A Boy’s Life

You’ve no doubt heard about Gillette’s recent ad campaign extolling men to be better. You’ve likely heard or partaken in the social media frenzy the ad has sparked. I take no issue with the commercial. Its theme is simple: bad men do bad things, and good men must stop them. I find nothing revolutionary in that. It is the oldest story we teach men.

From the conversations I have heard, I feel this commercial has become one more thing over which our society has decided to divide itself. I would like to use my pen to start a new conversation, one that explores the complexity of the issues that the advertisement and subsequent discourse gloss over. Personally, I think most men are good (of course I’d say that). That said, I feel there are certain issues about manhood within our society we can strengthen. Let me first make the case there are problems that need solving, and, moreover, many of these problems are ones of which we seldom speak.

Being a man is hard

I know, cry me a river. It’s a man’s world, and if I think being a man is hard, I should try being a woman, right? But consider:

  • Men are four times more likely to die by violence-related injury than women
  • Men are three times more likely to commit violence than women
  • Men are two times more likely to die in unintentional accidents than women
  • Men are twelve times more likely to die in workplace accidents than women
  • Men in Western cultures are four times more likely to kill themselves than women
  • Overall, men generally die four to five years earlier than women

How do mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, teachers, friends, mentors, and coaches, bring half the population to lead a life where they are four times more likely to put a bullet in their head? Or where they are three times more likely to cause harm? Or where they are four times more likely to die by violence?

That question is powerful. I am not a researcher in the area of gender studies, I have no rigorously validated truths to tell. I am a man, though, and I have lived through the process by which we create men. Perhaps that gives me insight.

Men have stories to tell, but we do not share them. We are taught, at times ruthlessly, to bear our burden silently. The fact those statistics exist without a peep from men is a testament to that. Society is changing, however, and for the better, I believe. Because we have not shared our stories, the process through which we create the men who make those statistics a reality remains a mystery. So, in the spirit of change, I will share my story with you.

My tale

At the age of seven, I first realized I had to hurt someone. It saddens me that this revelation came at such a young age. Two boys had started picking on me. When we picture playground violence, we often think of the bully pushing a kid down to steal their lunch money. In truth, violence often comes in the guise of a friend. “Hey, Brad, how are you doing?” Pow! Sucker punch! “Oh, that didn’t hurt, did it? You’re not a wimp, are you?”

The two of them had been playing that game with me, and it had started to escalate. The punches were coming in harder, the rough-housing rougher. Instead of fun, recess became a time of stress. I distinctly remember having the revelation that I had to hurt them. If I didn’t, this would continue, and it would worsen.

I did hurt them. It did end. I learned a lesson. If someone starts something, you have to end it.

Throughout most of my childhood, I was the biggest kid in class. That, I found, was a mixed blessing. Most bullies did not pick on me because of my size. There were those, however, who felt they had something to prove, and bringing down the big guy was the way to prove it. The lesson I learned at age seven served me well. I never started anything, but if someone else did, I’d finish it. That kept me safe. My life was free from serious violence. That is, until grade eight.

Ted

In grade eight, Ted (not his real name) transferred to my school. I was thirteen. He had failed several years, so he was older, about sixteen. Whereas I weighed a little over 100 pounds, he was easily 150 pounds (though in my mind’s eye, he was the size of a brown bear). He was big, mean, and aggressive, and he decided within the first week of school to target me. He would blindside me, body slamming me into the lockers. He would smash my books out of my hands, sending papers flying. Ted terrified me.

When a bear attacks, you play dead and hope he tires of you. That’s what I did. Ted, however, did not tire easily. He collected a following of friends, and they gleefully joined in, adding teases and taunts to the violence.

Around spring of that year, one of his followers, Derek (also a fake name) asked me a question that changed how I understood the world. For months, this group had done nothing but heap abuse and jeering taunts on me.
Derek sat beside me in English class, and out of the blue, he asked, “Does your dad still beat you?” He did not ask if my dad beat me, but if he still beat me. In his reality, fathers beat their sons. He was wondering if it would end soon. Though my father had never beaten me, I answered, “Not anymore.” A half-truth, I suppose. For reasons I do not understand, I did not want to tell him my dad had never beaten me.

In gym class, I had to partner with Ted in wrestling. We were, after all, the two biggest boys. At the time, I thought, “This is how I die,” but I held my own. He was big, but he didn’t put in an effort. I, on the other hand, wrestled with a strength fueled by terror.

