I am not a fan of “Men’s Rights” movements. They have tended to carry the sour scent of people who complain because the male-dominated “normalcy” they have enjoyed is waning. And so, instead of adapting to a more just world, their response has been to long for a return to patriarchy while refusing to acknowledge that this kind of equality benefits everyone—including men. So, when considering what might make the mental health of men different from that of women, I hesitate.
And yet, I am also a man. As I have taken deep root in middle age, the boyish hope of avoiding responsibility has long since fallen by the wayside. But with my age comes the feeling of being unprepared for life’s burdens. I often find myself disoriented and unsure of how best to fulfill my roles as husband, father, and one who accepts the charge to steward masculinity well for the benefit of others. Now that I am a grown up and have become a man, I wonder if I am doing it well. I suspect these feelings of disorientation are not unique to me, and may have something to tell us about the way our current context is impacting the mental health of men. As much as we might welcome changes that lead to greater equity, these changes in our world have caused us to re-evaluate our assumptions about how we are to live our lives.
Though it has been decades since I was exposed to environments rife with toxic masculinity, the wounds of it remain in the form of pressure I put on myself to “succeed” in one way or another. It saddens me to see many men around me falling into the same traps. Traditionally, men have defined success in only a few ways. There is the pressure to show dominance by maximizing income and lifestyle. And, fitting the “bro culture” stereotype, perhaps obsession with physical fitness and sexual “conquest” follow close behind. There can also be pressure to feel “smart” or “accomplished” by accumulating degrees and titles. If one is married with children, there is the added pressure of becoming a father and husband worthy of admiration. Some respond to this pressure by continuing to chase after success to the detriment of their mental health. Others choose withdrawal after perceiving that none of these options seem available to prove one’s “success.” It is that kind of passiveness or its opposite pole, bitterness and rage, that characterizes the emotional lives of men who lose their feelings of empowerment and purpose.
While the ongoing dismantling of toxic masculinity in this generation may have helped some men come to grips with their own needs and destigmatized help-seeking, it may also have had the effect of removing images of masculinity that prior eras had held as sacred. While the image of a man as being independent, strong, emotionally stoic, and self-secure was not helpful, it was at the very least something. However wrong they were, those expectations provided orientation to people who are feeling lost.
Of course, not all men are invested in an attempt to win the “alpha male” game. But even traditional roles such as being a settled family man feel unsustainable and maybe even unfulfilling because of the loss of certainty for ourselves and our children. What once were “givens” no longer feel that way. The expectations of previous generations that certain life paths will lead to comfort have come to a place of reckoning. With increasing divides between social classes and the extinction threat of climate change breeding cynicism and discouragement in our youth, it is not much of a stretch to believe that this also affects the fathers, uncles, and brothers who care for them. It is one thing to experience the loss of hope for oneself, but it is another, more vicious wound to see hopefulness diminish in the hearts of loved ones, despite our best efforts to shower them with opportunities to exceed us. In this, the futility of applying oneself to working hard for one’s family is negated by the reality that such efforts may be for naught.
As we face the end of the middle-class North American dream for ourselves and our families, perhaps the disillusionment that follows can be a gift. When we are forced to give up on the life we think we have wanted and the shapes of ourselves we have tried to inhabit, we may begin to apprehend anew whose life we truly want to inhabit and whose way we want to follow. And for this, we do have a helpful example.
I imagine it’s a matter of debate amongst theologians as to why God chose Jesus’ particular embodiment as a man instead of as a woman. But if I am worried that men do not have the kinds of models that lead into personal coherence, health, and purpose, it might help to start thinking more about the way Jesus is able to “be a man” without clinging to our world’s measures. Here, after all, is a person who is not obsessed with the acquisition of wealth, career, or family, and yet lives as fully and fulfilled as any human being might hope for.
I realize that on its face, speaking of Jesus’ fulfillment of manhood might sound simplistic. But the more I dwell on it, the more I think I want to be a man like him. His clarity of vision. His gentleness with those who suffer. His trust in the Father. His ambition not for himself, but for others. His courage and integrity. At this age, I find myself saying I want to be like Jesus in a whole new way.
We Western Christians prefer to focus on Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross—and rightly so. But if we want to address the perplexity and purposelessness of men of our time, it may be that the example of Jesus as man is worth calling to mind again and again. Perhaps in the face of so much confusion, this may not sound like enough. And yet, the historical smallness and insignificance of Jesus’ life is far outweighed by the impact he has had, both on our world and on those who love him.
ED NG, Mdiv, RPsych
Edward En-Heng Ng is a Registered Psychologist in private practice in Vancouver. Prior to becoming a psychologist, Ed was a high school science teacher for five years and then, after attending Regent College (MDiv, 2008) he pastored in a small congregation for another four years before starting his doctoral studies at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology. His advisor at Fuller was Al Dueck, who introduced him to the field of cultural psychology, which focuses on how people groups tend to speak of themselves instead of relying on Western psychology to describe them. Ed’s enduring academic interest since then has centred around critical psychology and the applications of cultural psychology in clinical or counselling contexts. Ed has taught at Trinity Western University and Regent College; he is also the founder and host of the Eastgate Project podcast, which focuses on the intersections of psychology, theology, and the experiences of the Asian diaspora. Ed lives in Richmond with his wife and two sons.