“Courage, dear heart.” C.S. Lewis wrote this line in a book I read so many years ago. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It is a more loving way to say my own mantra which is “Be brave.” The more I thought about these two phrases the more I realized that they really are very different. And I may have been misleading all my students every day that I taught as I dismissed from our classroom with the saying, “Be brave. Be strong.”
What is it about courage and bravery that seem to be the defining elements in the land for men alone? If men are not brave and courageous somehow they are seen as lesser. Boys are encouraged to be brave all the time. And we cannot have a brave boy that cries.
Buck up son.
Stop crying, brave boys don’t cry.
Don’t be a sissy.
Show your bravery.
Where are your balls, son?
In so many ways we demean the vulnerability in men that somehow is completely acceptable in women. As if women do not have the fortitude to be brave. But our sons. What of our sons? So I say to my son, “Be brave.” Am I shutting off the option to be vulnerable? Am I setting him up to think that bravery is valued over vulnerability? I surely don’t want my son to be a fortress of strength that no one can breach the walls of. I want him to be able to be vulnerable and feel safe in the thought that he is allowed to be vulnerable. There is no shame in tears. There is no shame in showing who you really are. So, why is the land of courage solely the men’s domain? Where do men get to embrace their vulnerability?
What does it look like for men to be vulnerable? For boys to see how to be vulnerable? How does my son learn to be vulnerable or courageous? I am his mother and I want him to be both things, but what can I really teach him about such things? I am a woman. He looks to the men in his life for this lesson, for the way. The way of the man. The way of the boy. They are linked by eons of experience, trial and error. Men have learned to be brave, courageous for that has been the most successful way to survive. But we want more for our men. We want them to thrive. We want our boys to thrive. We want our men to thrive. We want our families to thrive.
We know that boys need good role models. We know that boys need a rich range of experiences to develop their character and their masculine and feminine sides. We find these role models in a variety of places. Movies. Music. Books. Teachers. Coaches. Pastors. Uncles. Granddads. Fathers. Peers. Popular culture.
Some of these can be positive experiences. Some can be negative. We learn as much if not more from the negative experiences. Sometimes what we see someone do is the exact opposite of what we should do. How many times has this happened to our sons as they watch our mistakes? As they emotionally coil away from the put down from the coach, teacher, or father?
At some point all our men, all those men in our metaphorical village, must learn how to be men. They must come to an understanding about what it means to be men. For many it is really aobut being strong. Strong enough to get up every day and go to work, doing a job they do not like in order to support their families. For some it means hitting that baseball the furthest. For some it means climbing every great peak in the world. For others it means developing a good and healthy relationship with their own sons, and with their own fathers.
As I watch my sixteen year old son learn from his mistakes and from his father’s mistakes, I see a boy who will be a great man. If that means being sensitive, kind, helpful, confident, and brave. For many of his male family members he may be too gentle for their comfort level. But his ability to be gentle is what I think makes him strong. We all have chinks in our armor – the more aware we are of those “chinks” (as if that somehow means they are bad), those vulnerabilities, the stronger we really are. For our vulnerability helps us build resilience and flexibility. It is what makes men men and women, women.