Some thoughts on what else being a young man could be.
I can't write anymore. I have thoughts on things and they don't have an order. They circle each other and spiral out in big, wide connections. I think a lot about the violence men do to other men. I think a lot about women soaking up the anger men have towards other men. I think about how if women weren't around to absorb the insults and assaults, poor men might end up directing that anger at rich men.
I think about how if poor and middle class men had romantic relationships in which they could be fully genuine, without fear of losing status by revealing traits coded as "feminine," they might relax a little and be able to think strategically about their jobs and money and kids.
I think about the shock of puberty. I think about a boy's body suddenly growing a foot, of rushes of frustration, of seeing pimples and a belly in the mirror instead of a ripped torso. I think about being powerless, being frustrated, being jumped, getting accused of being a fag. I think about feeling ugly, feeling ashamed, feeling angry, feeling weak.
There was an ad on during the Oscars that referred to a "man's cave" and a "woman's cave." The "man's cave" was a basement sports shrine with several men cheering together in front of a tv. The "woman's cave" was a women sitting in the middle of a small room packed with shoes and clothes.
A woman achieves status within a net of family relationships. You move up and make your family happy by landing a man, getting the ring, having the babies, and then taking care of the grandparents. The amount of women friends you have is a side note- it's nice if you have a book club, but it's not necessary.
A man achieves status by what his crew thinks of him. The crew can be men who are relatives. But they can also be coworkers, or teammates, or band members. The rungs of masculinity are the amount of influence you yield with other men. It's nice if you have a wife and babies, but it's not necessary.
I don't think I understood that masculinity is always about positions of dominance in a web of men.
Now, I've known many unhappy people in my time. I've known miserable men and miserable women. It seems everyone I know has to fight hard to stave off the misery, and it's always waiting there. Waiting for a hard day at work, waiting for a traffic jam. I'm not talking about the shock and sadness of death and illness and loss. I'm talking about feeling disgusted with yourself, feeling like you aren't valuable to anyone, feeling like you have to lose a bunch of weight and get a bunch of money and have a lovelier home and get a lovelier partner and then maybe you'll be fit to live.
I think people need to take care of other people to have any peace inside themselves. I think as long as masculinity is about dominating other men, most men will be sick with misery. We all know that the experience of dominating another person is not a peaceful one- it's a stressful, insecure position, a position sought to assuage those feelings of lack of value that can't persist. Once you get to a dominant position you must be vigilant to maintain it. The higher you go the more alert you must be.
What does a person need to establish their value? I think we are always really talking about value to our community. We don't actually feel better when we buy into beliefs about being special in the grand scheme of things, of being a genius who will go down in the history books. We do feel better when we have an interaction in which we are able to help someone, even if it's in a way that almost anyone could do. I've killed in front of packed theaters and woken up the next morning with my gut tight with existential anxiety. I've made sandwiches for a meeting and radiated calm for days. Being the best is just not as peaceful as being useful.
I think about the roving packs of teen boys we chase off of trains, away from malls, away from parks at dusk. I think of the extended childhood we force on them. I think of how that obnoxious extended childhood, in which they need to be in homeroom by the 7:30 bell to sit and sit and sit and sit, often invisibilizes the family responsibilities they bear. I think of how a lot of young men's dads are in prison. And for those of us whose dads are with us, I think of how little time we actually get with them. Our fathers' jobs physically separate them from us, steal him away, remain a project we can't participate in.
What if we asked for more from our young men? What if we asked them to take responsibility for the community in specific, realistic ways? What if instead of asking that they sit for so long each day, we asked that they figured out what their neighbors needed and figured out how to get it to them?
I'm talking about barn-raising. Except if you're on a block that doesn't need a barn, how about a system of checking up on older folks? How about organizing a childcare exchange system? How about getting a dentist to give discounted care a saturday a month in the church gym?
What if that was the expectation of what young men did with their time? What if they were looked to as people who could lead their communities in solutions, rather than having their existence be regarded as a problem?
I'm aware people aren't going to just figure out trigonometry without a formal class. But I think if middle and high school education was based on strengthening neighborhood relationships, the uses of high school math might appear more obvious. And more importantly, young men might believe that they had a value that did not have to do with their capacity to physically dominate.
What if 8th, 9th, and 10th grade were not about learning academics and were about community support skills? What if your teachers led you and your classmates on identifying a community problem and then solving it in those years? Then you would return to academics in 11th and 12th grade with a sense of the needs around you, the strengths you in particular bring to an organized group effort, and some sense of how society works.
Why am I only talking about young men? Don't young women also need insight into their value? Yes. I guess it's because I'm trying to figure out how communities can manage young men's aggression. It seems to me the combination of not asking for contributions from young men, while demanding compliance with school authorities who make pointlessly uncomfortable demands on the day and often don't demonstrate respect or concern for their well-being, denying them the opportunity to bond with older men in pursuits that support the community, while they are faced with biological changes that predispose them towards aggression, is a perfect storm for creating destructive behavior.
It is long past the time for reclaiming an older version of masculinity. A masculinity in which men are valued for how they support the group, rather than their physical capacity to dominate. We have to create occasions for young men to support their communities and then affirm them for it. We have to notice when they are raising their younger siblings, and driving their grandma around, and shovelling snow for the neighbors, and praise them for it. It can't be that the only way for a young man to get attention and praise is to be great at smashing into other young men.
Maybe this has been totally obvious to everyone all these years. But if it is, if this is a bunch of cliches that pastors and principals have been mouthing for decades, then why aren't we doing anything different?