I know, I’ve been making all kinds of generalizations about men and women. I know the lines blur, and any time you make generalizations you get yourself in trouble. But most truth, I think, is poetry, not prose. So what I’m saying is not about propositional truth, with clear and distinct mathematical definitions like, “If a = b and b = c then a = c” kind of truth.
So I’m about to make another generalization.
When men are together, they are more likely than women to show their affection for one another by beating the crap out of each other.
This is fun for many men.
Argue if you must, but I think this is true. As for me, I’ve always been uncomfortable with this, because many of my relationships with other men have been adversarial. I usually feel judged by, or judgmental towards, other men.
Earlier this year, I moved in with my friend Ben. He’s another counselor, and he’s a big dude: Like 6 feet tall, maybe a little taller; over 200 pounds. Not fat, just a big man. Someone I clearly have no chance of defeating in a wrestling match.
This is how I feel when fighting Ben.
But… Ben likes to wrestle. He grew up with brothers who would wrestle each other, and it was a fun activity for them. I did not. The men in my family aren’t really comfortable showing physical affection to one another, and wrestling would be way too close for comfort.
So, when Ben tried to wrestle with me, I felt really uncomfortable. I engaged in it for a minute or two, until all kinds of insecurities welled up in me. I felt weak, and I felt like he was making fun of me, just going out of his way to show that I am powerless with regard to him. And I backed out. “Ok ok ok…. that’s enough, I’m done.”
Later on, I was challenged by some friends to take what was a really scary step for me: Talk to him about it. Even ask him how he feels about me.
So I did. “Ben”, I said, “When you’re wrestling with me, I feel really weak, and I feel like you’re making fun of me, because you know there’s no way I could ever beat you. Is that what’s going on?”
He smiled very kindly to me, because there is a good amount of trust in our relationship. He knew the courage that it took for me to ask such a vulnerable question. “Not at all”, he said. “I’m just enjoying connecting with you.”
“So when you’re wrestling with me, what do you feel towards me?”
“Well”, he said, “I’ve seen you start to feel insecure and pull away and say you don’t want to wrestle anymore. Then I feel distant from you, because I can see you disengaging. But when you engage with it, I feel respect for you. As long as you’re honestly and fully bringing your strength, I feel full of respect for you.”
This totally changed my perspective! The underlying feeling that I have to fight against in my relationships with other men is distrust. In my experience, men don’t respect each other; they make fun of each other and tear each other down. If they’re wrestling each other, I can only conclude that it’s to prove who is superior.
But that’s not at all how it is for Ben – or, I would argue, for an emotionally healthy man. For Ben, it was about mutual respect; “winning” wasn’t really the point! The goal of wrestling is for both men to be “all in”, to give 100% of what they have, and to respect one anothers’ “all-in-ness”. One wins and another loses, and both celebrate the feeling of giving it their all.
Now that's my kind of wrestling.
Now, wrestling still isn’t really my thing, and I don’t think it ever will be. But this exchange taught me something about masculinity. Being a man in this world isn’t really about results or what you’re capable of.
Rather, it’s about taking all the fire and passion you can muster and putting it fully into conversation with the world. Even if my strength is not “enough” to bring about the desired result, when I bring it, I can say with pride, “This is my fire; this is what I brought.”
The struggle with men is that we want to avoid this. When we decide that our fire isn’t “enough”, we back out of the fight altogether. We never apply for the job because we might not get it; we never ask the girl out because she might say no, or because we’re sure we’ll screw it up. We descend into fantasy, where we can imagine ourselves always successful, and never really having to try. We create a false world where half our strength is always enough.
It takes great courage, then, to re-enter the real world, where we must give 100%, and be satisfied with whatever outcome.
A week or so after this conversation, some friends threw a going away party for me. There was a pool there, and Ben and I (and Michael, another friend) had an epic pool-wrestling match. It was awesome. And I felt good. And I felt respected. I’m pretty sure I didn’t win, but I didn’t care.*
The Atomic Wedgie
* p.s. – I admit, I didn’t participate in the “atomic wedgie” portion of the pool wrestling match, in which the waist-bands of both Ben and Michael’s swim shorts were ripped clean off, resulting in unholy bruises in all sorts of unnamed places. Yeah, I wasn’t interested in that part. But the rest of it was great.