Over the past week, I've seen several stories on social media about emotional suppression and suicide among men, and it made me do some self evaluation. See, I'm 37 years old, and, like most, I grew up in a climate of "tough love" and "be a man" thinking that largely still exists today. The world around us has changed dramatically in the last 20 or 30 years, but the emotional suppression that is demanded of boys and men hasn’t. I have a young son, and I've even found myself thinking he needs to toughen up when he cries over something that I consider to be silly. I want him to grow up to be a strong, brave, courageous man. I also want him to know that he should feel comfortable expressing himself to his friends and family without fear of judgment and shame.
I was very lucky to have a loving family to grow up with, but the outside pressures of my peers always made me keep a tight lid on anything that might make me appear vulnerable or weak to them. I can't help but wonder if so much of the ill in our society has roots in this type of suppression. I've been able to grow and start to open myself up as the years have gone on and my peer groups have changed, but not everyone is that fortunate. There are millions of boys and men who will live their entire life expected to bottle up their emotions, never appear vulnerable and just be tough. We've created millions of little powder kegs just waiting to explode.
A familiar chorus seems to commence after a male-driven tragedy. "He was a loner. He never seemed like he would do something like that. He didn't say much." Is this what we want? Do we want our young men to keep their feelings to themselves and risk that it will eventually lead them to explode and lash out with crime, physical abuse, verbal abuse or suicide? It may seem simplistic that something like this could be a root of all that evil, but I honestly think it is. If we don't talk, we don't learn. If we don't learn, we don't grow.
The world moves forward with communication, empathy and kindness. If we can't find a way to show our boys and men how to express their thoughts, feelings and emotions to each other, then we're severely failing them and just asking for an unbelievable amount of problems down the road. This cycle has to stop. I know a lot of men who are tough, and yet I still talk to them about fatherhood, spirituality, marriage, etc. These conversations take place, and we all walk away just as tough as when we sat down.
It all starts with our children. We've got to show them that they need to talk about things and express their feelings with words before the feelings consume them. There can be a ripple effect. One child who knows how to express himself can help another child who's struggling with it. The younger this starts, the better. The more we can create peer groups that foster understanding and kindness, the more we'll create children who feel comfortable opening up within those groups.
I know this isn't easy and we're fighting hundreds of years of tough-guy culture, but where has that gotten us? Everything changes, but not without effort and a recognition of where we're falling short. If you're already helping to raise a kind, empathetic young man, hats off to you! If you haven't thought about this yet, I hope you do now.
I said I have a son I'm trying to raise the best I can. I'm not perfect and I struggle as well, but I know I have a peer group I can lean on and talk to that will help me through this because we're all dedicated to it.
I also have a daughter who will one day deserve a man who can communicate and foster a healthy relationship. So to the parents of that boy, I hope you're doing your part and giving it your best shot. We can all do this together!
Don Napier (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Harford County.