The relationship between men and their emotions is an often discussed yet broadly defined subject. ‘Toxic masculinity’, a concept becoming ever more present in political, social, and artistic culture, often derides the old idea that ‘boy’s don’t cry’.
This is both a valid and important point, and one put particularly well in an article by Emil Gjørvad about half-a-year ago:
“41 percent of males who’ve contemplated suicide felt like they could not talk about their feelings. I have certainly been one of them. The conventional narrative of ‘toxic masculinity’ is that this is because men apparently feel obliged to society to present themselves in a certain way. I disagree – we do not welcome them ourselves.”
Emil’s point is as important now as it was then, as is his disagreement. That misguided image of the masculine man as emotionless, repressive, unfeeling, and closer to a Cylon than a human, paints a picture of stoicism as the simple burial of emotion. The American Psychological Association (APA) even lists stoicism as a harmful facet of traditional masculinity in its ‘Guidelines for Practise with Men and Boys’, an controversial article perceived by many to be an attack on the idea of masculinity itself.
Yet this idea of an inability to appropriately engage with emotion, cramming them down like the overflowing bin of a share-house kitchen until, inevitably, the bag breaks and spills its contents all over the tiled floor is far from what stoicism actually is. All too often, stoicism is misperceived as an attempt to shrug-off any poor emotions, going straight to shields-up at the first sign of sensitivity. As a result, many seem to think that stoic manhood is akin to emotionally crippling yourself.
To me, however, stoicism represents a much-needed remedy to the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’. Far from a simple bottling-up of emotion, the stoic seeks to understand why he or she feels these emotions. Stoicism is about self-reflection and discipline, forming the emotional strength to withstand all the stress, pressure, and other external factors that can push us into troubled states.
The rock-like, emotionless stereotype of the stoic man, so often tied to a negative view of masculinity, is simply a misunderstanding of how stoics view the world. The idea of the ‘stiff upper-lip’ is less about ignoring or blocking-out the stresses of the world, but about accepting that the emotional pain caused by something boils down to our own perceptions of it. We decide for ourselves how emotionally-important something is to us, and we’re in control of how our emotions are affected by things.
Marcus Aurelius, a forefather of the stoic philosophy, wrote in his Meditations: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” Stoicism isn’t the bottling of emotions, but the acceptance that we have the power to control them.
When it comes to masculinity, any toxicity is going to come down to quite the opposite of anything resembling stoicism. Thin-skin, and allowing emotion and aggression to cloud judgement, seems to me a far-more fitting description of any negative forms of masculinity than self-reflection and mindfulness.
Stoicism is a much-needed philosophy in today’s social climate. With outrage-culture being the flavour the day, we could use a little more self-reflection, emotional strength, and a focus on our mental resilience to the world around us. We shouldn’t be telling men not to be stoic; if we want to battle the idea of toxic masculinity, we should be encouraging it.