the blanket messages of "get over it, you're too sensitive, that didn't actually happen," these are all toxic messages that invalidate a person's felt experience and keep a dominant system of oppression operating. What would happen if we started to be more curious about others' perspectives instead of telling them that they are wrong for being human. That's something I want to participate in. Actually, I am lucky to be a part of good human processing every day at work.

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