Paley’s Story: I’m Afraid Of You


What follows is my own evolving personal narrative about masculinity as it relates to my own depth work as a member of this society. When I speak about men I do not refer to all humans with penises, as they do not all identify as men. Not every man relates to masculinity in the same way. Some reject the term entirely and prefer not to be grouped with other men in any way. You can take or leave the words I use here. This is how I make sense of it.

There is a young little boy inside of me. He is probably 4 or 5 years old. He likes to make goofy noises and his voice is soft and high-pitched. He likes to roll around and play with his body as if it were a toy. He is very curious about other people, particularly women he finds attractive.

When he feels safe to reveal himself, he is quite playful. He likes to examine, to touch, to taste..he loves to be out in nature and run around naked. He has no sense of having to DO. He is fluent in BEING. He has no agenda other than to follow his curiosity. He does not understand boredom. There is a profound innocence that transforms an ordinary walk to the grocery store into an adventure.

When I allow my little boy to be here, I am never truly alone in my body, it is always “us” rather than “me”. Where solitude might have felt lonely before, with my little boy it feels juicy and meaningful. Where I might have felt rigid and overly serious in my interactions with others, with my little boy I feel curious, playful, and spontaneous. Where I might have felt shame and anxiety about my sexuality before, with my little boy I feel my senses are fully awake.

There is a lot to celebrate about my little boy. He brings a sense of wonder, curiosity and passion to my experience that is often lacking in my more adult self.

So why do I consistently abandon him? Why don’t I let him out more often?

The answer is that I am a man in a culture that has taught men to disown their little boys, to hate their vulnerability and do everything they can to hide it from themselves and the world.

I have learned to hate my little boy when he is afraid. Because as a man, I am not allowed to be afraid. That’s what my culture has taught me. I am not allowed to need to be held. My culture celebrates my capacity to kill and shames my need to be nurtured.

My assertiveness, my “confidence”, the firmness of my handshake, the power of my voice, the resolve in my gaze.. this is the side of masculinity that is rewarded in my culture. The neediness, the fear, the shame, the longing for contact, for affection.. these are considered ugly and weak.

“Weakness”. The whole idea of inner weakness is a myth. It is an assault on human vulnerability and it is us men who experience this most acutely.

The imperative to not be weak colors everything. It alienates a man from himself, and somewhere in this process, he forgets about his little boy, or he learns to repress him, to hide him in a closet where he can’t be seen. And then away goes the playfulness, the wonder, the spontaneity, the passion, and the endless curiosity about the world, and in comes the protective shield that flattens intimacy and dampens aliveness.

The capacity to kill is highly valued in men, and I believe this is important to hang onto (I think this capacity is valuable for all humans, regardless of gender). It is not, in my eyes, inherently toxic for a man to be in touch with his capacity to kill. It can be a sign of great health. The question is whether this capacity is well integrated.

The warrior is not born in a vacuum, he is born as a helpless child. He must grow into a warrior. I cannot fully integrate my capacity to kill unless I embrace my helplessness and my fear. For that which is BIG in me to truly SERVE me and the world around me, rather than SABOTAGE me and become a force of oppression, I must love that which is small in me unconditionally.

Because I live in a society that teaches men to hide their smallness, the way that I start to unravel this twisted mind-fuck of a teaching is to fully allow myself to be small, trusting that this does not erase my bigness. Both sides of this polarity live in my body. The fearless warrior and the helpless infant share the same roots.

I trust the man who finds the seeds of his true power WITHIN his fear more than the man who has been taught to carry himself as though he does not know fear. The man who embraces his fear has very little to hide because he is already naked. This is a man I want on my team, because I can see who he is without having to look too hard.

I proclaim that I am afraid of you, knowing that my vulnerability serves as the foundation from which a more grounded, more integrated man is beginning to emerge. I am proud of my developing manhood. I do not see my masculinity as a problem to be fixed or an inherently toxic social construct or an evil instrument of oppression. We must be very careful when using terms like “toxic masculinity” to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The world desperately needs more integrated men who are proud of who they are and what they stand for.

There will come a time when identifying as a “man” will not mean much. Beneath the divisions we are all human. But we cannot claim One Love before tending to the profound injuries that generations of alienation have caused us as a people. I identify as a man to reclaim my humanity, and I am proud of that. Manhood is not my final destination – it is a stop along the way to returning to the precious humanity that is underneath all differentiation.

–Paley, San Francisco, CA, USA

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