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Reclaiming What It Means To Be A Real Man

Friendship My closest friend Paul and I were having our weekly phone visit a few days ago on New Years Day.  We shared how we had experienced and lived out the primary feeling words we had chosen at the beginning of 2013 - the feelings we most wanted to experience for the year and what activities we had engaged in to help us truly feel those words.

The sharing was powerful and very validating, as it always is when we visit - a weekly commitment we've made with each other for the last 16 years.  Being able to bear witness to each other's lives, the ups and the downs, the victories and the challenges, is extremely affirming and encouraging.

At the end of our New Years conversation, we both commented on how blessed and grateful we are to have this time set aside for deep, honest, authentic, sharing of our lives with each other.  We both know many men who simply don't have this experience in their lives for various reasons.

The Challenge of Men, Friendship, and Masculinity

As my last blog post described, I've been thinking a lot lately about the challenge we men have with intimacy with other men, in our friendships, in our professional associations (which manifests in such unhealthy ways in our leadership styles and insecurities).  Many of us have been conditioned since childhood that being a man means primarily being strong all the time, aggressive, not showing too much emotion, choosing confidence over authenticity, and being independent.

So our friendships tend to reflect that picture of masculinity.  We engage in activities - "shoulder to shoulder" rather than "face to face."  We play hard with and against each other.  We joke, we poke fun.  Our primary way of communicating is through sarcasm, trash talking, knocking the other - all in good form, of course.

When I was trying to find a picture for my last blog, and I googled "pictures of men's friendship," out of the hundreds of photos (mostly about men playing sports), there was one showing two men in a face to face conversation.

And we wonder why our culture is so biased when it comes to masculinity and what it means to be a real man.  Taking the time to share honest feelings, to talk about how life is going, to be transparent, empathetic, compassionate, and authentic expressions of need and insufficiency or inadequacy - that's for women.

Significant Research About What It Means to be a Real Man

In truth, though, more and more research is emerging to unabashedly reveal that that picture of masculinity is one-sided, limited, and insufficient to a healthy, strong life.  It's in fact only one piece (and often misused piece, at that) of what it means to be a man.

Dr. Niobe Way, professor of applied pschology at New York University, wrote a Huffington Post blog last November, explaining how the tragic child sex abuse scandal at Penn State by one of the football coaches could have happened ("Penn State and the Crisis of Masculinity").  She charts the typical process of conditioning our boys go through especially in their teen years.

And then she hits the research.  Stunning!

For example, Sociologist Kirsten Springer studied 1,000 middle-aged men, and found that those who most rigidly adhered to ideals of masculinity (such as emotional stoicism and toughness) reported the worst physical health over a 40-year period.

For example, Psychologists Joseph Pleck and James Mahalik also found that adhering to norms of masculinity such as emotional stoicism for boys and men is significantly associated with poor mental and physical health and with high rates of risky behavior and violence.

Not only is our culture's masculine norm producing unhealthiness, it also bleeds its disease profusely into the work place.

Misguided Masculinity Impacts the Workplace

What I see often when I do consulting and coaching in corporations and businesses is that this male leadership model (which tends to refer to employee development and personal growth as "soft skills" as opposed to the "hard skills" of data and financial productivity) ends up

reducing employee engagement, increasing stress, lowering employee loyalty to both cause and company, and ultimately leaving a carnage of bodies and disillusioned minds-hearts-and-spirits in the wake of these leaders.

Many male leaders are simply not getting it because they're acting out of a misguided sense of masculine strength and influence.

It's About Leveraging How We're Really Wired - Being Fully Human

The truth about men is actually counterintuitive.  Notice Dr. Way's description:

"Primatologist Frans De Waal, developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello and evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, among many other scientists, conclude that we need a complete 'overhaul' in our conceptions of human nature to account for the extensive research that underscore our deeply empathic, cooperative, and relational nature. Caring about what others think and feel is the reason why, according to Charles Darwin, we have survived as a species. Being emotionally sensitive and caring about others is not a sign of being 'girly' or 'gay' but a core element of being human, essential for surviving and thriving."

