the definition issue and my story
In a recent conversation with valo alums, we got curious about the idea of masculinity. What is it? How do we define a word meant to characterize half of the human experience? After joining valo, I realized that I was participating in sports teams and other activities simply because my other male friends were —the reality was these activities didn’t satisfy my whole being. I came to understand that they didn’t fill me, probably in large part because I didn’t really choose them. Among my peers, I was often left wanting more of something that felt, at times, elusive. A creative hunger, or what David E. Kelley refers to as a “yell,” roared within me. I began to make music. I consider myself lucky to have found a new community that supported me during that time of exploration. This period shaped my life as a young adult and helped me further define who I might become as a friend, brother, son, and ultimately a man.
Lived experience often guides people’s understanding of masculinity. These personal perceptions are usually weighed against a larger, cultural narrative. These expectations are rooted in history, telling us that men are: warriors, breadwinners, leaders, super heroes.
daring to say I love you
While this narrative asks young men to hone positive traits, such as work ethic, it often squeezes males into uncomfortable space that creates a dangerous cognitive dissonance: Is it wrong that I’m not interested in sports? Why don’t my male friends say “I love you” to each other?
We see the threats of these behavioral restraints clearly in the actions of young, disconnected men who turn towards violence in an effort to align their self image with that of the ambient messaging around masculinity. Our culture is constantly bombarded with sweeping media coverage of mass shootings, domestic, and sexual abuse. Statistically, the majority of these crimes are committed by men.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In all of our lives we know males (young and old) who dare to stand outside of the stereotype, those who are capable of forging rich, loving connections and deeply attuned to themselves and others. On retreat, we had a conversation about how to introduce new youth to valo. A group of male voices conveyed the need to warmly embrace these younger members and demonstrate how we express vulnerability freely. As one teen put it: “We need to show them that this is how we are.” We are constantly reminded of the grace and emotional depth of these male members of our community. They model what is possible—and natural—for everyone.
to a better place
One of my greatest supporters during high school was my lacrosse coach. He not only pushed me to pursue my growing creative passion, but as a history teacher he also embodied compassion, which resonated in me as healthy masculinity. He had the perspective to see me as an athlete, student, but most importantly, as a person. To this day I look up to him.
Talk to your son, or brother, or friend. Let them know that it’s okay to follow the impulses of their heart, to hug, to cook, to talk. Show them support by hugging them back, cooking by their side, and listening to them during conversations. At valo, we embrace everyone’s wholeness and celebrate their openness. Come join us.
Looking for more? We recently explored this topic on our podcast, embers.
A special thank you to valo alum & guide, Henry Oliva, who openly shared his reflections in this post as our special guest-writer. If topics around masculinity and male vulnerability resonate with you too, visit our friends at Maine Boys to Men, who are pioneers in this work and a great resource.