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Unhealthy masculinities

EUSEBIUS MCKAISER | A love letter to boys and men

This is the third in a series of 3 essays on unhealthy masculinities: the sins of our parents, their connection to our adult selves and pathways to recovery

25 January 2022 - 08:36
While we can be healthier human beings in the world, that requires a deep commitment to self-examining the worst of our current selves, and being prepared to feel awkward and clumsy as we learn to be more fully human than the world has allowed us to be.
While we can be healthier human beings in the world, that requires a deep commitment to self-examining the worst of our current selves, and being prepared to feel awkward and clumsy as we learn to be more fully human than the world has allowed us to be.
Image: 123RF

When was the first time your dad said to you, “I love you”? How often did he do so? Does he still do so? If you did not grow up with your dad, how often did other male figures in your life express love for you? As a son, how often do you say, “I love you dad.”

If you never did so as a child, have you done so as an adult while your dad is still alive? When last did you do so? Besides uttering these three words — I love you — when last did you show physical affection such as a warm, loving embrace?

If you are now a father yourself, do you regularly tell your children that you love them? When last did you kiss your son? When last did you kiss your dad? When last did you and your dad, and you and your son, physically embrace each other?

You deprive your son of important emotional literacy if you never hug him, hold him, play with him, laugh with him, tell him you love him.

An exploration of love is most meaningful if we are prepared to frame this journey in the first person, and not only have an emotionally safe conversation about the idea of love.

I had lunch with a friend of mine the other day — let’s call him Donovan — and, as has become custom between us, we shared stories about our families. He had never told his dad, who is now in his seventies I think, that he loves him. He doesn’t recall his dad expressing such direct affection either. I gently suggested, as we walked through the mall, that perhaps the next time he sees his dad he should try to do so.

My recommendation was left hanging in the air like a fly that can be tolerated. We moved on to cake and cappuccino instead. It is easier to reconcile yourself to sumptuous cake than it is to rehearse a performance of “I love you dad”.

We are emotionally stunted in multiple ways. Just as Will Smith writes in his autobiography about the lifelong effect of seeing his dad beat up his mom when he was a kid, so, too, Donovan has vivid, enduring memories of his parents fighting viciously. Unlike Smith, the younger Donovan did confront his dad, but they have never spoken about what happened. It is hard to imagine Donovan casually and sincerely saying “I love you dad” when unfinished business needs to be attended to.

“I need closure. To get that closure, I need him to acknowledge what happened,” said Donovan. You can love someone but not give free, regular, and joyous expression to that love if there is unfinished business between you.

While we can be healthier human beings in the world, that requires a deep commitment to self-examining the worst of our current selves, and being prepared to feel awkward and clumsy as we learn to be more fully human than the world has allowed us to be.

A big part of why so many of us men are a hot mess in our daily interactions in the world is because we often have plenty of unfinished business. If you are angry with your father, have you gone there? Have you told him what you feel and why? Alternatively, have you started on a journey to self-love and healing? This does not have to involve therapy (though therapy is healthy and has an inappropriately bad reputation among all men). It could also just mean cultivating authentic friendship spaces within which you can be vulnerable and honest, and not feel emasculated.

Donovan and I have started to develop a space for honest conversation which is a relief in a world in which the temptation to choreograph and perform lies and half-truths is ever-present.

How active have you been in examining unfinished business that cripples you emotionally? You may be less safe, less fun, less effective as a work colleague, boss, friend, and lover than your potential self because you do not know what love is, truly. We cannot overestimate how fluency in the language of love can haunt us deep into adulthood, harming ourselves and innocent people entering our orbit.

Anti-social messages that tell men not to emote, and to be cynical about the language of love, lead to self-harm and make us a danger to others.

To love someone requires far more than just liking them. Philosophers disagree among themselves about what love is, whether it is rational, whether it is capable or even in need of justification, and what the requirements are for one to be able to claim to love someone. Without delving here into that complex literature, I did want to sketch some of my intuitions and connect them to the core issue of this three-part essay series, that of unhealthy masculinities.

Maybe I am joyously getting more emotional as I get older, but I simply cannot see how love, in its fullest expression, can be present if there is no emotional dimension to your love. You must feel your love for someone and they in turn must feel your expression of it. A dad cannot simply be robotic and show his love by taking out his wallet and settling the bill for lunch or even the year’s school fees. Sure, that is an important element of showing care. But you can take your duty of care seriously and still fall short of the requirements of love.

There is an affective component to love that is central to the human experience. This is why I am not being trivial with my opening questions about the speech act of saying, with sincerity, “I love you.” Why do you think that is so hard to say? Precisely because it requires one to have a depth of feeling that isn’t necessary when you simply care for someone in a transactional way. The same is true of the power of touch. To caress your face or body or hold your hand is to connect intimately with you in a way that never making bodily contact cannot match ever. It is not trivial to say that you deprive your son of important emotional literacy if you never hug him, hold him, play with him, laugh with him, tell him you love him. You have to show love, express love, and be fully present. If it does not come naturally because you are the victim of intergenerational sins not of your own making, then you have to look forward to being rewarded for practising how to be loving until it is genuinely natural for you, even if it is clumsy initially.

A key feature of unhealthy masculinities is that many of us have, as hard as it is to admit, inadequate levels of emotional literacy. The other side of learning to love and express love, for example, is also learning to master other aspects of our emotional lives. Donovan and I reflected on how little role-modelling we have both seen in our families of the words, “I am sorry.” The unfinished business between him and his dad will require an expression of regret besides an acknowledgment of how harmful dad had been a long time ago. We are not very good at admitting wrong, saying we are sorry or expressing regret.

There is no easy way out of these emotional shortcomings. We simply have to rehearse better ways of being human.

I did not want this essay series to end in a lament. But there is no easy fix. The truth is that while we can be healthier human beings in the world, that requires a deep commitment to self-examining the worst of our current selves, and being prepared to feel awkward and clumsy as we learn to be more fully human than the world has allowed us to be. We need to centre love in that journey. Not in some sentimental way but in deep philosophical recognition that the requirements to be genuinely loving are tough but worth it. We must defy social messages that punish boys and men by not allowing us to be fully human. These antisocial messages that tell us to be “tough” and not to emote, and to be cynical about the language of love, lead to self-harm and make us a danger to others.

It is never a bad time to recover our humanity as boys and men. Try it. Start by telling other men in your life today — including male friends — that you love them. Just do it.

— McKaiser is a contributor and analyst to Sunday Times Daily and TimesLIVE


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