Dependent Masculinity: Why Men Need Others
I've been thinking about the philosophy of Stoicism since my conversation with Steven Gambardella. We discussed his excellent article on the four key stoic spiritual exercises. I'm also thinking about men and masculinity. These two, Stoicism and masculinity, often get tethered together on social media.
I follow several men on Instagram and Twitter that emphasize physical exercise, emotional maturity and familial responsibility as the marks of a healthy man. These values resonate with a certain interpretation of Stoic philosophy.
While I am personally sympathetic to those values, I think there's another side to Stoicism that informs my understanding of masculinity. I want to emphasize a masculinity that emphasizes dependence, vulnerability and solidarity over physical strength and "tough" stances on controversial moral issues.
In the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reflects on why he should not get angry or hate his fellow man.
Nor can I feel angry at my [fellow man], or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.”
Marcus highlights that appropriate ethical action is connected to our common humanity. Men cannot see themselves as separate and independent. They are connected and dependent on others. Men must learn how to work together like feet, hands ands eyes. There are two rows of teeth, Marcus reminds us. The two work together.
In a recent Therapy For Guys episode, I interviewed Joerg Rieger about his new book. At one point in the conversation, I brought up Marcus' notion of organic unity to underscore the importance of solidarity. Rieger picked up my comment and pushed back a bit. According to him, Marcus is not radical enough. Marcus' philosophy could still be read through the lens of Empire, power and a toxic form of masculinity. His notion of organic unity needs to be tempered by what Rieger called a subaltern organic unity.
A subaltern is someone with a low ranking in a social or political context. A subaltern is a person who has been marginalized or oppressed. The subaltern is a technical term for a certain kind of dispossessed person. Instead of looking to Marcus for the foundation of solidarity, Rieger pointed us back to the Apostle Paul. In several places in the New Testament, St. Paul elucidates a subaltern form of organic unity
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” (1 Cor. 12:21)
If one part suffers, every part suffers with it (1 Cor. 12:26)
It is not enough for men to recognize they are organically connected to their family, community and larger world. All of this is important. The crucial realization is that men cannot be men without being connected to that which is usually discarded as "not masculine". This was a point also made by Todd McGowan in the episode on Hegel and the contradiction of existence.
Men need to recognize their absolute dependence on what they might otherwise want to reject. There are no men without women! Each man was given birth and likely raised by a female. Each man has a profound feminine dimension in their psyche, even if repressed. This is an important reality the strong men of Instagram don't usually highlight in their stories.
Masculinity would benefit from the conscious awareness of this subaltern connection between what is exalted and what is rejected. I am a man in absolute dependence with what I most want to reject and despise. Masculinity is intimately connected to the fragile, vulnerable and weak within and in the external world.
Instead of the Instagram pictures pushing weight or the reels describing what's wrong with the "feminization" of men, I want to see men describing their fraught relationship with their own insecurities and fears. True strength comes from an embrace of the fragility of existence. What parades around as "true masculinity" is a farce and comic cover up for what lurks beneath.
Experimenting with Vulnerability in Therapy
I really enjoyed my conversation with Ty Lerman. We both agreed that creating a safe, non-judgemental space for men is crucial in the therapy process. It's so important for men to feel they can open up and express their insecurities without having their identity put in jeopardy. This is not an easy feat. As a man I can say that we are socialized out of vulnerability. This is based on the research from psychologist Niobe Way. Around adolescence, we are bullied into believing that expressing emotion and desiring connection are "gay" and "girly".
Men come into therapy primed for disconnection and invulnerability. Therapy with men involves a slow process of helping guys take off the armor and experiment with vulnerability. Clients may start by sharing in small doses. The more the relationship with the therapist grows, the more likely the client will open up and share.
In my experience with Relational Cultural Therapy, I believe it's also important for the therapist to express vulnerability. I do this with clients through disclosing appropriate, relevant information. I will often talk about my insecurities with body image, anxiety or relationship struggles. This is not to suggest the therapist should air all their dirty laundry. It would be unethical to disclose too much and to put too great an emotional burden on the client. At the same time, therapists that remain completely neutral and detached have a difficult time connecting with clients and often fail to foster authentic vulnerability.
In the slow process of experimenting with vulnerability, men come to discover the benefits of talking about the parts of themselves they have wanted to disown. Throughout the years, I've worked with men who have rediscovered their love of painting, cooking, dancing and many other activities that are not stereotypically associated with masculinity.
I've yet to work with a man who has not reported their gratitude for learning how to be more vulnerable and connected. Men report that learning how to relate vulnerably with their partners and their children has enriched their relationships and improved their physical health. It's time for men to reclaim their full humanity!
Katy Counseling for Men: Counselors Who Specialize in Men's Therapy in Katy, TX & Houston
You don't need to live with disconnection and invulnerability any longer. Disconnection and invulnerability is hurtful to others and ourselves. Once you address this unhealthy version of masculinity, you can be free to build stronger relationships, and find greater fulfillment in work and life.
If you are ready to start building a stronger future together, all you need to do is follow these three simple steps:
Contact Katy Counseling for Men.
Start your journey in building a stronger future today!