When I managed to beat him in a wrestling match, my confidence grew. I asked about his family. He gave me the impression his dad was a drinker, but that’s all I learned. Perhaps his experience was similar to Derek’s. All that year, I thought Ted and his gang were animals. Perhaps wounded animals was a more apt metaphor, bears, hurt and angry, lashing out in their fear.

At the end of the year, Ted transferred out of my school, and I never saw him again. My life returned to normal.

Perhaps you wonder why I did not go to teachers or my parents to have them intervene in these events. We teach boys through jeers and abuse that men bear their burden in silence. As a collective of children, we turned on tattle-tales. Regardless of the truth, back then I believed no matter how bad my life was, telling would make it worse.

I also did not tell anyone because I was ashamed. I was too weak to protect myself, a fatal flaw for a man. This bullying was a secret that I kept until this day.

The beaten down boys

In high school, I noticed a change in some of those who had suffered bullying throughout their lives. They didn’t seem right. They were unable to fit in. They were too clingy, too scared, they failed to read social cues. Girls teased them; boys picked on them.

They had been beaten down and had cracked. My childhood was a privileged one. My size and disposition kept the level of violence in my life to a minimum. For only one year, I knew helplessness, humiliation, and fear. How might my character have changed if that year had been the norm rather than the exception?

These beaten down boys were desperate for friendship. Say a kind word, and they would glob onto you. I had always had a live-and-let-live credo. Though I would end things, I never started them. Some of these boys saw in that lack of aggression the potential for friendship. They needed friends, I imagine (don’t we all). For them, the school was a sea of hostile faces.

Though I was not bullied at that time, my gut told me that, rather than elevating them to my level of safety, befriending them would lower me to their level of abuse. It had only been two years since I had been that boy, powerless while others threw me into lockers. The fear and humiliation of that time still burned in me. To my shame, I rebuffed the friendship of every one of those boys.

One of these boys was quite persistent in his attempts to befriend me. He sat in front of me in social studies where he’d turn around to talk, or steal my pen, or poke me with his finger–the kind of annoying things a younger sibling does to get attention. I became quite nasty as I tried to distance myself from him. Though I was safe, I had already experienced how quickly I could become a victim. In my heart, I felt only sympathy for him. I was afraid, however, and fear makes us callous.

Then the change happened

As I neared the end of high school, I noticed some of these beaten boys began to change. An experience from a summer job best exemplifies this. At this job, there was this awkward, scrawny boy with glasses. Girls teased him. Boys picked on him.

One day, he showed up wearing a leather jacket and a heavy-metal tee shirt. This was a new look. He began smoking, drinking heavily, and partying. He became an utter asshole to both girls and boys while his walk had filled with a swagger dripping with false bravado. This was not who he was, it was a mask, we all knew it, we saw him put it on. But it worked. Once he became a belligerent, wild jerk, the girls left him alone while some of the boys started lending him smokes.

Outside of high school, I had a friend who committed suicide. He had a girlfriend. They broke up. He killed himself. It was the first open-casket funeral I attended. I guess for many people, you can only get beaten down for so long before you either become the monster or put a bullet in your brain.

How do we do better?

On so many parameters, men hurt others, hurt themselves, and die at rates way higher than women. I believe we can improve. We already create good men, men who become loving fathers and peacemakers, men who stand up for what’s right. There are so many good men who change the world to make it better. How do we spread that? Social media is bursting with people shouting their answers at each other.

Is it as simple as good men stepping up to serve as role-models? I am not so sure. We have always had good men that served as role models. We have also had bad men doing the same. Children are just trying to make it through their days. In the eyes of a child, a good role model is one who gives them the skills they need to make it to the weekend in one piece. For many young boys, the powers of aggression, sadly, prove too useful to ignore. If they always strike first, then they will never be the victim. If they show people they can hurt others, no one will try to hurt them.

Maybe if we shamed and ridiculed bad men, then things would change. The experiences of my life, however, have shown me that those men who cause harm have been the victim of a childhood’s worth of shame and ridicule. I do not think that adding your vitriol to the pile will create positive change.

Perhaps if good men policed the bad ones, if men agreed to hold each other accountable, things would change. Good men, however, have always stood up to bad ones. In my early years of university, my best friend was at a party where a group of men accosted a woman. My friend told them to stop. They swarmed him and beat him so severely he ended up in the hospital. Men die by violence at a rate four times greater than women. How much of that is the result of good men standing up to the bad ones?

My friend’s beating happened over twenty-five years ago. My father and grandfathers could tell even older stories of good men, yet here we are. We still have men who hurt others and themselves, and then die at rates far above women. Policing is required only after every system has failed to produce a person who can live within society’s norms. Men policing themselves is not a solution. It is damage control. And as the experience of my friend showed, it does not control damage very well.

