When you are about 12 or so, it’s inevitable that you’re going to have to do your first book report. In my day, you sometimes just read the back cover and tried to bullshit from there. Now kids have Wikipedia, cliff notes, and all kinds of other ways to circumvent this process. But invariably, the time comes where you just have to read the damn book.
I was getting to that! The reason is, the quote above comes from the first real book I ever read, The Outsiders by S.E Hinton.
Lots of you have probably seen the movie (best cast
ever!) I would guess lots of kids from my generation actually did read
the book. The quote above speaks to the protagonist of the story finally
realizing the folly of the toxic masculinity he has been raised with. He’s sick
of being a tough guy. Sick of burying feelings Sick of being unable to talk
about things that men typically avoid for fear of being branded weak.
But there’s also a lot in the second part of the quote. He’s still gotta live in this world, and just because he’s found this enlightenment doesn’t mean everyone else is on the same page.
As someone who has worked with a lot of younger males, I can tell you that they will often do almost anything to avoid a discussion about feelings. If you want to talk about YouTube or Fortnite, you can’t shut these guys up. You try to sneak one question in about emotions?
Suddenly everyone has got to go to the bathroom,
My point is, the avoidance of these discussions is wired into us at an early age. Sure there has been some great work done recently trying to reverse this process. Here is a wonderful talk about how teaching mindfulness can reduce stress and violence in schools.
And yet, toxic masculinity persists. As much as we talk about mindfulness, mental health, and self-care, many school corridors are still closer to Lord of the Flies than "I’m Ok you’re Ok." Much of what we see as therapists from our adult clients started somewhere in these years. Bullying. A parent with impossible expectations. Somewhere along the way we lose our confidence. Lose our shine. How do I know? I’ve BEEN in classrooms where I’ve asked kids what they want to be when they grow up. And they always have a BIG answer. An astronaut. A professional athlete. A doctor!!
No one ever says they want to be a burned-out middle manager with crippling social anxiety.
Parents have a lot of “greatest hits” when it comes to encouraging children to express their emotions. The ever popular “use your words” has been around for decades.
But the truth be told, we are BORN with a built-in GPS for expressing what we need. When a baby cries, they are not doing that just to keep you awake. They are telling you that they need something. When we tell kids to “use their words” we are trying to continue to give them language to tell us what they need.
But as we know, childhoods don’t always go so smoothly.
Some children (particularly boys) learn to internalize emotions rather than
verbalizing what they need. This could look like bedwetting, or bullying, or
temper tantrums. Hell, some of the adults I know still do those things (alcohol
is usually involved). But the point is, these are “protest” behaviours, or said
another way, “I want you to read my mind” behaviours. We expect that people should
just KNOW what we are feeling or what we need, but of course it doesn’t work
Freud said, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in an uglier ways.”
And boy do they! Silent treatments. Binging on food or alcohol. In some cases, even violence or self-harm.
Turns out that “use your words” thing is pretty important.
I once heard it said that courage is the value that almost all other values spring from. We have to get past our fear. Fear of being different. Fear of being “too sensitive.” Fear of being made fun of by others or disrupting the status quo. Sometimes the easy thing to do is just avoid speaking up. We avoid the temporary consequences without realizing how dire the long-term effects of this approach can be.
But as for me? I went back and read The Outsiders again and thought about what it was like to read it is as a 12-year old. Am I really
so different now? DO I have the courage to speak the truth? Not necessarily.
Not all the time. I still stuff plenty of emotions away (along with the corresponding
Pepperoni Pizzas) rather than have a difficult conversation.
But I’m beginning to find my courage again.
Instead of a book report, I’ve committed to reading 50 books a year. Kind of a weekly book report if you will. I’m going back and reading all of the books that shaped me in some special way growing up. The next stop was The Catcher in the Rye, another book that made a significant impact in my younger years. I came across the following passage,
“Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them - if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.”
Amen to all of that. In sharing our words, we deepen our understanding of just what it is we’re doing here spinning around on this little blue ball in the middle of space. All of us have something to share. All of us contain a piece of the puzzle that might lighten the load or increase someone’s understanding of this shared experience.
Don’t let those words go unspoken.
Be brave enough to speak them.
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