I recently had the privilege to share the following words at the Exchange Community Church in Winnipeg where I have been showing a series of portraits of men expressing their understandings of masculinity. The following are some of my own reflections.
This past year I began revisiting an old question. It’s one that I have been asking myself throughout my adult life, sometimes earnestly and at other times with tired uncertainty. It expands with elaborations and complications until it’s completely out of my grasp and then contracts to become so simple that there’s almost nothing left of it. More expansively the question is this:
“What does it mean to be a good man, and how do my own understandings of masculinity and goodness differ from the stories told to me by my society, my culture, and the people directly around me?”
This question has remained like a recurring spark in my mind, perpetually inciting dialogue, both internally and with the men and women around me. In the past year I’ve had more intentional conversations about being a man than ever before and this has resulted not in a solution or a final answer that would lay it all to rest, but in a living, breathing interaction between individuals who are willing to express parts of themselves that might otherwise remain unspoken. I’m having a conversation that is challenging and crucial, and also long-desired.
The sense I have is that the vulnerability in men, which is stereotypically regarded as something deeply buried and often completely inaccessible, actually rests much closer to the surface and that men, when given the permission to do so, express this vulnerability readily and often with some relief. When I am vulnerable, and willing to drop the guardedness that is generally expected of men, I allow others to be vulnerable also. I offer my vulnerability to the space between us and say, “Here, it is safe.”
In speaking with and photographing the men in my recent series of portraits, I witnessed both diversity in the expressions of their experiences and also a very relatable singularity. In each case, I spoke with men who were grateful to be given an opportunity to share things that didn’t necessarily align with the notion of masculinity that had been insisted upon them throughout their lives. A real man, we are taught from a very young age, is powerful. And this power is relative and therefor sought after with some desperation. To be powerful is to be “more powerful than” – as in, “more powerful than women,” or, “more powerful than nature,” or, “more powerful than the man standing next to him”. A real man, we are taught, is physically strong. He does not cry. He does not express fear, pain, sadness, or weakness. He can express anger because it can make him appear more powerful but other uncomfortable emotions are considered unmanly. A real man, we are taught, is sexually driven and the nature of this drive is dominating and potent and not ever to be questioned or subdued. A real man amasses enough wealth to possess anything that he wants and then continues to amass more. A real man is in charge. He has power, and this power takes the form of physical strength, emotional fortitude, sexual prowess, economic success, and political leverage.
We’ve all been subjected to these ideas at some level. Regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, or economic status we have all faced these notions of masculinity and we have all had them imposed upon us. Some of us are unaware. Some of us are apathetic. Some of us know that we find them offensive and we resist them with active protest. Some of us feel victimized and powerless, as if there’s nothing we can do about it. Some of us celebrate these standards and embrace them. Some of us feel ashamed. And some of us have a strong, conscious desire to see through them, to understand them as deeply wounded perceptions in need of healing. We believe that behind these wounds there remains something beautiful, something that has become lost to us, something that is inherently ours.
This “something”, I believe, exists in every man, regardless of how unabashedly he has embraced the pursuit of masculine power, or how pathetically he has been trodden under it. This “something” has been with us since before our birth. It is not exclusive to the strongest, or the wealthiest, or the most attractive, or the most powerful. It is not exclusive to anyone and nor does it preclude anyone. Rather it equalizes all of us. In the moments when we realize this equality we have an opportunity to lay aside our power, and even become aware of the ultimate futility of that power. We can begin to live from the awareness that at the center of our being, stripped of all the signifiers of masculinity we have carefully built up around us, we are no more or less than anyone else, and though this place can feel like the most vulnerable place in the world, it is also the truest and by being courageous enough to be that exposed, we are able to express something of our essence.
As with my understanding of masculinity, my understanding of the divine is one that alternately expands with endless elaborations and then contracts into a deep and profound simplicity. In an attempt to live a life that is aligned with God I often return to a single question, which, in its most reduced form, is this:
“Am I being guided by fear, or by love?”
