In the week leading up to Remembrance Day here in Canada, I suddenly started thinking about the emotional repercussions that war has brought to our generation. I know that I’m not breaking any psychological ground over here; there have been countless studies conducted and reports that tell of aftermath that occurs below the surface of society. It is an aftermath that occurs in our minds and interferes in our relationships.
As a mother of five sons, I am regularly considering the cultural environment that these boys are growing up in, in order to bring some balance and truth to it. One stereotype that I’ve noticed that we are all swimming in says, “Women are super emotional. Men are minimally emotional.”
I want to say today, though, that this simply is not true.
Men and women have the capacity to experience emotions at equal levels.
Emotions are simply the brain’s chemical responses to interactions, internal musings, and environments. When we face circumstances that we cannot change, our minds register this as frustration. When we experience loss, we emote sadness. When we sense injustice (personally, or against someone else), the naturally occurring emotion is anger. The list goes on.
However, I will concede that often women can more easily find the language to express their emotions, perhaps paralleling how men can more easily develop muscle mass.
Now go back in time 5 or 6 decades, and recognize that the expectation for men to limit emotional expression was even greater. I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve heard people express a narrative something like, “I knew my parents loved me, but I never heard my dad say it.” Or, “We never talked about what we were really feeling. Maybe with my mom, but not my dad.”
On another note, though the tides seem to be turning now, we can still feel the residue of a stereotypical pressure for girls to be the more poetic, musical, artistic “indoor-sy” type and boys to lean more into athletics, mathematics, and hands-on hobbies.
I started to consider, “Has it always been this way throughout history?”
No, of course not. Some of the greatest poets, artists, wordsmiths and musicians of all time were men. Men were celebrated in their expression of feeling and wondering. Men were allowed to mourn in crisis, rejoice wholeheartedly in victory and roar in the face of injustice.
But, in times of war, the foundations of society are shaken. Yes, economically and agriculturally. Yes, the population and demographics shift. There is even a displacement of people groups and a tragic loss of tradition.
The psyches of men and women are also affected. There is a phenomenon that in times of great vulnerability, fear or pain, our brains will actually disconnect between the ongoing, normal emotions and the feelings that should result. It could be likened to shifting into auto-pilot mode. It keeps us functional and helps us survive, but we end up losing the ability to feel.
During the great wars of the previous century, thousands upon thousands of men experienced crisis at profound levels.
First, they developed a camaraderie with fellow soldiers who ended up feeling more like brothers. They opened their hearts up to one another, their warm breath billowing into the cold air, as they shared stories about back home and hopes for a future after the war. They rose up to defend one another, and suffered in muddy trenches together.
Then, they felt the gut-punch of death. If they didn’t lose their life, through traumatic circumstances most of them lost close friends. They felt powerless and often guilty for their good fortune to still be alive. To move on felt like betrayal, yet the war finally ended and these soldiers returned home to a world that didn’t fully know what to do with their sorrow.
They naturally would be considering the dilemma:
“Is it worth it to open my heart up, when I know that the reality is that I cannot control the future and I may lose even more?”
It is a question that everyone asks when they face a great loss. What happens to someone when they cannot process sorrow? It is like a congested highway within their souls, cars inching along, struggling to reach an exit. I believe that the trauma of war created a traffic jam of emotions that naturally impacted the next generation.
If the men in your family are struggling with post traumatic stress disorder, this would certainly impact the relational dynamics within homes. If fathers remained silent, if fathers were unable to express sadness or the vulnerability of tenderness, how would a young heart interpret this?
If fathers are silent, confusion and insecurity will raise its voice and fill the gaps.
Wouldn’t this lead to young sons and daughters wondering if they were valuable? There would also be a generational reshaping of mindsets to believe that manhood is reduced to gruffness, calloused hands, and accomplishments.
If children never saw their father cry, they would begin to believe that it was normal, and that perhaps the only acceptable male emotion was anger - the less vulnerable of emotions. If men can’t cry, then they cannot find relief from pain, and without relief, men will be more susceptible to find ways to cope or escape.
How many men today are addicted to alcohol or pornography, not for the substance itself, but as a potent distraction from the sorrow lodged inside their souls? How many men get lost in the rat race of materialism and workaholism, trying desperately to discover their value or identity?
I believe that we are still living in the aftermath of war. Unless we begin to address emotional stereotypes, boys will be condemned to a life of “keeping it all together” - an impossible feat. They will feel like something is wrong with them if they need more than what was given to them, and they will potentially even question their own masculinity because it doesn’t line up with the broken evaluation that they see around them.
I do not bring all of this up today because I want to throw words around. Rather, I believe that having greater understanding can help us direct our focus and our conversations. We can begin to empathize with the struggles that previous generations faced, and course-correct for the health of those who come behind us. It’s time to redefine normal, and it will take deliberate action.
Men were made for deep friendship and vulnerable connection as they share their joys and disappointments. Jesus was the greatest example of manhood and he lived a life of honest emotion and deep connection with the people around him.
In the final chapters of the Biblical book of John, you can read a narrative of Jesus’ conversation with his closest friends. He told them that he was feeling troubled by his coming death, the sting of betrayal by one of the disciples, and the joy of knowing that he was fulfilling his purpose of life on earth. He also spoke of the anticipation of being reunited with these friends after his resurrection. Jesus redefined normal masculinity to include heart-felt communication and genuine expression, on the night before he valiantly sacrificed his life for humanity in a bloody massacre. He was not a coward, relationally or physically.
Let’s rebuild a social norm that allows men to feel again. As a follower of Christ, I pray that the church will become the safest place to express emotion and avoid escapism.