I saw an old friend this morning.
I was out taking our dog for a morning romp in the dog park, and spotted my friend Derek walking past. After an exchange of greetings and a bit of catching up, he mentioned that he’s been following this blog series with interest. Was I interested in stories about personal growth, or do I intend to profile mainly men who are already basically saintly?
If “toxic masculinity” is a toxin, a poison that can affect even healthy people to one extent or another, couldn’t “tonic masculinity” be a healing influence even if the healing isn’t yet complete?
I told him my intention is to provide models as a way of encouraging men and women with hope and a vision of what can be. Models of growth are important too, and I don’t think someone needs to be perfect to provide an example of at least some positive aspect.
“Then can I tell you a story,” Derek asked “about an experience I had?”
Of course I said yes.
Some years before, Derek was on his way to meet his girlfriend’s family for the first time. His girlfriend warned him that her mother could be hard to get close to. “She can be kind of rough,” he was cautioned, “don’t let it get to you.”
The warning turned out to be appropriate. From the time he arrived, Derek found his attempts at conviviality countered at every turn. His host was critical and seemed to find fault with everything he did and said.
Derek and I have known each other for decades, and I can tell you, dear reader, that the younger Derek would have bristled at this sort of unjust abuse. This woman hardly knew him! All he wanted was to honour her, both as someone important to his beloved and as someone he knew to be strong and admirable in her own right, and instead he was being treated with hostility.
It rankled, but experience told him that becoming defensive and striking back wouldn’t heal anything. Whatever was causing this “roughness,” it wasn’t about him.“I decided to make myself really vulnerable,” Derek recounted. “I just dropped my guard completely and let myself feel how much it hurt, and didn’t hide it.”
“I actually cried in front of her. I knew her anger was coming from a place of pain and I didn’t want to add to it. I just decided to let her see what was on my heart and how important this visit was to me.”
I asked Derek if it felt like a risk to open up like that. Didn’t it make him feel exposed, to respond to hostility with so much openness?
“I had to try,” he told me.
The happy resolution to the story is that Derek’s attempt to change the pattern worked. His empathy for the pain he saw underlying this woman’s anger and his decision to respond with vulnerability broke down the walls between them. “We developed this great understanding, a rapport, after that,” he recalled, grinning.
A final note, something that speaks to the importance of having models to look up to. In the course of our conversation, Derek asked me if I’d read The Idiot, by Dostoevsky. I had to admit I’ve not made much headway with any of the great Russian authors, much to my chagrin.
“I read it years ago,” he told me, “and I was really struck by the character of the prince, Myshkin. He is so honest and open. Even when his friends behave badly, he pities them and is sad about it, but still cares about them and sees good in them. They all think he’s an idiot, but something about him really inspired me.”
“You know how when you look at something a lot, you start heading towards it? Even without meaning to?”
I mentioned that my father told me something like that when he was teaching me to drive–keep your eyes on the road or you’ll drift wherever you’re looking.
“Well, it wasn’t something I really decided to do, but I think I started modelling myself on Myshkin. It changed me, thinking about his character over the years. Now that I can see that, I’m thinking more consciously about what other models could teach me something. That’s why I’m really appreciating your series. I still have a lot more to learn.”