This article is a follow-up to my first piece on toxic masculinity. If you haven’t read that yet, please do so. (Minor spoilers for Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer follow)
“The most important step a man can take is not the first one; it is the next one.”
So, you’ve looked within yourself, you’ve seen the ugliness in your soul. Now what? If you’ve really taken a good, hard look at the way you’ve treated women, you’re probably feeling a lot of guilt right now. That’s good. Don’t run from it.
Everything you’ve been taught is going to urge you to take that guilt and stuff it down deep until it doesn’t hurt anymore, but that’s how you got into this mess. Climbing out of the pit is going to require you to do the opposite of what got you into it. So, close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Now…
Let yourself feel the guilt.
The tightness in your chest, the sensation that your guts have been tied in knots. Accept it. Welcome it. Maybe you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, right now; maybe you’re even crying. That’s a good thing too. Those emotions you’ve been suppressing, those feelings of pain and vulnerability? They’re what’s going to prevent you from lashing out in anger again. What you need to understand is that feeling this way doesn’t make you a failure; it makes you human.
When you suppress your emotions to appear strong and stoic, you also shut off a part of your humanity. Sadness, grief, fear, shame: these are not just physiological responses to stress. They are the means to attaining wisdom.
Sadness gives you compassion for those who suffer; shame gives you compassion for those who fail. Because we all fail. Each and every one of has some regret that gnaws at us, some memory of a time when we were selfish or cruel. Of a moment when we tried, but it just wasn’t enough. Each and every one of us has that one stain on our soul, that one sin that no amount of time can erase. We knew it was wrong, but we did it anyway.
For Dalinar Kholin, that sin was murdering children.
In Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, Dalinar was a general, a warrior with a particularly potent bloodlust who rose through the ranks and led a campaign to solidify his brother’s kingdom. One of the rebelling cities offered Dalinar a truce as a ruse for a sneak attack. In response, he burned that city to the ground.
The memory of it haunted Dalinar, left him broken and hopeless. He turned to alcohol to soothe his pain. Toward the end of his career, he became a drunk and a negligent father.
Sanderson’s version of the devil — a god called Odium — offered Dalinar a release from the pain. “Blame me, Dalinar,” he said. “I made you kill them. Accept that. You don’t have to hurt anymore.”
In many ways, Odium represents toxic masculinity: the temptation to rid ourselves of emotions we would rather not feel, to remove vulnerabilities we would rather not have. Dalinar’s bloodlust is even revealed to be a “gift” from Odium. The ability to conquer, to dominate: that is how Odium defines strength. It’s a definition that remains very much in keeping with every lie we’ve been taught about masculinity.
How easy it would be if we could blame our sins on some external factor. Toxic masculinity assures us that we can.
“It wasn’t my fault. Testosterone makes men more aggressive.”
“Well, what did she expect, going out dressed like that? Boys will be boys, after all.”
By painting a picture of men as beasts who remain forever enslaved to their urges, we absolve ourselves of guilt and the pain that goes with it. Clinging to that picture may provide solace, but it also limits our potential. Men can be noble and kind and decent, but only if we accept responsibility for our actions.
Overwhelmed by the guilt of what he had done, Dalinar was tempted to take Odium’s offer, to let Odium wash away the sting of those memories. But he defeated Odium by looking into the god’s eyes and speaking one sentence.
“You cannot have my pain.”
He stood up and accepted the truth that he had killed innocents, that he had conducted a brutal military campaign. “I killed those children,” Dalinar said. “You might have been there, but I made the choice. I decided!”
Accept your pain, my friend. Accept your mistakes, your regrets, your moments of inadequacy. Take all of that in, and then accept something else: that you, good sir, are remarkable.
You’ve just done one of the hardest things that a human being can do. To honestly look within yourself and see your sins for what they are without making excuses? That takes incredible strength. You should be proud.
I’m not a religious person, but there is a line from the Bible I’ve always liked. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23. Growing up, I knew several Evangelicals who insisted that this verse meant that every last human being deserves damnation. Leave it to fundamentalists to get everything ass backwards.
The true meaning of that passage is that every last human being is worthy of compassion and that redemption exists for each of us if we seek it. It won’t be easy; there will be some people who will never forgive you no matter how hard you try. But you don’t do it to change their minds; you do it to heal the damage you caused, whenever possible, to set right what once went wrong and to prevent a repeat of such mistakes.
This is going to be difficult; the temptation of anger isn’t going to go away simply because you’ve chosen a new path. The process of becoming a better person isn’t a single life-altering choice but a thousand little choices, each one building you up. In time, as you embrace new emotions like vulnerability and sadness, you will develop new coping skills and new perspectives. You’ve chosen to walk a difficult path, but you don’t have to walk it alone.
I’m walking that path beside you; it doesn’t matter if you’re a perfect stranger, you can come to me anytime, and I’ll do whatever I can to help you
Like many other characters in the Stormlight Archive, Dalinar is a member of the Knights Radiant, and one thing that the Radiants all have in common: they were all broken people who put themselves back together by choosing to do better. Part of that process involves promising to live by certain ideals. I think one of those oaths matters a great deal to us as men learning to overcome toxic masculinity. Maybe you’d like to take it with me.
“I will take responsibility for what I’ve done. If I must fall, I will rise each time a better person.”
If you need a little inspiration after coping with all that pain, I highly recommend reading one of Brandon’s many wonderful novels. The man has a talent for inspiring hope when things seem hopeless. (Elantris is a great starting point)
Bondsmith glyph by Isaac Stewart © Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC and used with permission.
Rich Penney is a science-fiction author and futurist. You can check out his books here.