“Youtube” celebrates its 10th birthday this month, and for those who fear that your life will be determined by the brand of your university, you may find some consolation in knowing that the 3 young, now fabulously wealthy founders of this billion dollar venture are graduates of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, neither of which is in the Ivy League. So there is hope for all of us, regardless of our standardized test scores!
One of my favourite Youtube talks is Tony Porter’s lecture on “the Man Box.” (I think Mr. Sturino has shown this to some of you in health class.) For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s about the danger of having a narrow understanding of masculinity. Tony Porter tells some stories that I couldn’t repeat here in Laidlaw Hall, but if you are interested, I hope you’ll go to your Google machine and take in his TED talk.
I have spent a good chunk of my adult life in boys schools, and while I enthusiastically support single gender institutions as an option for some students, not everyone is all that keen when it comes to boys schools. Some see institutions like UCC as semi-misogynistic bastions of boys will be boys, “Please pass me the Grey Poupon” privilege. While we may not be everyone’s cup of tea, being a boys schools does give us a special opportunity, and I’d argue, a special responsibility to focus on developing a healthy understanding of what it means to be a man.
We believe there are many roads to manhood, many paths to success. We think it’s important for you to feel a sense of belonging, to be a part of an open, affirming and challenging brotherhood, and we hope that this culture of camaraderie will give you the grace to find your voice, find your passions, and ultimately find yourself.
But that’s where Terry Porter’s “man box” comes in.
There are all kinds of cultural obstacles we have to overcome, and what makes this task extraordinarily difficult is that we may not even see these limitations for what they are. What’s in the box are the invisible assumptions that limit our vision, our relationships, and ourselves. If we fail to recognize these myths of masculinity, we can end up paying too great a price to “man up.”
One of my favourite books about boys is Michael Thompson’s “Raising Cain”. We’ve had Dr. Thompson speak many times at UCC, and he believes that the tale of Cain and Abel is the original story of male adolescence. Both boys want to please their father. One succeeds. One fails. And because of Cain’s frustration, because of his lack of affirmation, and because of his impulsive nature, he kills his brother Abel. Thompson argues that boys who experience failure have a choice: they can either act out or “process” out.
Acting out is easy. It’s what we do naturally and impulsively. Thompson believes, though, that boys can and need to be taught how to process things. We have to learn how and when to hit the pause button. We need to learn how and when to look at things from another person’s point of view, how to consider options, and how to think through the ramifications of our decisions. And we also need to figure out how to express what’s in our heart, as well as what’s in our head.
Let me give you one quick example of someone who has learned how to “process” a setback. Last week was a tough one for some of the boys who ran for leadership positions. I happened to be in the hallway last Friday, when I bumped into a Grade 11 student the day after he learned that he would not be wearing a white jacket next year. I didn’t know the boy all that well, and I didn’t want to be intrusive, but I wanted to make sure he was alright. As our brief conversation was coming to an end, I wasn’t aware of the fact that I had made a fist with my hand, when I asked, “Are you going to be ok?” At that moment the Grade 11 boy, who seemed be the very model of resilience, saw my gesture, laughed and gave me a fist pump as he said, “Strength and Honour!”
His action completely caught me off-guard; it took me a few seconds before I began to understand what this was all about. And then it dawned on me. Last fall the psychologist Adam Cox had talked to us in Laidlaw Hall about positive notions of masculinity, and he finished his lecture by fist pumping his way around Laidlaw Hall, as he promoted the virtues “strength and honour.”
So the processing of obstacles, challenges, and frustrations can be done — it just may take some of us old guys a little longer to understand when it’s completed!
I’ll end this morning with the trailer from Jennifer Sibel Newsom’s new documentary about the cultural challenges of masculinity. There are a lot of factors that can affect mental health, and when your inner state does not match the external demands of “The Manbox,” that dissonance can create stress. It seems appropriate then that, as we begin our “Mental Health Awareness Week,” we should also be aware of some of the social pressures we all face, as we try to figure out what it means to be a man, about what it means to be a good man.