To me, one of the most important parts of life is human connection. We can have the best job, excellent health, plenty of money, or whatever else; but if you don't have vibrant, loving relationships, it's impossible to feel the highest levels of joy.
Developing these relationships with other people requires both participants to be vulnerable and compassionate. This isn't necessarily true for everybody, but for most heterosexual men, we're socialized to associate vulnerability and compassion -- especially shared with other men -- with being effeminate or homosexual. On top of this toxic masculinity, we're led to believe that being open about our emotions, our hurt feelings, or our weaknesses, is also unmanly. For many adult men, unlearning this deeply embedded conditioning is extremely difficult and requires willingness to go against what you've been taught for years, sometimes decades.
Not only are these notions harmful for our mental health, toxic masculinity also robs men of the types of human connections with others that help us be our best for ourselves and for the people that we love.
I have made the choice to be vulnerable about my life and my emotions, and I think it makes me a better writer when I'm more honest. I've been humbled by some pretty amazing comments about how my openness has affected people, which encourages me to continue sharing.
Being open about my life with CF means that vulnerability is part of it. I've discussed (jokingly and seriously) my life expectancy with friends, a discussion that inevitably brings people closer. I've noticed that my ability -- eh, tendency is probably the better word -- to discuss heavy topics opens up the possibility for us to talk about our emotions, fears, and concerns.
Writing about my feelings has helped me thoroughly develop my communication skills, but I recognize this isn't true for all men. Because of our lifelong conditioning, if we don't hone the language required to talk about our emotions, it's difficult to convey them.
For many men, I'd argue it's not as hard to have vulnerable, platonic relationships with women. I think that's because the traditional (but becoming more obsolete, which I think is good) parental roles are that the father is the stoic breadwinner, whereas the mother is the emotional caretaker. A man's spouse, mother, or female friends typically carry the burden of his emotional needs. Learning how to deal with our own feelings and communicating with other men in our lives is the right thing to do for ourselves, our friends, and our loved ones, especially the women who have been there for us.
I've had some wins lately, but I will forever remember 2018 as a terrible year -- the year we lost my 29-year-old sister, Alyssa, to CF and then started grieving her. Everything that has happened this year is viewed with the grim reality of my sister's fate in the background. Throughout my own life with CF and my sister's declining health I have had resounding support from many people. I've needed every ounce of it.
When I wondered what life would be like without my sister, I suddenly worried about becoming an only child. The truth is, blood isn't the only thing that can make people close like siblings. The friendships I've developed with my guys feel like brotherhoods. The love I have for them is fundamentally part of who I am. I would not be here without having their support, whether it was having a shoulder to cry on, listening to me vent over a beer or coffee late at night, or being there for me in moments when I needed to get my mind off things and just laugh and live life. I've never been afraid to express my love for them, and I hope I say it enough to them because I never want people to go without knowing that they mean the world to me.
I don't think it's possible for a relationship to ever be more than an “acquaintanceship” if you never broach serious issues. These relationships with my male friends have allowed me to thoroughly process the emotions that come with having CF and losing a sibling.
Everybody deals with traumatic events differently, and that's OK. What isn't OK is repressing the emotions that are part of being human. I also want to make something clear: Viewing or deriding vulnerable men as effeminate or homosexual is a tired, homophobic trope.
The blunt reality is that emotions are neither masculine nor feminine; emotions are human. Men, you don't have to feel compelled to share your emotions with everybody. There are relationships we all have where discussing our feelings just isn't that big a part of it. That's fine. But alienating those who are honest about their emotions or labeling emotions in a way that discourages people from sharing them is unacceptable.
We are better people when we are honest about our feelings; it helps us empathize with others. It nurtures relationships. It brings more vibrancy and joy in life. And lastly, it makes the world a better place for all of us.
Men, it's time we take responsibility and get better about how we handle our emotions.
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