Exploring Toxic Masculinity


 

 

–by Neal Lemery

 

What is it to be a man in these times?

There are a lot of mixed messages, and outright confusing and contradictory “principles” and models for behavior. It is easy to get lost in the wilderness of our social contract.

The “#MeToo” Movement and the rhetoric and behavior of popular politicians and popular culture figures send conflicting messages. One is often left confused about what is accepted, what is appropriate moral behavior and thinking. Political and religious leaders, who should be exercising healthy leadership and conversation about these issues, are themselves in the center of the storms of outrage, of being called out for their own transgressions and immoral acts.  And, their failure to be effective spokespersons for what should be healthy masculinity.

For many of them, there seems to be no consequence for their words or their actions.

The goalposts of morality and decency seem to have fallen into quicksand.

For most of my life, the most popular “templates” for manhood involved being the tough, aggressive guy, who was focused on “scoring” with women, drinking, smoking, and pushing others around in order to get his way. Aggression and being emotionally cold were the benchmarks of a true man, the battle flags of male privilege.

The “soft” man was seen as weak and sissified, certainly not a real man.  The consequences for that were brutal: verbal and physical abuse, ostracism, and being branded as “not a real man”, inadequate, a failure. Shame and guilt were powerful weapons to destroy a boy’s soul.

When I was growing up, the real question of the day was “how tough am I?” The unforgiving world of the school playground was also the world of work and the world I grew up in and raised a family.

That methodology of raising boys unfortunately remains a part of our culture today, often perpetuated by our language, marketing, politics, and acceptance of the idea that such thinking and acting are just who we are, inadequate and deficient as men. A big challenge I faced when I was raising my kids was to not repeat the harmful actions and words of those who raised and influenced me as a kid.

Treating others with kindness, being artistic and creative, being one of those “sensitive, soft men”, was subject to being thought of as not a real man, not “macho”, and certainly not a role model.  Unless, of course, you wrapped yourself in the armor of a warrior, and couched your rhetoric in the language of the soldier, the athlete, and an all-around tough guy. Only a few savvy men were able to pull that off.

I struggled to find a new template, new words, and new actions. The role models for that were few and far between. Yet, I am grateful for their courage, and for showing me that there was an alternative path to masculinity.

A lot of that attitude of intolerance, of cloaking one’s self in armor, so no one could see your tenderness, or get close to your kind heart, has eased off lately, in spite of the power and tenacity of the “old thinking”. Change is scary, and acting differently leads one into uncharted waters, marked with fear and self-doubt. Even toxic familiarity offers comfort.

Today, I see young men publicly being attentive, kind fathers. They speak out about treating others with kindness and compassion.  They not only “talk the talk”, but they “walk the walk”.

Expressing your creativity, and being open about one’s fears and uncertainties, and struggles to be a good person are becoming widely accepted and appreciated. The times, they are a changing, and that is good news.

The good role models, the brave men who cracked open their own armor, and were able to express their worries, their doubts, their insecurities, have taken a lot of heat.  They have often been shamed and derided, mocked and scorned.  Years later, when we take another look at what they’ve said and what they have done, what they have revealed about their innermost selves, we often just take such courage for granted, and assume that we as a society have always explored those issues, and those personal stories, with sensitivity and appreciation.

We live in challenging times, but we always have.  Engaging one’s own courage, determination and self-confidence to know and live your own core values, to truly be yourself, to be genuine, has always been challenging.  You need to take risks, and to step out on shaky ground.  Each one of us has those doubts, those uncertainties inside of us.

“What is it to be a man?” I still ask myself.  Each day offers a new challenge, with obstacles both inside of me and in our society.  I often think it is easier if I just kept quiet, if I just put these questions aside, and focused on something else, anything else, for the day ahead.  But, healthy masculinity, true manhood, calls me to take on these questions, and to take a hard look at myself, and to take steps today to be a real man.

