A few years ago, soon after leaving the military, I attended a Remembrance Day parade in a small village near where my parents were living. At this time, memories of Afghanistan were still a daily experience for me to endure but I had always welcomed the sombre tone of the parades as an opportunity to mourn collectively. When the time came for the wreaths to be laid down I duly stepped up and paid my respects, reflecting on the loss of so many of my friends. As I stood back from having laid my poppies, a little teary, my attention was directed to an elderly veteran wearing a smart blazer and his former unit's head-dress. He had laid a wreath too. My attention was drawn to him because he was obviously in a lot of pain, crying despairingly into his hands.
This man was clearly very old, a survivor from WWII, I assumed. His behaviour, while totally understandable considering the horrors of that terrible conflict, shocked me. It felt as if I had been shown a glimpse of my future at nearly 90 years old, still sobbing my heart out over my trauma all those years later. My heart ached for that poor man and for the future me, but the scene absolutely terrified me. I realised I was well on my way to becoming that man, that I could one day still be so traumatised by my own experiences that I am brought to tears nearly 70 years after the events. It was then that I decided to focus all my energy on healing myself of my trauma. It was a profound moment and a catalyst for my transition from a damaged combat veteran to a balanced, content and happy member of society.
Because of my overtly masculine perspective at that time it was hard for me to express myself openly to my friends, who I assumed would consider me weak and broken if I were to admit to my suffering. The overriding philosophy of our unit was to essentially “man up and get on with it,” and it had served us famously well. But there is a time and a place for robustness and gritty determination and those times are very few and far between, especially once you leave the military. As soldiers, for instance, our sense of self-worth often comes from the image of ourselves as protectors, defenders, noble warriors. But protectors, defenders and warriors are not traditionally associated with being sensitive to their emotions. These values of sensitivity and vulnerability are seen as detrimental to the warrior and are therefore often shunned by those who take up these roles. I believe many men would still revolt at the idea of embracing vulnerability and sensitivity as strengths. Society as a whole, and men in particular, still find it difficult to acknowledge and embrace the power of vulnerability because it’s scary. It’s terrifying - looking at your pain, at your open wounds. It’s so much easier to deny it, ignore it. It’s so hard to turn and face it, which is why vulnerability is shunned and sneered at.
But if we allow ourselves to become vulnerable, we do not suddenly become less masculine or somehow weaker. In our vulnerability we give ourselves space and time to explore who we really are, free from the expectations of others or society as a whole. In our vulnerability we achieve success in our endeavours because we do not attach our well-being to one outcome. We accept that we may fail or that we cannot please everyone but we do our work anyway, and that in itself is success. In our vulnerability we allow ourselves to connect authentically with our friends and families, which dispels fears and insecurities because our loved ones then better understand our suffering/perspective and are therefore better equipped to support us along our path, instead of having to sit there and watch us struggle on alone. In our vulnerability we all win. We are better able to support and help others and we are better able to be supported and helped by others.
For instance, if we are struggling with a mental health issue related to some past trauma, it’s easy to drink your way through it or ask your GP for some pills and just carry on with our life. But that drink and those pills are only masking your pain. They will not heal you of your suffering and it will come out in the end. The power of vulnerability is accepting that it is normal to suffer and feel pain. True healing comes when you can face that suffering and pain, look at it and examine it honestly, with a clear mind. Yes, it is hard to do this. Yes, it takes great courage. But isn’t it better to fully experience your pain and heal from it than to hide from it, allowing it to manifest in all sorts of negative ways, impacting your relationships, your behaviour and dominate the course of your entire life? It may take several years of very hard work but one day you will emerge from it healed and a more authentic version of yourself. We needn’t be that old veteran, still traumatised by our life experiences decades later, even carrying them to our deathbeds.
So, yes, masculinity is about strength. It is about courage. But real strength is found in vulnerability and real courage is being honest and true to yourself. Heal yourself, live your life and you’ll inspire others to do the same. It’s how we heal the world. Start with yourself.
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