That's profound!  We need to stop raising our boys with the stereotypical masculine image of emotional stoicism, independence, autonomy, and being strong as not showing caring and compassion too much (not exercising all those "girly" qualities).

What I'm talking about is what it means to be truly human - how we as men are in fact wired, and why reclaiming this part is nonnegotiable to both the survival and success of humanity.

This is a huge health issue.  And it's also about how we as men can be most effective, influential, and successful in whatever mission we're engaged in.

My friend Paul and I, in our conversation on New Years Day, ended our time by recommiting ourselves to our regular journey of sharing, accountability, and support.  Right before we hung up the phone, we affirmed to each other what an amazing blessing it is to carve out this sacred space in which we can be real, honest, emotionally aware, and authentic.  I can't imagine not having this kind of friendship in my life.

My friendship with Paul has and is truly making me a better man!

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Looking for a Speaker?

If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for keynote speakers or workshop teachers for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it.  And interested in strengths coaching?  Feel free to email me at greg@gregorypnelson.com.

A Spirituality of Imperfection: God Shines Through the Cracks in Our Armor

Nakedness and Inadequacys-NAKED-large Remember that nightmare we've all had at one point or another about being naked in public in front of a crowd?  Do you remember what you feel in that dream?  Excited?  Elated?  Proud?  Seductive?

Most often we feel shame, fear, embarrassment, extreme vulnerability, powerful discomfort, maybe even horrified.

Why?  Because the dream is often about the fear of exposure, fear of rejection; that if people saw us for who we really are, they would not accept us, they might even ridicule us.  Dreams about nakedness in public is about a deep fear of inadequacy and even shame.

So our culture demands that we go out in public looking good, clothed not just adequately but impressively.  We grow up in families that equate high performance with value and worth.  We learn early on to hide our inadequacies as best we can in order to appear put together.  Perfection is the standard.

The irony is that deep down we know that perfection is not only unreasonable, it's pretty much impossible.  Read my last blog where I give the example of the hitting percentage of baseball's best players.  Even the greatest batters in history never hit perfectly.  And they're heroes.

And yet we continue to hold ourselves accountable to that perfection measuring stick, holding our self esteem and self worth hostage to an impossible standard.  And if you're a part of a religious community, that standard is spiritualized and theologized, raising the stakes even higher of having to measure up.

Connecting Perfectionism and Shame

Dr. Brene Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, points out that

"where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking.  In fact, shame is the birthplace of perfectionism."  (p. 55)

That certainly explains our fear of exposure in our nightmare of being naked in public.  We will do whatever it takes to keep our inadequacies from being seen because deep down there's a feeling of shame connected to failure or imperfection.  We see ourselves as "less than" in our failures.

So we resort to whatever form of perfectionism most fits our goal of appearing "together" in every setting:  e.g. we'll not take on any difficult tasks or take any risks for fear of failing and being exposed; we'll automatically assume responsibility for something going wrong, taking the blame; or we'll refuse to ever own up to mistakes, blaming other people for what went wrong; we'll avoid any situations that might cause us to look like we're not good enough; or we'll refuse to leave the house unless we look just "right" in public, trying to maintain a predetermined image that's acceptable to us and others.  And the list goes on.

But let's face it:  this is a really really tiring way to live!  Isn't it?  It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to try to maintain a perfect image for everyone else, including ourselves.  Exhausting!  And it keeps us from the freedom of really living life and enjoying life in new and wonderful ways.  That belief system narrows rather than expands our lives.

Three Ways A Spirituality of Imperfection is an Antidote to Perfectionism

One of the powerful antidotes to this debilitating life approach is the practice of a spirituality of imperfection.  That's right.  Healthy, genuine spirituality is based upon embracing the value of imperfection.

Here are several Whys and Hows to practicing this spirituality of imperfection.

First, imperfection is a call to practice compassion on yourself.

