The other day, I called a friend who I heard was going through a hard time.
“Hey, man,” I said.
“How’s it going?”
“Good, good,” he answered. (He wasn’t good.) “How’re you?”
“Good!” (I was so-so.)
We chatted for a few minutes about what each of us was doing with our days, cracking jokes, studiously avoiding what we both knew to be the purpose of the call: that he was in emotional crisis, and that I was reaching out to him. Mom watched me conduct my end of the conversation with a combination of awe and horror.
“What did he say?” I shrugged.
“How is he?”
“He seemed okay.”
You and I have had similar conversations when I’ve asked you about school, girls, your life. Shrugs, silence. Teenage omertà is nothing new, especially among boys, but I wish it didn’t have to be so. You are impenetrable, almost Zen in your stillness. Everything is always fine. When I press, you joke away my questions or change the subject. It’s not that I’m worried about you now, exactly; it’s that I’m worried about what you will do when things aren’t fine, because I know what it costs when you don’t let others in.
The psychologist and author Jordan Peterson has built an enormous following by instructing his (mostly white, mostly male) acolytes that the purpose of life is to “pick up your suffering and bear it.”
Pain will come, he is saying, and when it does, nobody wants to hear about it. Why should your pain be any more deserving of our attention than anybody else’s? Bear your pain, he says in one lecture, “so when your father dies you are not whining away in the corner and you can help plan the funeral.”
At my father’s funeral, I sat in the front row with my hands folded on my lap. Later, at the burial site, I watched them lower the coffin into the ground. On the trip home, I sat with my head against the car window, just the way you used to do on long trips. After a few days, I went back to school and pretended that nothing had happened. I got through it. I didn’t whine.
Having tried Peterson’s method for most of my life, I can tell you it works only as a tourniquet. You may get through the moment, the day, the week. Eventually, though, the blood stops flowing altogether, and something in you falls away.
For years, I cultivated an entire comedic persona based on withdrawal. If you ever want to see what that looks like, go watch me on one of those VH1 I Love the… shows, in which talking heads reminisce about decades gone by. My segments are all totally deadpan, unsmiling, sarcastic. They were funny (if I do say so myself), but sarcasm is a form of withdrawal. I was good at it because by that point in my life, I had invested years in learning how to act as if I didn’t care about anything. What you see on TV is an exaggeration of the way I lived my life, but only a little. Back then, I had so much anger that I didn’t know what to do with, so I clamped down. My release was jokes. They escaped like occasional steam puffs, shaking the lid from a boiling pot.
The more successful I became doing that, the less satisfied I felt, because I knew there was something fundamentally dishonest about it. That stone-faced person wasn’t me anymore. I was recently married. I had a newborn son. Within a couple of years, I would have a daughter. The person I saw on-screen, the one who never cracked a smile, didn’t seem like he was ready to be a husband and a father. Maybe he wasn’t ready. I began feeling a conflict between the person I found myself portraying on television and the man I was trying to become in real life. Maybe that shouldn’t have mattered; after all, actors and comedians pretend. That’s the job. But it mattered to me.
I wanted to be more open and honest in my life and in my work, which meant I had to change. Which meant I had to start asking myself some hard questions about who I was and what I valued. I had to pry apart the careful persona I’d constructed. I wanted to be a better husband and father. I wanted to be a better man.
I cannot recall the number of times I wiped tears from your face when you were little. I can remember the feeling of your pudgy arms around my neck as I knelt down to you, listening to you stammer out the reasons for your pain, holding you until you felt better, wiping your snot off my shirt. Coming to me for comfort was one of the greatest gifts you ever gave to me, because it allowed me to be your dad. A dad instructs and reprimands and plays. I’ve done all those things too, but comforting you felt special, the gift of extending empathy. You sharing your pain with me relieved my own terror of fathering a son. In allowing me to comfort you, you comforted me.
When my mom died a couple of years ago, I wanted to experience her loss. I knew that I did not allow myself to grieve for my father when he died, and that failing to do so had condemned me to years of excommunication from my own emotional life. For my mom, I wanted to live my mourning instead of hiding from it.
