A few days ago my family was camping in the woods of Central Pennsylvania, taking a little break from our home after spending nearly four months consecutively in it with only a few breaks here and there. Due to the fact I can never really sleep well the first night in a tent because I am fat and out of shape and gettin to that age, I had hours for thoughts to run through my mind unfettered by focus or willpower in the dregs of night. A thousand thoughts had stampeded through my brain: thoughts of the upcoming school year, of COVID, of my family, my health, of our country. When a hungry bear tore through the neighbor’s campsite looking for sticky buns, it obliterated all thought but one: Protect. However, afterward I felt a rage toward that bear and the other camper who carelessly left food out in his truck, a rage all to familiar to me. After that, the one thought my mind kept returning to was a patched wall in the living room of my last house. A patched wall, and the conversations I’ve been having about men in America.
About three years ago I punched a hole in my wall. In a momentary flash of anger, I rose my fist and destroyed an innocent, offenseless piece of drywall because my kids had driven me to a breaking point, so I broke something. As I watched cheap plaster crumble before me, I realized what I had done because of something harmless and thought about what if. What if my kids were closer than the wall, would I have crumpled a child instead? What if I had stricken one of my children instead? Like the wall, I crumbled before them and my children watched all these thoughts and actions play across my face and body as I realized what I had done. But it was especially impactful to my son. My son, who bears an uneven amount of my discipline (I don’t mean beatings, I mean talks, I mean corrective actions, I mean scolding, not spankings or physical discipline) because he is a stubborn, hard-headed boy and does things without thinking about them. But harmless things. What lesson did this teach him? What did it teach my daughters about how a man should act?
In a moment I had become what I feared I would when I was young, a father who let anger control him. It was just a moment, but oh what has been done in one moment. Think of the damage just a moment can bring. In a moment , one can end a relationship, change a life, destroy another, bring down a country. In a moment, a child can see a world collapse, where a loving parent suddenly becomes a monster, even if for only that moment. Once that has been seen, it can never be unseen. It is a knowledge that never goes away, that a father or mother has such a capacity for anger, and that anything, absolutely anything, can be destroyed for any reason. How many of us had this lesson from our parents growing up? Ironically, I didn’t. My father never lashed out in blind anger. Oh sure, he spanked me and grounded me, but I had earned it and he never blindly destroyed something because rage built up in him, at least that I saw.
So where did this rage come from? Sadly, it’s a rage that is all too present in men in America. It is taught in many of our homes, in many our movies and television shows, especially older ones, and preached by many of our leaders. Looking at the statistics, it shows an alarming correlation between Male Anger and cultural ties, specifically in American men, though certainly not exclusively. Jade Yap, a researcher, notes that men in America, for generations, have been taught that we must show strength, control, and stoicism. That it is acceptable for men to show joy and anger and competitiveness, but not sadness, or compassion, or acceptance of loss. According to her article from the Mental Health Foundation, many men use anger to deal with sadness, feelings of loss and to cope with depression. Many of us do these things because we were never allowed to freely express those emotions and do not have the coping mechanism to deal with them. Instead, every time we were sad we were shamed. When we expressed love or affection, we were made fun of. Even many intellectual pursuits were deemed unmanly. Think of all of the implications of the two words, “Man up.”
I know for years I have dealt with many emotions by transferring them to either humor or rage. It was one of the many reasons I originally didn’t want to have children. I was afraid my emotional issues would prevent me from being a good father. Luckily I found a good woman who saw that I had something more to offer, and helped me find expression besides rage and joy, a wonderful palette of emotional range that was always there, but I now have the understanding to identify, and that I take time to explain to my three children so my faults won’t be repeated. And mostly I succeed, but every once in awhile I fail. I had repaired that hole in my wall, but never painted over it. I left it there as a reminder, a scar, of what could happen. It’s a lesson I won’t ever let myself or my children forget.
And while I have grown, and I believe as a whole, our nation is in a much better place emotionally than we were in, say, they 80’s, we now find ourselves in a situation where many factors are coalescing into an almost perfect storm for those with bad coping skills. It’s a bad time for those with good coping skills! There are many unknowns and there is a lot of fear in 2020. There is, of course, the pandemic. For people of color and their allies, the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, of Monika Diamond and many Black trans people, this has been a particularly trying time on top of that. There is also contested military action inside of our own country. Add to all of that a divisive political atmosphere that we have not seen in generations, and it puts a toll on one’s emotions, and many men are just not equipped to deal with it. As a result, a spate of violence is sweeping this country. From fights in stores over wearing masks to armed militia “protecting” their rights to the vitriol we see in the everyday language of the President and politicians. Just this past week, a male congressman stopped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the capital to call her insane, crazy, and a menace. Then followed that up with “a f**king b**ch” in front of reporters.
What AOC did was not respond in kind. What she did, like what I did to my children after my own display of anger, was talk calmly and rationally about why that was wrong. Why allowing outbursts of rage, especially toward others for minor infractions, is not only wrong, but fundamentally damaging to who we are as a people. And I honestly believe right now that is what many of us need to know, that it is okay to disagree, it is okay to be opposed to others, but it is not okay to rage at them over those disagreements. It is not okay to yell, use divisive language, to accost and harassed because you have different views than someone else. We need to stop letting fear and anger control our emotions, because that lesson is being taught to everyone watching. Especially the children.
I am not perfect. I will get angry again, as will you, but we need to start evaluating why we are getting angry and what the actual problem is at the heart of it so we can deal with the real issues. So we can talk about what is bothering us like adults and not rage like poorly behaved children. We men need to start acting like real men and not like many of the stereotyped “idols” of our youth.