Dark Tight Corners

Of the many things we do in my IAM program, I think some of the most tender, raw moments come when we peel the wraps off the culture’s messages that, conscious or otherwise, are part of a well-established cultural foundation of misogyny and androphobia.

I specify androphobia rather than misandry because years of leading the program have revealed certain patterns – at least among the men drawn to the work. Yes, there are pockets of hatred some men carry toward men in general, but painting with a broader brush, there’s a strange, distorted respect baked into the fear many men have of other men.

That doesn’t make the fears any more “right” – or less in need of healing – than the omnipresent misogynistic background noise that seems to play on unconscious shuffle/repeat.

We continue, for the moment at least, to be a chauvinistic culture…

And while I’m not a fan of the phrase “toxic masculinity” from a language point of view, all the stuff that underlies it forms the essence of what we uncover in the raw moments mentioned above.

(My main issue with “toxic masculinity” is not that it’s inaccurate. It’s that it triggers into deafness and defiance those who most need to hear what’s being said when the words are uttered. If the goal is listening and depolarization, it’s useful to notice when language polarizes.)

It can be difficult and maddeningly confronting to look at oneself in bright daylight. To point that unflinching light into the shadows adds another level of intensity. To be fair, that’s where we find the internal monsters we most fear – and behind them, some of the most tender, vulnerable, and (paradoxically) powerful parts of ourselves.

For instance, just beyond the messages that harbor seeds (and/or vivid expressions) of misogyny, it’s not unusual to find a frightened inner little boy who was ostracized because he let his friends (or parents) know he enjoyed playing with his sister’s dolls.

Punished for committing the shameful sin of crossing an oversimplified heteronormative gender boundary, his budding, though not yet discerning or sophisticated intellect, told him that things of interest to his sister are absolutely no-go. Same for anything else that might be considered girlish.

With that, into a dark, tight corner went the dolls. To seal the deal, (and the corner) our young boy hid his pain and embarrassment behind a reactive wall of bravado, voiced as disdain for dolls – and the people who play with them.

Over time, the messages morph, first into gems like “you throw like a girl!” Before too long, though, they become things like “don’t be a pussy” or, infamously, “…grab ‘em by the pussy.”

No, of course this isn’t the one and only road every single man travels from childhood to adulthood…

At the same time, it’s emblematic of the tracks a vast majority of we men have, at some point, found ourselves crossing. To get across those tracks, we must set foot on the ground they rest on. As we step we can’t help but see, hear, and internalize (often unconsciously) many of those messages.

If we’re struggling to fit in, we’ll thoughtlessly pick them up and spread them around, flashing them like membership cards…

Squirmy and ugly as those messages are, it’s important that they be pulled out into a well-lit space, examined and, at the very least, set aside. (My own preference is to gather them and send them off with a conscious ritual.)

While it might seem obvious to say that we’re shaped by the messages we receive, it’s vitally important to take the time to slow down and have a good look at what they actually say, where they came from, and whether they have any truth to them.

I would assert that many of them – perhaps even most of the sort mentioned above – are little more than the hollow, reactive calling cards of wounded, fearful children and their hurting adolescent counterparts who want nothing more than to belong.

But belong to what, exactly?

Like any other noxious substance, it’s hard to carry this kind of stuff around without absorbing some of it.

All change begins with awareness. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

So where to begin?

As always, with conscious reflection. Ask yourself what messages you’ve picked up along the way. Start to look, with as objective an eye as possible, for hints to the culture’s more subtle, hidden biases. (And don’t forget to look at and include the overt ones. There are plenty out there to see.)

Getting to know the air you breathe and the water you swim in is always a powerful first step to bringing light to dark, tight corners – and moving in the direction of freedom.