I apply this question to my pursuit of a masculine identity and my answer is inconsistent and at times seems contradictory. I don’t consider myself a stereotypical man, and I don’t ascribe to many of the popular notions of masculinity, but when I carefully assess my thoughts and my behavior, I can’t deny that lacing its way through many of my intentions there is a thread of fear, which has, in ways, persuaded me to take up the “masculine identity” that society has been pedaling – even when in my heart it doesn’t feel quite right. This thread of fear is a whisper and it tells me that I am not manly enough, that I am not powerful enough, that I am not valuable enough, and, ultimately, that I do not deserve love. Its promise is that if I manage to achieve a certain expression of masculinity, that if I manage to gain enough power through social status, or appearance, or by a carefully honed persona, I might then be able to attain love.
I’ve experienced love throughout my life. I’ve known it expressed through friendship, through family, and even through strangers when an unexpected act of kindness suddenly dissolves the barriers we imagine exist between us. And in all of these things I feel affirmed. I feel recognized and known. But none of these contexts for love confirms my masculine identity as clearly as does romantic love. And in no other context for love does my identity as it relates to my gender, becomes so obviously important. For some, a masculine identity might be sought more fervently in their relationship with their father, or their son, or in a group of male peers, but for myself it has always been romantic love that I have turned to as the ultimate source of love, signifier of love, and context for love – so that this question, “Am I a good man?” is easily usurped by the question, “Am I the kind of man that will be loved romantically?” For another it might be usurped by, “Am I the kind of man that will be loved by my father, or my son?”
These contexts for love aren’t wrong, they’ll just never be enough to affirm our value as men, and when we mistake these experiences of love with the source that inspires them, we make idols of one another and then seek ways to worship those idols by making the offerings we believe will be valued; offerings of our bodies, of our doctrines, our thoughts, or our power.
When I look at the magazine rack at the store it seems that the importance of a specific body type is becoming arguably as prevalent for men as it is for women. My mind tells me that it’s all a farce and that I will not become more valuable as a man if my body reflects this ideal, but I still walk away with a desire at the back of my mind to exercise more, to eat a specific way, to strive to become that ideal. I know that having a healthy body is good and important but what that looks like is not the same for everyone and even if I am able to achieve that ideal, my pursuit of it as a form of power to attract romantic love will not bring me peace. Still, the gym fills up with men and women trying to fashion their bodies into the form that we are taught is perfect, the one that will make us worthy of love, or powerful enough to attract it, the one that will finally lead us to the place of peace and love in which we long to rest.
But instead of peace, we are asked to be restless. We are asked by these depictions of a physical ideal to be restless about our own bodies and the bodies of our partners. We are asked by our materialistic and power-hungry culture to be restless in our careers. We are asked to be restless in the way we relate to others, to be restless as husbands, as fathers, as sons, and as brothers, wondering always if we have yet achieved what is being asked of us, so that surrounding our minds, in a constant buzz, in a crowd of changing voices, is this steady insistence that it is not enough to simply be. We must achieve more, distinguish ourselves further, and leave a legacy, if not in the world at large, at least among our peers and our family. As men, we must establish our own immortality.
Five years ago I sat alone with a woman who was then my wife. We had spent the week apart and had met to discuss our struggling relationship. After an hour of challenging dialogue, she was no longer my wife. She explained to me the ways that I had failed to be the example of a man that she desired and deserved. And I listened feeling unable to offer her anything other than the man I believed myself to be. In that moment I was not a victim, and nor was she. There was a lot of pain for us both and I cannot fully know what her experience of that moment was, but I know that for myself, among many emotions, there was a strong sense of loss. I had lost her, and I had lost the context in which I experienced what I understood to be love, but, perhaps more impactful was the sense that I had lost a significant part of my identity. This woman, who had until that moment been my wife, was leaving me, and in doing so I was no longer a husband. I felt my identity as a man slip away. Everything came into question and my entire life suddenly shifted.