I got on a plane by myself and flew to San Diego, where Mom had lived with her lovely partner, Sandy. For three days, I folded and unfolded collapsible chairs, cleaned pastry crumbs from counters. I sat shiva and thanked people for coming and reminisced with my brother, and with Sandy and her family. I did all the things I was expected to do, dry-eyed and composed. No whining. Numb. Angry with myself for my numbness. At the end of those three days, I felt like I had failed to even mourn the way I had wanted. I had lived with the tourniquet for so long, I didn’t know how to release it.
That night, I went back to my hotel room and, after a couple of hours of drinking, collapsed in tears on the floor, alone. I wish I’d had the strength to share my hurt in front of other people, and I wish it hadn’t taken half a bottle of vodka for me to express my hurt then.
I keep seeing myself, alone, on that flight to San Diego. Why didn’t I bring you and your sister with me to say goodbye to Grandma Jill? I’ve asked myself that time and again. Fear, I think, fear of being so exposed in front of my kids. How stupid. How disrespectful to her and to you. How utterly, baldly stupid. I’m sorry.
Allowing others to help us is just as important as offering help. This is a gift of our humanity: to give love and to allow others to give you their love. You can plan a funeral and mourn and whine all at the same time. You can be there for a friend on the phone. We’re strong, all of us. And sometimes we’re weak. All of us. Your vulnerabilities reveal you. Let them. When you don’t admit weakness, you close yourself off from receiving the strength of others, which is another way of saying that you close yourself off from love. Instead, you twist the tourniquet a little bit tighter. You grow numb. Trust me. I spent most of my life that way.
The simple secret of manhood is love. It’s almost embarrassing to write that down. Not because it sounds so hokey, but because, deep down, it’s something all of us already know. And yet … we men have an especially hard time admitting it to ourselves.
It is almost like a secret that each of us has to uncover on our own. It’s a secret I keep rediscovering. I learned it when I married Mom. When you were born. Three days later, when I made a right turn out of the hospital parking lot to bring you home, I learned it again. Rocking you in the middle of the night when you would not stop crying. When you first toddled to me on shaky legs. And then all of it, all over again, when your sister was born.
As men, it’s not enough to love. It’s a lot, but it’s not enough. Just as important, we have to allow ourselves to be loved. For men, this might be the greater struggle. We have a far easier time lifting the heaviest burden we can find than accepting the love somebody gives us when they offer to share the load.
I see that reluctance in you already. I worry about it, maybe because I recognize myself in the way you keep the world slightly at bay. When I was your age (and older), I treated nearly everything and everybody with ironic detachment. Somehow, that ironic detachment ended up giving me a career—I could be the funny, sardonic one. The one who could say the most outrageous things without cracking a smile. People seemed to like me when I said cutting things. Would people still like me if I opened up?
It took until your birth for me to finally come to terms with what it means to be a man. Not because I think fatherhood is a necessary component of manhood, but because, for me, fatherhood was the first time I had to learn to love another without condition or expectation. For me to be the kind of dad I wanted to be for you and your sister required a set of skills at odds with the sardonic persona that had served me well for so long. That guy didn’t give a shit. This new guy did.
Also, babies are bad at getting sarcasm.
Somehow, the soft skills of parenting—changing diapers, learning to swaddle you like a little burrito, giving you baths, rocking you back to sleep at 3 o’clock in the morning—those “feminine” nurturing skills, wound up making me feel like more of a man than anything I’d ever done before. The work of parenting felt as much like man’s work as spending the day chopping down trees. (Admittedly, I’ve never spent the day chopping down trees.) I didn’t have to do traditional dad stuff to feel like a man. I just had to be your dad.
One great thing about having kids is that they force you into an active practice of love whether you are ready for it or not. I wasn’t emotionally prepared for parenthood after spending the 30 previous years in a cauterized emotional state. To get better, I had to figure out a way to become a new me. I had to figure out how to become a better man.
That process is slow and ongoing. It’s an everyday practice, just like the practice of love is an everyday practice. The good news is that I can practice them at the same time, because they’re the same thing.
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