At times, dealing with the powerful visisitudes of life without the support of a loving, reflective father figure has been daunting. The pressure of having to make pivotal decisions without the benefit of knowledgeable, wizened counsel has lead me to develop a powerful internal locus of control which I can trust to make balanced decisions (most of the time). The problem emerges when things go wrong. It is at these times that I recognize just how difficult it is for me to seek out and trust support from other men.
I miss the idea of having a father I never had.
As I’ve grown up and become comfortable with my self, I’ve learned to overcome the big issues I had with him, but I point out the scarcity of affection in my relationship with him because I think it partially explains why male approval was always such a distant, yearned for quality for me growing up, why I still have a soft spot for male affection and why I sometimes find myself seeking the respect of older men.
One of the pernicious consequences of living in a country still struggling with homophobia, social verticality and patriarchy, is not just the rigid gender roles this system imposes on men (and obviously women), but also the way it prevents grown men from expressing love, gratitude and affection to each other (and often to their sons). Because of this, many boys grow up seeing affection as inherently unmasculine because their fathers never modeled affection and unconditional love as a constituent part of their own masculinity.
One of the major systemic tragedies for boys is the ongoing poverty of male affection in their lives. Boys grow up seeing affection as sexual behavior and not social behavior.
Just as tragic, our system still punishes boys for expressing love and affection to each other (except in the case of sports) by subjecting them to social and sexual taboo, which means boys will grow up seeing affection as (hetero)sexual behavior and not social behavior, which is troubling. For many straight boys, affection will become gendered, the unique behavior of girlfriends, moms and female friends. While girls are victims of the system just as much as boys are, the system victimizes them in different ways at different stages (through shaming, income inequality, domestic relegation, sexual objectification and ownership, for example). But one of the major systemic tragedies for boys is the ongoing poverty of male affection in their lives.
As psychoanalytically unsatisfying as it is, for many grown men, there is a void inside us that was earmarked for our fathers’ attention and approval (which can often feel like signifiers of love). It’s a void we carry with us into adulthood, a void that only disappears (if it disappears at all) with friendships that are deeply communicative, supportive and unconditional. This void only disappears (if it disappears at all) with a lifetime of self-forgiveness for the emptiness we feel inside. This emptiness is not our fault, but if we deny its existence or pretend we’ve moved beyond the scene of our childhood trauma, we become victims of our own pathology, innocent bystanders in the crossfire of denial, unlovability and self-reproach.
Men only heal when we surround ourselves with others who are engines of deep and uncontrollable love, people who are compassionate, affectionate, forgiving and open with their emotions. For me, the most recent source of affection, kindness and love has been my children. In high school, it was my English teachers. At University it was my lovers and friends. Today, my own fatherhood gives me new emotional space for repairing the tiny broken parts of me and for expressing my endless devotion, explicit love and continuous affection for my children.
One of the strange elements of life is that girls become women simply by growing up and physically maturing (for the most part), but boys must earn manhood. We do not become men simply by growing into an adult body, we are forced to repress or deny natural parts of ourselves (emotions, compassion, vulnerability, and so on), and to adopt the four basic rules of manhood (via Michael Kimmel):
1. Don’t be a sissy: You can never do anything that even remotely hints of the feminine. In South Africa we don’t raise boys to become men, we raise them to not become women.
2. Always win: Wealth, power, status—these are the markers of masculinity. “He who has the most toys when he dies wins.”
3. Be a sturdy oak: What makes a man is that he is reliable in a crisis. And what makes him reliable is how closely he resembles an inanimate object. A rock, a pillar, a species of tree.
4. Go for it: Exude an aura of daring and aggression. Live life on the edge, Take risks. Don’t give a damn about what others think.
Then there are also two ways we define manhood – (1) not feminine, (2) not gay.
All of these “rules” for growing into manhood force into false roles – we are much more than these simplistic limiting rules. When we adopt these rules to fit in and be considered men, we lose large parts of ourselves – and this leaves up wounded and hurting.
But we do not have to live this way – we can begin to wake up to the ways we have been forced into these little boxes of manhood. We can undo the wounding and become more expansive and whole. But it requires we do some work – hard work – to uncover our pain, to find our lost emotions and reintegrate them.
Someplace inside of us – not matter how cliche this sounds – there is that child who holds all of the feelings and desires and hopes we have denied we have (in our effort to be seen as men). We can access that child with help from a therapist, a coach, or with some personal growth technologies.
We can reparent that child with love and compassion, give him permission to have his feelings, to dream big dreams, to follow his natural curiosity. In doing so, we heal ourselves as adults. It’s not an easy process – it requires more strength and courage than most men possess. But the rewards for doing so are tremendous.
With the wisdom of an adult, we can be the loving parent or guardian we needed as a child.
Events from childhood, our first experiences, have the power to shape our lives. Some do so immediately, offering us challenges to overcome and encouragement to make use of our talents and interests. In the process character is built, and we make the first steps upon our personal paths. Other events seem to lay dormant until adulthood, when our closest relationships help to bring out the deepest aspects of ourselves. This is when unexamined lessons can be put to use and untended childhood wounds make themselves known in a call for healing.
We may discover issues of trust coming up, or perhaps we find ourselves mirroring actions from our past instinctively. No matter the case, we have the power within us to heal ourselves at the deepest level. With the wisdom of an adult, we can be the loving parent or guardian we needed as a child. Knowing that we are each whole spiritual beings having a human experience, we can nurture ourselves from that wholeness, and then reach out to others as well. We can recreate scenarios in our mind’s eye, trying different outcomes and following them to their logical conclusions. In doing so, we may be able to imagine possible reasons a situation occurred as it did, and even accept that it could not have happened any other way. With the wisdom born from age and experience, we might be able to see events from a different perspective, bringing new understanding and freeing ourselves from any hold the past may have on us.
Life offers opportunities to clear these weeds in the gardens of our souls. However, when we want to focus on easier and more pleasant tasks, we are likely to pass up the chances, leaving the wounds to continue to drain our energy and resources for living life fully today. We might find we need support to face the events of the past, so turning to a trained professional who can offer tools for healing can be a valid choice. As long as we remember that the child we were lives on within us, we are always free to go back and right old wrongs, correct mistaken perceptions, heal wounds, forgive, and begin anew.