Go Ask A Boy About His Heart, and Keep Asking

Brave is matching your insides and outsides.
[…]
Actions are not inherently brave-the honoring of the inner compass instead of the outer expectation is the braveness.
Brave cannot be judged by the crowd. Sometimes we are the only one who knows we’ve been brave.
And that is enough.
That is everything.

 – Glennon Doyle

For the longest time, I had a post-it note on my fridge that said: “Go ask a boy about his heart. And then: keep asking.” My wise musician friend Harper Phillips said that to me once, and it was important enough to see it every day as a reminder to keep asking the questions that mattered to my fellow human beings. Now, I have to surf through a few journals to see where that post-it ended up. However, so much of my work with clients is alive with this ethos. I was reminded of this note as I sat with the conversation between Ashanti Branch, Founder and Executive Director of The Ever Forward Club, and Jerry in this week’s podcast conversation in which they talk about the masks men hide behind and how limiting (and lonely) that is. Where are the spaces boys and men have to talk about what’s in their heart? 

This topic came up in a course I took over the summer with psychotherapist and author Terrence Real in which he spoke of raising boys. Informed by his own work with men and couples, he reflected on the resistance he often encounters from some men when they are asked to open up and connect with what’s really going on for them. When cultural conditioning to conform to what it means to be ‘masculine’ (or ‘a man’) runs at odds with being a more wholly human with values like connection, emotionality, and genuine expression. “I’m interested in turning boys into big grown-up men, who are whole,” he asserted. “I’m trying to turn half people into whole people. My ideal for men is big-hearted, sensitive, strong men.”

“Broken-open-hearted warriors,” Jerry would say. 

The cultural code that boys internalize about what it means to be a man is informed by patriarchy. “Under patriarchy, you can either be connected, or you can be powerful, but you cannot be both at the same time,” Real underscores. That makes it a struggle for any boy (or man) to conform to the code or be a wholly hearted human. “When you move into power you break connection,” he reminds us. So, for the boys and men in our lives, there’s a tension between the decision on how he’s going to show up–that is, either connected to who he is and his truth of expression, or conforming. 

We all struggle under the burden of patriarchy.

When we break connection, we operate under a part of us concerned with the ‘I’. From there, the various masks that manifest themselves outwardly, without congruence to one’s true heart, can become cumbersome. These masks are also oppressive in their own right (this is how we all suffer under the burden of patriarchy).

Judy Chu, Ed.D., an Affiliated Faculty member of the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University, and author of When Boys Become Boys: Development, Relationships, and Masculinity shares in her research that boys stop becoming expressive in the ages before kindergarten. That’s an early age for boys to assume the traditional cultural code on what it means to be a man. This means, from this early age–before they can read–boys begin to internalize the tension between expressing themselves and conforming. That’s a lot for a young person to take on.

Chu writes that the antidote is to foster a culture of relationships that provide different values and information on other ways of being: 

“Through developing trusting and respectful relationships with the boys in our lives, we can help boys to value and acknowledge their relational capabilities, which they may otherwise learn to discount or overlook. We can also offer and model for them definitions of maturity, masculinity, health and success that will enable them to remain grounded in their self-knowledge (e.g. as they encounter societal pressures to conform to group and cultural norms), and to form relationships that will sustain rather than constrain them.”

This is what Ashanti Branch does in his work with boys and men, which you may know from the documentary film The Mask You Live In. His work embodies these lines from Hafiz’s poem The Warrior

The warrior
Wisely sits in a circle
With other men
Gathering the strength to unmask
Himself.

This is the work of re-connection to one’s self and a supportive community. 

Meanwhile, our job is to go ask a boy about his heart, and keep on asking.