 

 

–1/23/19

My 2019 New Year’s Affirmations


“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something. “

–Neil Gaiman

 

  • I will love myself. I will remind myself that I am worthy of love, and the most important person in my life who should love me is me. This affirmation allows me to set aside the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” negative self-talk, the “I’m not good enough” thinking that often can stop me in my tracks, push me off the rails, and cloud my mind with dark thoughts leading me to believe I am a failure, so why even try.
  • I will be grateful every day, for the day, the opportunities, the possibilities of each and every day. I am able to do so many things, and I need to remind myself of that truth.
  • I will not take good health for granted, and will try to view health as a gift, and an opportunity.
  • I will honor my friendships and my commitments to others. I will be kind, I will speak truth, I will not gossip. I will remind myself that I do not walk in the shoes of others, and do not truly know their journey, their pain, their worries.  I will be the change I want to see in the world.
  • I will strive to recognize the value of empathy in my life and my relationships. I will strive to “walk a mile in their moccasins”.
  • I will ask for help when I need it.
  • I will be an instrument of change, of goodness, and peace. I recognize I am capable of doing the opposite, but I have a choice, and I choose goodness.
  • I will practice self care. I will eat wisely, exercise, be in nature, and take time to find myself in a place (physically, mentally, spiritually) where I can find calm, serenity, tranquility, and balance.  The most important medical care provider for me is me.
  • Food is medicine. So is nature, and time with myself.
  • I will reduce the drama in my life, and seek to avoid those who are toxic and try to overwhelm me with their drama and chaos.I recognize that toxic people exhaust me, sap my creative spirit, deny me from achieving my destiny, and distract me from the joys in my life. I will seek to not be dramatic and toxic.
  • I will read thoughtful, challenging books, and engage in meaningful, purposeful conversations with others, and surround myself with intelligence and compassion. I will welcome new ideas and perspectives. I will be open to being better informed, and to change my opinions accordingly.
  • I will nurture my creativity, by intentionally surrounding myself with creativity, art, music, and the positive energy and spirit of others. I will be deliberate with my time, and intentionally take time to nurture myself and my creativity.
  • I will reach out to the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned, the addicted, and be compassionate. I will listen more than talk. (I have one mouth, and two ears.) I will try not to judge, nor condemn.  I will remind myself that I need to seek understanding of their journey.
  • I recognize that I can be a builder in my community, and how this community lives and grows is, in part, my responsibility.I can be a destroyer or a nurturer. I get to choose, and I will strive to choose wisely.
  • I am a human being, not necessarily a human doing. Being busy isn’t necessarily better.
  • I will not be an instrument for communicating and perpetuating lies, mistruths, half truths, and propaganda. I will strive not to be manipulated. I will exercise self-care when exposed to any of that “information”. I will do so with caution, reserve, and skepticism.  I will be a critical thinker. When I communicate with others, I will recognize that I am a guardian of truth and will strive to be accurate, thoughtful, and exercise sound judgement.  I will be aware of my biases and prejudices and will so inform my audience.
  • I will strive to apply the “five year rule” to the situation at hand, and my actions, my words, and my relationships. “Will this really matter five years from now?” And, if the answer is no, then I can let it be, and move on.  The topic at hand may not be all that important, and I need to find comfort and peace in understanding that.  Breathe out and let it go. I am in charge of how I feel and I how I react.

 

 

—-Neal Lemery, 12/28/2018

The Gift of Sobriety


“I know my limit,” one young man kept saying, his bloodshot eyes and pale complexion seemingly at odds with his statement, as he held his energy drink, hands trembling. We were both in line at a store, he and his friends rehashing last night’s alcohol-soaked party.  They boasted to each other about last night’s consumption, getting through hangovers, and the drunk friend who “overdid it”.

 

Addiction doesn’t care.

 

“It reverberates through the whole family, affecting entire generations for years,” a friend recently told me. “Our kids saw that, and it affected each of them. Some were drawn to drinking like a moth to the flame; others were repulsed, and became angry and bitter about their childhood.  The devastation was so widespread, and we are still dealing with it.”

 

Give the gift of sobriety this season.