In questioning my identity as a man, I often find that my real question is simply one of identity. It’s easy for me to say, “I am a man.” But what happens in the moments when I feel unmanned; when I lose the relationship, or the career, or the status that had confirmed my identity as a man? Can I detach myself enough from my experience as a man to recognize that my masculinity is only a condition that I exist under? Am I comfortable shedding the word man from my statement of identity and leaving it just at, “I am?”
In the wake of an experience in which our sense of masculinity has been taken from us, it’s easy to feel lost. And in that feeling of nakedness it’s not surprising that we would want to quickly take up some new signifier of masculinity to protect our exposed vulnerability. But rather than trying to create a new sense of identity as a man to replace the old one, I want to fully realize that my identity is not that I am a man. I am having a male experience in this life, and that is not to be ignored, but nor is it to be confused with who I am. The “I” is a complete mystery. The “I” is not gender specific. Nor is it limited to a specific ethnicity, rank, age, or tax bracket. It is for everyone, equally.
Imagine me thirty-one years ago. My body and my mind do not yet exist. I am without description. I am neutral. I am a complete mystery. Now we are here. Your perceptions of me suddenly begin to flood in. You understand that I am a man. I am white. I am thirty. I am a photographer. I am able-bodied. I am Colin. I am a friend. I am a son. I am a brother. I am good. I am bad. I am weak. I am honest. I am a nice guy. I am unkind. I am thoughtful… The list can be endless. It can be full of contradictions and it can shift because none of these things are really who I am. They are conditions in which I exist but none of them are constant. All of them can change and all of them can be taken from me.
Milan Kundera, in his novel “Immortality”, asks us to “imagine living in a world without mirrors. You’d dream about your face and imagine it as an outer reflection of what’s inside you. And then, when you reached forty, someone put a mirror before you for the first time in your life. Imagine your fright! You’d see the face of a stranger. And you’d know quite clearly what you are unable to grasp: your face is not you.”
The awareness that we are none of the things in which we have so feverously invested our sense of identity can be terrifying. But it can also be liberating. The question of courage in my life comes up when I ask, “What am I willing to surrender? Would I still be me if I lost my job? Would I still be me if I lost the use of my body? Am I still me, when I say something unkind? Am I still me when my thoughts are hurtful? Would I still be me if I fell out of favor with all the people in my life? Would I still be me if I were no longer a male? Would I still be me if I lost my mind?”
Taking away all these things, there must remain something, and that something must be more important than all these shifting conditions. The conditions are important, because they shape our experience, but they are not who we are. I cannot say that I am a man, but only that I am having a masculine experience of life. And nor can I say that I am Colin. That is just a name. I am not this body, I am not my reputation, I am not my mind, and I am not my emotion because none of these conditions are absolutely constant. The ones that seem most constant, such as our mind or our gender, are as impermanent as our aging bodies, our shifting emotions, and our changing thoughts. But my deep sense is that beneath all these things there exists something that cannot be changed, something that exists identically in every one of us. When we are able to see through all of the conditions we have born around us like so many layers of skin we can then surrender ourselves fully to an identity that is not changing, whose value need not be quantified or proven. We can then release ourselves from the fear that we are not deserving of love and fully embrace the reality that we are love, and that this identity is inherent and unchanging, that even when everything else is taken away from us, it still remains. We just need to be willing to express it.
“What does it mean to be a good man?” I’ll probably ask myself this question throughout my entire life. At this point in my journey I’m learning to recognize that though I am experiencing life as a man, it is not ultimately who I am. And the importance of this is that I don’t need to feel ruled by my gender. I don’t need to ascribe to notions of masculinity that tell me I must always be powerful, that I must be hyper-sexual, that I must be ambitious, that I must be assertive, and that I must be in control. I am experiencing life as a man, and I don’t hate my gender, but nor do I need to identify unquestioningly with it. I am free to be vulnerable. I am free to cry. I am free to fail. I am free to honor the strength in others before my own. I am free to love without the fear that love is some finite resource that I must strive to achieve. I am free to embrace the endlessness of love and surrender wholly to it.