I was having a great conversation recently with a good friend who’s been involved with men’s work for years…

Because of the quality of the company, it was one of those conversations that easily swerved from topic to topic with little, if any, loss of enthusiasm or deep interest on the part of either one of us – and we just kept rolling with whatever showed up.

At one point the focus shifted to why, for some men, it seems their identity – perhaps their very survival – is tethered to an arcane law based on the notion that anything – be it a behavior, an affect, an interest – carrying even the slightest hint, whiff or suggestion that one is anything less than a “Real Man” is deadly kryptonite to their manhood.

If you’re shaking your head in violent agreement, stay tuned…

If you’re scratching your head in confusion, stay tuned…

Here are a couple of things to chew on:

  • Most of us who wander the world in male bodies have been told, from the time we’re knee-high to a grasshopper, what being a man is supposed to be.

  • As we grew, though we were yet years – or even decades – away from actually living in the man-body we’d eventually occupy, we started hearing more and more about what distinguishes “real men” from lesser male beings.

As far as both of the above bullet-points go, I’ve come to realize that a whole lot of what I heard was neither true nor, if I’m really honest, terribly useful.

In fact, most of it was just plain nonsense…

And more than a little of it, if adopted and adhered to, would likely result in people – including myself – getting seriously hurt…

Or worse.

Here’s a personal case in point:

One night, whilst still in my very early 40’s, I was driving home from an evening business meeting. At the time I owned two businesses, neither of which was doing particularly well.

I was so convinced that I was failing “as a man” – and equally certain that I could never be a “real” one – that, barreling homeward on a very dark section of I-287 in central New Jersey, I began screaming at myself the top of my lungs, launching a volley of brutal, punishing word-weapons, things I would never even dream of aiming at another human being.

I pushed my voice so viciously over the edge that, within a few short minutes, it just stopped working.

I’d like to tell you that I had a brilliant intellectual, emotional and spiritual epiphany in that very painful moment…

But I’d be lying.

It wasn’t until months later that I realized I had swallowed enough dogmatic man-message poison that I was willing to literally shout out my own throat, destroying – fittingly enough – my own voice.

While I’m not particularly proud of that moment, I share it with the knowledge that I’m far from alone – and I was remarkably lucky.

After all, in what was one of the darkest, bottomed-out moments of my grown-up life, the only self-damage I did left me with just a temporary case of laryngitis.

In retrospect, I can see that as a clear demarcation of a direction from which I want to make sure I continue to move away. It’s also as a reminder that there are other points on my compass that require amplification – and celebration – of the very voice I so desperately attempted to damage and shut down.

Here’s the thing: From a cultural standpoint, those messages haven’t stopped – and while there are many men who are absolutely clear that it’s OK to stop listening to all that distorted noise and forge one’s own path – there are still legions of men convinced that, because they haven’t found a way to live in accordance with outdated, rigid, incompassionate masculine frameworks…

That they are failing…

Or worse yet, that they are failures.

They are not.

More likely, they are following marching orders they heard – and, like myself, adopted – as real and immutable when they were children or adolescents.

And those particular developmental stages are every bit as unsophisticated and lacking in discernment as they are impressionable.

With so many men – and women (and institutions) – tethered to those age-old distorted and ossified rules about manhood, what’s to be done?

I’d start by pointing us – individually and collectively – first toward awareness, then toward curiously questioning what we find.

And, finally, toward the humility and vulnerability required to let go of what we think we know – in order to allow spaciousness and, if we really want to play the advanced game – to invite a whole lot of not knowing.

I could never in good conscience tell another man what he should or must be.

Besides, there are more than enough lonely, disconnected and desperate men out there suffering under the weight of demands that they squeeze into a one-size-fits-all mold in order to “man up.”

And I’ve yet to meet anyone who possesses enough omniscience or wisdom to write a single prescription for forty nine percent of humanity…

It’s time to stop pretending such a prescription exists.