 

This gift is not a gift to someone else.  It is a gift to you, from you.  Others won’t respond to your preaching and your nagging, except to become even more entrenched in their behavior.

 

Give sobriety to yourself.  Put some distance between you and the behavior, the “stinking thinking”.  Enjoy the quiet when that clutter has been moved to a safe distance away from your corner of the world.

 

Take care of yourself.  Nurture yourself.  Spend some quality time with the real you.  Surround yourself with the things you truly enjoy.  Indulge in the simple pleasures that you hold dear and treasure. Know your limits for addictive thinking and action.

 

Find acceptance in the silence, away from the chaos and noise.  Find the genuine you; that person is an old friend. Honor the innate, fundamental goodness that is your very essence.  Love yourself, for you are worthy of that love.

 

Being sober isn’t just about one’s consumption of alcohol and other drugs.  It is about clear thinking, about avoiding the pitfalls of untruths, propaganda, and self-aggrandizement. When we adopt falsehoods and fashion our lives around deceptions and lies, we lose our direction in life, our ability to fashion a life based on reality and honesty.  Being honest with ourselves is perhaps our most challenging task, but, in the end, coming to grips with what is really true truly serves our selves and our souls.

 

At its heart, sobriety is clear thinking and the pursuit of being honest with yourself.  Recognize the agendas and intentions of others to trick you, manipulate you and tempt you to serve the ulterior and selfish motives of others. Addiction enjoys the company, but it really doesn’t care about you.

 

Be true to yourself.  Search for the truth, as brutal and loud as it may be.  Ignoring truth chips away at our souls, and keeps us from finding and loving our true selves.  Seeing one’s own truth is the path to freedom.

—-Neal Lemery 12/24/2018

Becoming


 

 

Change

Comes with each moment

Each wave on the beach

Changes

The beach

The observer

Itself

Transforming all there is

In different ways

Renewing, reforming, recreating—

Over time, the difference obvious

A new reality, a new experience

And from that, comes change, again.

 

Change is in our nature – it is what we do,

Who we are, beings in motion

Observing, experiencing, adapting—

Becoming something new, an evolving

Seeking our light, becoming who we are meant to be

Meant to becoming, again and again.

 

Our destiny is in the moment, in the changing, in the becoming—

I am

Ever renewing, ever changing

Ever becoming.

 

—Neal Lemery, 10/7/2018

Listening, With Respect


 

 

—Neal Lemery

 

I’ve listened to a lot of stories, especially stories of pain, trauma, embarrassment, and horror; people telling me the deeply personal, intimate, and heart-wrenching tales of their lives, unburdening themselves, or just sharing so that I could understand their lives better.

When I became a lawyer, the judge swearing in all the new lawyers reminded us that we new attorneys were also counselors at law, that we were healers of social ills and menders of the social fabric.

A friend of mine, a priest, kept reminding me that I, too, wore a collar and people came to me to make confession, and receive absolution and a sense of peace and healing.

“Forgiveness,” he would say, “is what we both offer the world.”

My professional life has involved a great deal of truth seeking and pursuing justice.  That work necessitates actively listening, involving more than wiling ears and a reasoning, analytical mind.  There is also heavy lifting for the soul, and one’s gut and heart.

One’s life experiences and one’s very essences of humanity are also in play.

And just when I think I am old enough, experienced enough, to have mastered my listening and my truth detection, life throws me a new curve ball, renewing my challenge to be the consummate and empathetic discerner of reality – the knower of Truth.

Everyone’s story, everyone’s reality and truth, is different.  Shaped by their experiences, their circumstances, their own truth is unique to them.  And whether I judge their story as subjective, relative truth, or objective, absolute truth, it is still their story and their reality.

And I filter their story through my own lenses, my own experiences and reality, both good and bad, often flawed and more self-serving that I am inclined to confess.  I’m a work in progress myself.

The wearing of the judge’s robe is too often only a symbol of the values of impartiality, truth seeking, and justice. Judging is, after all, an art and not a science.  Bias, prejudice, and intolerance aren’t left at the courtroom door.  Judges, after all, should see our own flaws.

