Should Men Be Tough Or Tender?: Wisdom and Masculinity
Should Men Be Tough Or Tender?: Wisdom and Masculinity

Should Men Be Tough Or Tender?: Wisdom and Masculinity

When it comes to men and masculinity, a line has been clearly drawn. On one side, there are those that say masculinity is toxic and destructive. On the other, there are those who respond that we’ve become soft and ineffective.

One satirical headline reads: “masculinity too toxic, says least masculine generation ever.”

Another, commenting on the millennial man’s apparent inability to do traditionally masculine things:

“Womenkind can’t have it both ways, and now that they’re second-guessing their decision to encourage the sentimental, emotionally-aware man, it’s too late.”

But there’s something very important missing from the ongoing conversation about masculinity, and that thing is “wisdom.”

The belief that men are either strong or weak is an extremely patriarchal value, one that has little use in society and no place in relationships.

If the question being asked is “What’s the problem with men? Are they toxic and destructive? Or are they becoming soft and weak?”

My response is, well, both.

The issue is not really one of strength, but when to wield it. And on the whole, men are completely confused about this.

Over the last several years I’ve worked with hundreds of men in many different capacities. Here’s what I’ve learned about “wimpy” men.

Show me a wimpy man, and I’ll show you, somewhere in that man’s history, another man who used power inappropriately.

That man could be a father, an uncle, a coach, or simply the amalgamated “man” from our socialization.

Wimpy men, by and large, have learned to fear their own power because they’ve seen it destroy things.

Our culture teaches girls to contract and be small by virtue of being female. Our boys, on the other hand, are presented with two equally problematic options: buy into the falsely empowering fraternity of masculinity at the expense of the Self, or resist and be punished, disempowered.

The split we are seeing in men and the polarization of the conversation about the masculinity is, in my opinion, a direct result of this dilemma that each boy faces.

The time has come for men to seek wholeness, to throw out the dated view that we can either be tough or tender. For those of us who ride in the one-up position to relinquish our false power and come back into relationship — with women, with other men, with our planet. And for those of us who camp in disempowerment to reclaim masculine energy for positive purpose.

This is where wisdom comes in.

Last week, I saw a man on the street screaming and cursing at his partner as he forcibly sat her in his car. The young woman was intoxicated, and, from what I gathered as a passerby, he was attempting to protect her. He screamed “I’m not leaving you here to get hurt” as he shoved her into the front seat.

My gut tells me this man would have mobilized that same energy to protect her against a threat if the situation called for it. But here he was using intimidation and physical strength inappropriately.

I watched helplessly as they drove off and was left to wonder about the cost of such an interaction. I wondered if this man even knew how to be tender, much less when to be tender.

I reflected on my own history, of putting fists through walls, of kicking doors in rage. Moments, displays of “strength,” that were ultimately destructive. And other moments when the situation called for action and I reacted passively. Toughness, when the situation needed tenderness. Tenderness, when the situation need toughness. And missed opportunities to be tough and tender simultaneously.

Wisdom comes with age, sometimes, and more reliably, with practice. My challenge to myself, my clients, and men everywhere is to understand when the world needs our brawn and when it needs our hearts.

I hope we can have a different conversation now. Not “should men be strong or soft,” but “when should men be strong, and when should they be soft?”

I’ll leave you with my favorite story as told by my dear mentor Terry Real:

“I had the privilege of being in Maasailand and I went to a remote Maasai village with people who knew the community very well, and in deference to my work with men, we assembled the elders for three nights and we had a men’s group for three nights.

It went from English to Swahili to Maasai back to Swahili back to English as well.

We talked about all kinds of things. We talked about women, we talked about God, we talked about death, we talked about war, but one of the things I asked them is this:

I said, “In America, there’s a debate about what makes a good Morani, a good warrior, a good man.

And there are people who think that what makes a good Morani is strength and fierceness and toughness.

There are other people that think what makes for a good Morani is sensitivity and tenderness and love.

What do you guys think? Which is it?”

And this little guy, I swear must’ve been four foot three, 100 years old, sets his little finger out and goes … And it just translated and this is a rough version of what he said but it’s true to what he said.

He said, “I have no interest in talking to you about what makes a good Morani. I have only interest in talking to you about what makes a great Morani. So now let me tell you, when the moment calls for fierceness, a good Morani is a killer. When the moment calls for tenderness, a good Morani takes down his sword and shield and is sweet like a baby.

A great Morani knows which moment is which.”

-Terry Real, in an interview with Kathy Caprino
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