Masculinity defies a simple definition

In couples therapy, competent therapists don’t take sides, or so they say. In truth, we take sides all the time; it’s just that we usually do so in the privacy of our own mind. We’re trained to keep our opinions cloaked. Objectivity is our signature calling card.

But it’s unavoidable. I can’t help forming opinions as I listen to husbands and wives recount their grievances with each other.

Which is why the couple in front of me intrigues. Their debate has me stumped. I don’t mean professionally. I mean personally. I don’t take sides — out loud or privately — not because I’m too cool and professional to do so, but because I don’t have an opinion about which I’m confident.

Their 15-year-old is off to an amusement park in California with his schoolmates. There’s this roller-coaster ride in which you sit on something similar to a ski lift, your legs dangling in the air. Then you rocket through the air, up and down, sideways, corkscrew, loop the loop. Pretty sure you scream the whole time.

The boy is afraid. His personality has always been intense, pensive — very sensitive. He has never liked loud cars or horror movies. During his first trip to Disneyland, at age 8, he much preferred the shooting gallery and Swiss Family Robinson Tree House to the Matterhorn or the Haunted House. He got through Pirates of the Caribbean, but was relieved when it was over.

So he approaches his parents, separately, about his fear and anxiety.

Parent No. 1: “Take some Dramamine and ‘man up.’ ” In other words, I assume, be a man. Be more manly. Real men stare down their fears and do it anyway. Parent No. 1 then makes suggestions for “active imagination” exercises: “Pretend you’re an airplane pilot flying a plane,” etc.

Parent No. 2: “Real men don’t do anything they don’t want to do. Real men don’t need to prove their masculinity to anyone.” In other words, I assume, be a man. Be more manly. Real men aren’t ego-seduced into machismo rites of passage. Parent No. 2 then makes suggestions for plausible (if untruthful) explanations for how to decline the roller coaster and still save face in front of peers.

They both have a point.

On the one hand, doesn’t the boy have a right to define his own masculine identity? And, in a healthy world, shouldn’t there be a broad continuum of ways to manifest the masculine archetype? Doesn’t a real man give himself that freedom? (Read James Kavanaugh’s collection of poetry “There Are Men Too Gentle to Live Amongst Wolves.”)

I’m never going to bungy jump. Ever. Why? Because I’m afraid to. You’d have to peel my fingers off the platform and throw me off weeping and pleading. You doubt my masculinity? That says way more about you than it does about me, and I don’t give a rip anyway. I agree with the comedian Gallagher: “After 30, it is unwise for your (rear) ever to be higher than your head.”

On the other hand, real men are willing to embrace an ever-deepening masculine identity, and that includes facing fears, not allowing fears to conscript joy, duty, accomplishment or participation in real intimacy. And, oddly enough, braving rituals such as roller coasters, rock climbing, public speaking, fear of cockroaches, getting in a bar fight — well, sometimes these things are just what the doctor ordered to help facilitate a symbolic shift in identity and confidence.

When I was 6, I was afraid to learn to water ski. My father humiliated me. My mother coddled me. When I was 30, a bunch of nice kids from the church high school youth group talked me into the lake, attached a ski to my trembling legs, and, on the third try, I was up and flying across the water. A rite of passage. I was delirious with the victory of self. There was now more “man” in me. Without the kids pushing, I never would have done it.

This one’s a toughy. What do you think?

I’m left wondering if the boy’s dilemma has provoked something in both parents undeveloped and unformed, that maybe neither this mother nor this father has a firm grip on the wholeness of the masculine. The only opinion about which I feel confident is that it’s their struggle. Not the boy’s.

Maybe they should just tell the boy to trust himself. To stand for the man he most enjoys being.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to

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