Like the rest of America, I’ve been awash in the politics and story telling of seating our new justice of the Supreme Court.  That process should call upon our highest and most sacred ideals as citizens.  Lately, we’ve fallen far from that standard.

My senses have been flooded with profoundly emotional storytelling and speech making.

My own experiences, recollections and often buried memories of my own alcohol-infused youth have risen to the surface, adding intense anguish, empathy, and revulsion to what I am seeing on the TV news and reading in the media. The needed discussions and accountability work haven’t been at center stage.

The stories and the memories are disquieting, uncomfortable.  But they need to be told.  We as a society need to take on the traumas of sexual violence and over-indulgence of alcohol.  The issues and questions are vital social concerns that affect all our lives and the well-being of our society.

Like other personal and societal secrets and tragedies, these stories need to be shared and understood in the bright sunshine of thoughtful and compassionate conversations and meaningful discussions.

In their telling, and in the presence of empathetic listening, there can finally be a release and an understanding, even acceptance, of history that can empower us and begin to heal us, so we are able to move ahead. Their story can no longer be locked away and buried.

Hopefully, in the telling, and the sharing, the darkness fades and fresh bright light can offer some cleansing.  The festering wounds can drain and begin to heal.  We all deserve to heal.

We can offer each other the gift of catharsis, the purging of infection and disease, the enlightenment of confession and forgiveness.  The power of truth telling is an act of personal liberation, of empowerment.

Ending the silence is an act of disarming the abuser, a cutting of chains that have kept so much of our souls in captivity.  It is an art of taking back our power and our human spirit.

In that work, that telling and sharing, there is liberation, an act of self-affirmation.  When that work is being done, one gains a new sense of self-esteem and power over one’s life. It is a gift to yourself that does change your life.  It is an act of self-kindness and self-respect.

It seems easy for us to recognize the truth in another person’s story.  We are often quick to judge.  In recent years, that rush to judgement often is skewed by labeling, blaming, categorizing, and simply being mean and vindictive.  The polarizing, divisive lens of national politics artificially is shined on the story, encouraging us to quickly, and with little fact gathering or reason, qualify a tale as true or false.  We have polarized compassion and patriotism.

Such a twenty second sound bite approach ill suits the truth seeking that we would want others to apply as they listen to our own stories. Don’t we want the listener of our own tale to be compassionate, wise, and a healer of our fellow human beings?

I’ve learned, as a lawyer and a judge, to be not so quick to judge, and to not rapidly label or categorize.  Reality is complicated, and we can be inclined to edit and change our own stories. Each of our own viewpoints, our perspectives, are unique. Guilt, shame, self-protection, and ego all come into play so we can prepare to step out onto the stage and share our story, even if it will be told only to a trusted friend over a cup of coffee.

On the national political stage, where the stakes are higher, I think we often edit and rearrange and alter the story to attract a more receptive audience. We play the game of politics. Yet, the naked, raw truth can be brilliant and illuminated, shining through all the political and moral clutter. Bare truth can be frightening to the politicians, because of its purity and reality.  Real, pure truth is not playing the game according to the rules.

For some time, I mentored a young man, holding him close as a son.  He had a troubled, angry life, dealing with many problems and issues.  He felt worthless and unloved.  His soul pain bled all over his life.

One day, he and I took that pain on and explored his wound, looking for his truth. Years of shame, guilt and self-loathing stood in the way, but he persisted with profound courage and intestinal fortitude.  In all that muck, he found his truth and spoke it out loud, so we could better hear it. It was awful, horrific, heart-wrenching. But, his truth was his and he spoke it.

And, I listened and I believed him.  Believing someone’s story is so amazingly powerful and liberating.  Much of his pain and anguish began to be released. And the healing began for him.

I was reminded that day of the power of unconditional love.  And not the unconditional love of a listener, but that very special unconditional love he found that day for himself, that he really could speak and share his truth.