Well, how do we do better, then?

Research, I think, is part of the answer. Truth is, if we knew how to make it better, it would be better. We don’t yet know the answers, so we have to learn. We need to research and understand the process of how we turn good boys into the men that make those statistics above real. More interestingly, how is it several boys can grow up in the same environment, and some become callous brutes while others become men of compassion and integrity? What flips the switch between cruelty and strength?

When I reflect on my childhood, I feel creating a safe place for boys (and all children) is important. The world is dangerous, but if you can create at least one spot for them of safety, I think that turns the dial towards strength. Even though I never told my friends and family of my experiences in grade eight, my friends and family still surrounded me. I had a home, a place where I could breathe and find my strength. I’m not certain if Ted or Derek had the same. The challenge, then, is how do we create that safe space when the abuse comes from a child’s home?

More important than role models, more important than policing each other, I think the most important thing you can do is be a friend to someone who needs it. Be their safe space. I wish I had done so with that boy back in high school.

Those are the answers I come to from my story. But I am only one man, one story. If we want to flesh out these solutions, we need to hear the stories of other men. What stories do Ted, Derek, or that kid at my summer job have to tell?

Sharing our stories is hard for men to do. We are taught through mockery and violence to keep our innermost stories to ourselves. We feel shame for our moments of vulnerability. Consequently, many of those moments that made us who we are remain hidden. Dysfunction thrives in silence, however. If we wish to change the outcome, we must change the process. To change the process, we must first shine a light on it.

What stories do you have to tell? Feel free to share them in the comments below. If you like this kind of post, let me know by clicking Like. If you want to be notified of new posts, click the Follow button in the margin.

5 thoughts on “A Boy’s Life

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  1. My childhood many similar experiences. I have represed many memories and they are a blur. School was a cruel place for me. While hockey was probably the most important aspect of growing up for me I am emotionally scared to this day. I was constantly picked on likely due to my obvious lack of confidence. My entire life, a hockey dressing room was a place of fear. I dreaded everytime I open the dressing room door. While on school grounds and on the ice I was in many fist fights, I dared not in the dressing room as many ganged up on me. They’re were many boys who treated me with respect but I believe feared to stand up for me as the reprisals were too great. The repect shown me by a few helped me survive even though these boys didn’t directly stand up and defend me.

    My believe is biology is an important aspect of my experiences but all people are innately cruel which and is not limited to men. The strong (not necessarily physical strength) dominate. While one dominates another, the victim then dominates another. As physical strength become less important the balance of power shifts which allows people who believe they are superior to others shame men who demonstrate masculinity which they attribute to past wrongs. There is no such thing as toxic masculinity just toxic behaviour.

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  2. I recently watched a documentary about the increasing incidents of suicide in the UK, particularly among males. The take away message was that often asking someone if they’re considering committing suicide is enough to stop them from doing it. Just reaching out to show you care, that they have someone, anyone, is enough. Your own conclusions reminded me of the documentary.

    An illuminating read, Brad. Thank you. 🙂

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  3. I have two objections to this campaign, first it pathologizes not something about men, but rather men in general. The issue is not with “male aggression” it is with “toxic masculinity”. There is not something wrong with certain kinds of behavior men tend to exhibit to a higher degree (although this point too is debatable), just men in general.
    Second… the double standard. Imagine a campaign against… let’s call it “Diabolical Femininity”. Imagine images of teenage girls teasing other teenage girls , or woman manipulating a men, or woman falsely accusing a men of sexual assault and ruining lives and careers. Imagine the outrage you would hear about this. Or take these articles published in the Washington Post or the New York Times. Imagine someone publishing an article with similar tones about women… suggesting that every single one of them were to blame for these issues above, or that they should stand aside and let men take over.
    People have a right to be angry about this add, what is sad is that more people are not…
    http://theconversation.com/domestic-violence-doesnt-just-happen-to-women-95246
    https://www.teensafe.com/blog/facts-cyberbullying-teen-girls-worst/
    https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/woman-guilty-coercing-boyfriend-kill-himself-text-could-get-light-n788856
    https://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2018/10/writer_stephen_elliott_sues_cr.html
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-cant-we-hate-men/2018/06/08/f1a3a8e0-6451-11e8-a69c-b944de66d9e7_story.html?utm_term=.21cc1aeeefb2
    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/19/opinion/metoo-sexual-harassment-men.html

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