Dr. Brown interviewed scores of people who were engaging with the world from a place of authenticity and worthiness.  She noticed that all had a lot in common experience when it came to perfectionism.  First, they spoke about their imperfections in a tender and honest way, and without shame and fear.  Second, they were slow to judge themselves and others.  They operated from a place of "We're all doing the best we can."  Their ability to step into self compassion was extremely high.  (Ibid., p. 59)

The next time you make a mistake or do something less than perfectly, practice compassion on yourself.  Don't judge yourself negatively by going to that indictment, "I'm such a loser!  Why can't I do anything well!  If people knew I was this kind of a failure, they'd reject me for sure!"

"A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day.  A string of such moments can change the course of your life."  Christopher K. Germer

Second, imperfection is a place of Light.  Let it in.

The great spiritual teachers of the past saw imperfection as the crack in the armor, the "wound" that lets God in.

Meister Eckhart (the 13th century German theologican, mystic, and philosopher) wrote,

"To get at the core of God at his greatest, one must first get into the core of himself at his least."

This truth is applied by the contemporary Jungian analyst who identifies "addictions," for example, as one of the "wounds" that lets God in:

"Addiction keeps a person in touch with the god .... At the very point of the vulnerability is where the surrender takes place---that is where the god enters.  The god comes through the wound."

So rather than immediately condemning ourselves for a mistake, failure, or even continual "wound" whenever it manifests itself, pause ... embrace it ... and let it bring you to the point of surrender ... let it point you to God who comes through that mistake to embrace you and love you, and then to little by little bring healing to your wound.

Isn't that what we do as parents when our child falls down, scrapes himself, and comes to us bleeding.  We don't refuse him, telling him to get cleaned and bandaged up first before we embrace him.  We get down on our knees, pull him into our arms, holding him tightly and tenderly, whispering words of love.  We gently clean up the wound, put a band-aid on it, and then hold him close again.  That moment of "wounding" lets our love into his life in tangible, intimate ways.

The New Testament spiritual leader Paul, who wrestled with what he called "a thorn in his flesh" (some kind of either physical or emotional or spiritual ongoing ailment) and kept asking God to remove it from his life, was confronted by the grace of God in the midst of his wound.  Rather than taking the "wound" away from Paul, God came to him in the middle of it, and said,

"My grace is sufficient for you.  My power is made perfect in your weakness."  2 Corinthians 12:9

So embrace your "wound" and let it allow God's amazing compassion and love to shine through the cracks of your armor straight into your life.

And third, imperfection is a place of Light.  Let it out.

To paraphrase Leonard Cohen's lyrics from Anthem,

"There's a crack in everything.  That's how the light gets out."

It is a misguided myth which our perfectionism gets us to buy into:  that we lose people's respect if we fail and make mistakes, if our "wounds" show too much.

Truth is, people aren't looking for perfection from us; people are wanting authenticity, honesty and transparency even about our imperfections.  "Be real," people often say.

The same New Testament spiritual leader, Paul, emphasized this truth when he described human beings as "clay pots"--cracked containers.  His point was that the Light (he called it the "glory of God") that lives inside us is able to shine out into the world through our cracks (2 Corinthians 4:7).  No cracks, no visible light to the world.  God needs our cracks so God's glory can shine through us in order to reveal divine compassion and love to others.

So rather than running from our imperfections, rather than covering them over, or hiding them, or even denying them, we can "sanctify" them (give them over to a holy purpose)--that is, allow them to be used by the Light as vehicles through which the Light of Love radiates out to the world.

Leonard Cohen is right.  There's a crack in everything.  That's how the light gets out.

Sometimes, it's the "sinners" that are more appealing than the "saints."  Who wants to be around someone who tries to be perfect all the time, who refuses to admit imperfection in themselves or others, and who thinks they're more "righteous" than everyone else?  No grace or compassion there.  Perfectionism is, after all, an attempt to play God.

So embrace the crack.  Be vulnerable.  Be authentic and transparent.  That will be used by God to let the Light shine out, to show others that even in our imperfections, love and compassion can shine through and be visible and experienced by others.  Sometimes, it's our willingness to be "naked" in public that reveals the true glory of God.