We have all hear true stories.  Honest, open heart surgery kinds of experiences, unadorned by excuse making, window dressing, and self-glorification.  We know it is true because our very being senses that.  Our soul knows it is truth.

“You will know the Truth, and it shall set you free.”  (John, 8:32)

I hope that we, as individuals, and as a country, can honor our respective truths, and in that recognition, find our common humanity.

 

–October 6, 2018

Resilience


 

 

I live in resilient times.  Examples of being tough, flexible, and determined to move on with one’s life are all around me, and I am heartened by their courage, their stubbornness, and their ability to realize their dreams.

I’ve only known one man through a mutual friend, and we’ve exchanged letters for several years now, talking about books and sharing our writing, and our lives.  He’s been in prison for 21 years in another state, so we’ve never met face to face. Yet, we’ve connected and I’ve been a cheerleader for him, as he’s been preparing himself for a challenging parole hearing.

It was an uphill battle for him, and he’s had to work through feelings of worthlessness and lack of confidence in his talents and how he’s grown in prison, that he’s not the enraged, frustrated teenager living on city streets, acting out, in a drug induced haze.  Others have supported him, too, yet the real work was his to do.  Meeting the parole board, it came down to what he had to say for himself. It was about how he presented the work that he’s done to change his thinking and to demonstrate that he’s ready for life on the “outside”, ready to make some contributions to society.

And, at the end of the day, he was found “worthy of parole”.  After all that time, he can now move on, into a first-class drug rehab facility, where he will also learn the skills to be a drug and alcohol counselor.  He’s overcome his fears, or at least has been able to use that energy to fuel his rehabilitation and self-actualization of who he really is, inside. He’s open to learn more about himself and the demons that have shaped his life, and to build himself into an even healthier, balanced man.

He’s changed, and it’s not because of those who have supported him, but because of his own work, and his own determination and self-esteem.

Another friend gets out of prison this summer, nearly finishing his graduate degree on line.  He’s done his undergrad and grad school work on line from a cubicle in prison, diligently studying, writing, and even doing group projects with other students. Prison isn’t the ideal college campus, yet he has persisted. Already, the college has employed him to improve the program and help other students.

Even more astonishing, he has grown and matured into a well-adjusted socially delightful young man, who knows the importance of a well-rounded and balanced life with others.  His attitude and his intentions are the total opposite of his childhood life, and he has made the transition with a great deal of grit and determination.

Yet another man has navigated a tough childhood and several years of incarceration, to getting off parole and moving into the work force.  No job was beneath him, and he worked hard, always moving ahead, improving his skills and not being afraid of hard work, long hours, and changing himself into a healthy, cheerful young man with solid values and meaningful dreams.

Today, he’s transitioning into yet another job, with more responsibility, better pay, and stability.  He knows where he is going and knows who he is and wants to be.

Some of what I’ve gained in these friendships is to experience their honesty and forthrightness.  They are open to who they are, where they’ve come from, what they’ve experienced, and the mistakes they’ve made.  They freely share their lessons and their wisdom.  They have taught me that one’s intentions and one’s determination makes all the difference in the world.  And, with that drive in their gut, there is no stopping them in what they want to accomplish.

They’ve made mistakes, but then, haven’t we all? Regrets, even shame and guilt are there, but when one decides to learn from that experience, and to change what needs to be changed, and focus on where one needs to go, the past becomes a teacher, and not a label.

They remind me to examine my own life, the experiences I have had, the choices I’ve made, and the directions I have taken in my life.  They have taught me to accept the lessons to be taught, and to move forward, gathering my skills and my ambition, and to move ahead.  It is hard work, and challenging.  Yet, if one wants to change and to realize one’s dreams, you have to step forward and do the hard work.

In that process, you have to also love yourself, and to respect yourself for who you are, and who you are becoming.  Labels don’t really matter, and one’s past is simply that.  It doesn’t compel you to repeat poor choices, or to accept the situation you are in, and simply feel that you are doomed to a certain direction or destiny.

