Courageous Vulnerability: A Problem for Men?

In isolated North Korea, the new and untested president Kim Jong-un asserts his authority and power with threats and saber rattling—well, actually nuclear arms rattling. Rutgers basketball coach, Mike Rice, demonstrates his power and authority by whacking a kid’s head with a basketball and smearing his team with slurs that deride anything feminine. In Colombine, Colorado, and Newtown—to name a few tragedy-laden places—socially alienated young men exert their power by killing unsuspecting school mates, movie goers and kindergarten children. Taliban members establish their power and authority by throwing acid in school girls’ faces. Bush, Cheney et al assert their power to establish the US as a sole super power by invading Iraq. CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan poopoos investors’ concerns about a high risk trading fiasco that he condoned.
Are these acts of strength and courage?
In spite of the diversity of male protagonists and their different arenas, they share something in common: they are horrible failures at being courageous. Why? Because true courage actually emerges from embracing its antithesis–vulnerability. When we are most vulnerable, we are also given the opportunity and potential to be our most powerful and courageous.
Acts of aggression, hubris and violence don’t come from strength, but from a denied weakness. To experience vulnerability in a constructive way requires a level of emotional strength. Did any of the men I mentioned earlier demonstrate the emotional strength that allows them to accept their vulnerability, or an ability to constructively deal with their vulnerable feelings? I doubt it. What we witnessed instead was at once a pathetic and tragic attempt at denying feelings, by taking it out on others. I call it the gladiator defense.
Unwilling or unable to admit their vulnerabilities, gladiators fend off and avoid these feelings by externalizing them and projecting them onto others. They exercise power by humiliating, shaming, avenging, and hurting—all vulnerable feelings they themselves have, but cannot or will not deal with. Instead they force these feelings of weakness on others and proceed to attack the very thing in another that they despise in themselves. In sport speak, “The best defense is a strong offense.” When a gladiator attacks, he is actually attacking a hidden part of himself. The attack is not an exercise of self-assertion. Instead, the gladiator is attempting to destroy what he does not want to see in himself or feels ill-equipped to deal with.
Being vulnerable is all but taboo for men in our society, and they learn this at an early age. Regarded primarily as a weakness rather than as a powerful source of connection to themselves and others, vulnerability is derided as an anathema to manhood. Instead, boys learn that they have to feign a sense of invincibility at an early age, and sports is often a path to this indoctrination. They are taught to be femiphobic, to deny and fear all the feminine aspects of themselves because generally the feminine is demeaned as powerless, soft, and inferior in our society. Unfortunately, the feminine has also become associated with vulnerability. Harnessing men to an unrealistic male identity of invincibility that demands they disconnect from their vulnerability is not only inhumane, but also impedes their ability to be truly courageous.
This dynamic does not go unnoticed by children.
During a recent conversation with mothers and their “tween” daughters in a pilot project I am conducting (Iron Butterflies and Caterpillars) along with two facilitators, eleven year old girl Iris talked about being bullied and how it “adds to the way I feel about myself. It makes me feel like I’m someone who doesn’t really matter to anyone.” But, we have to ask, Are these her feelings of vulnerability? Or are they the bully’s feelings of vulnerability thrust upon her as a way of denying them in himself?
And yet being connected to these vulnerable feelings in herself gave this young girl the courage to intervene when she saw a friend being bullied. She went and got a guidance counselor. “It scares me to see what happened to me happen to my close friends. I don’t want any of my friends to feel the way I do because it’s not a good thing.”
Going back to the initial examples of gladiators, imagine all the failed moments in these men’s lives to be courageously vulnerable, where they failed to stand up for themselves and be true to themselves in difficult and unjust situations. Moments that got stashed away and then distorted and channeled into aggressive behavior. Imagine all the failed moments in human society that turned brothers into enemies and a communal society to one based on domination.
One tween girl Evelyn in our project brought up the image of the Virginia state seal, which depicts the Roman goddess of peace Virtus, dressed as an Amazon with one breast exposed, resting on a spear in her right hand, pointing downward, touching the earth; and holding in her left hand, a sheathed sword pointing upward; her head erect and face upturned; her left foot on the neck of the form of Tyranny represented by the prostrate body of a man, his fallen crown nearby, a broken chain in his left hand, and a scourge in his right with the motto, “Sic Semper Tyrannis.” (Which means “thus always to tyrants,” or colloquially, “Watch out tyrants, or this is what will happen to you.”)
A complex image. Will women be the undoing of a domination based culture and lead us towards peace? Does she however have to play the war game in order to change the game? Is there a way of dealing with aggression without being aggressive?
The girls’ comments on this image? Evelyn said: “She has victory and a spear and I’m thinking maybe that’s not the only way to have victory. Then I thought about the school shootings; I was thinking the person had problems with courage and that’s why he had to do that. To be courageous, you have to be yourself. To pretend you are courageous is actually not being courageous.”
The other girls in the project chimed in their agreement: “Defeating is not the only way to have victory. Can’t we reach victory another way?”
Young Iris seemed to find another way to victory. In spite of her fears in dealing with a bully, despite her vulnerability, she stepped up to the plate, stopped the bully from hurting her friend— all without becoming aggressive. Iris demonstrates courageous vulnerability.
Given the state of the world and its level of violence, are men unable to be like Iris, to be courageously vulnerable? Must they always turn their vulnerability into aggression?
Do men have a problem with being courageously vulnerable?


Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.