What others may think of you doesn’t really matter, unless you think it does.

These men are speakers of Truth, an increasingly scarce commodity in our society.  They don’t dance around the facts, the reality of life.  Instead, they focus themselves, grab onto their dreams and the direction they have decided to take, and then put their heart and soul into working towards their goals and dreams. They are honest, and don’t pull any punches when it comes to being real and direct.

They get real, and they keep me real, and focused on doing something meaningful and productive in my life.

Our conversations are deep and purposeful. And, I wish I had more friends like them, and more conversations with substance and depth.

Game playing, lying, manipulating others, and not dealing with the elephant in the living room aren’t who they are about.  They know what they want and they know how to get there.  They are brutally honest with themselves, and can spot the old “stinking thinking” a mile away.

They don’t suffer fools easily, and steer away from the naysayers and the idlers they come across in their lives.  Their BS meters are finely tuned and always powered up.  Their respect is not easily earned, yet they are fiercely loyal to their own dreams, and to those in their lives who have become their close friends and family.

Others in our lives can easily dance around the truth, and are prone to manipulate us with propaganda, half-truths, fake news, and false thinking. They waste my time and clutter up my thinking with their blather.  I find myself repulsed by their disrespect for the truth and for their own warped values. I resent how they waste my time, and detract all of us from improving our world and enriching lives.

The better society is being built by the likes of these men who are self-actualized truth seekers. They are constructing decent, purposeful lives, and are worthy role models for the rest of us.

I’d rather hang out with the likes of these men, who are straightforward and focused. I have much to learn from them, the resilient ones.

 

–Neal Lemery 5/9/2018

The Real Presents Under the Tree


 

 

Christmas Eve, 2017

 

I’m sitting by the fire, with a mug of coffee, watching the cold rain fall outside, almost turning to snow.

The presents are wrapped and under the tree, brightening up the living room. Soon, dinner will be in the oven, and the merriment of Christmas will begin.

The real joy of the season, and the real presents to be enjoyed, won’t be found under the tree. The true gifts of Christmas have already been given, and our hearts are already filled with the joy of the season.

That joy, that “reason for the season” is found in relationships.

It has been a year of reaching out, reconnecting, and opening our hearts to one another. Friends and family have shared their fears, their uncertainties, their doubts. Many have had their lives turned upside down, and have been left fearful of their future, and their own abilities to captain their ships through storm-tossed seas.

This year, I’ve made it a point to reach out and share time with many people. Being a good listener, offering comfort and solace. Realizing that each of us is an instrument of change. One person can make a difference. It’s a simple truth.

Often, simply showing up and being there for someone has warmed our hearts and provided a safe harbor during the storm.

Last week, I visited two young men in prison. Both of them were filled with doubt and uncertainty, feeling lost and unsupported in their journeys. We talked, we laughed, we shared our stories of our struggles and doubts during this year.

We each took comfort in the other’s big hearts and willingness to extend hands of friendship.

Behind cold walls topped with razor wire, I found the light of personal commitment to a better world. Young men, with great courage and great wisdom, speaking from their hearts gave me hope for the future.

We are not alone. None of us are fully confident in our ability to weather the storms of life. Yet, we have each other, and we believe in each other. In our community, by coming together and sharing our hearts and our talents, we will change the world.

This year, I celebrate the gift of friendship, the gift of unconditional love.

What really is important this year is not found in politics, and is rarely talked about on the pages of newspapers, social media posts, or on TV. Yet, I hear it from friends and family, over coffee, and in new books that come my way.

The real treasure we have, and the true power that we hold in our own hands and in our hearts, is the ability to care about each other, to support each other, and to act with compassion and respect.

The answers to the world’s problems won’t be found in the marble halls of Washington, but they will be found in our hearts and in the strength of hands holding hands, people walking alongside other people, and working towards our common goals and implementing our common values in the work that we do.

This is a time of rebuilding, and restarting the relationships and the social institutions that have served us so well in the past. In our commonality, our common goodness, there is hope and there is our future.

–Neal Lemery