Being a Modern Man

January 4, 2018

At a recent Pureland Series event to launch the 2017 Being a Man Festival, the all-male panel was asked what its members liked about “being a man”. This group of intelligent and articulate men on stage visibly struggled to come up with an answer. It was an astonishing moment for the audience.

It is increasingly apparent in the modern world that many men are having a hard time finding a sense of purpose, contentment and a place in life. They can’t find the joy in being a man.

One indicator of this tragic tale is the soaring rate of mental illness among men. In 2014, there were 4,623 male suicides in the UK, accounting for 76 per cent of all UK suicides, according to the lobby group Men and Boys Coalition.

Another interesting discovery is that men are more likely than women to die prematurely; fully one in five men dies before the age of 65.

These figures are very sobering. While women have been addressing vocally so many issues affecting their sex by advocating for equality and empowerment, men appear to be bearing their suffering in silence.

The patriarchy at work

There is no doubt we still live in a world ordered on patriarchal lines: women have not yet achieved equal pay to men, the #MeToo campaign is highlighting the extraordinary global prevalence of sexual harassment mostly by men, and women are under-represented in boardrooms and in politics.

However, there has been extraordinary societal change in recent decades and a substantial shift of power between men and women is definitely underway. For example, women have overtaken men in terms of education: around 60,000 fewer boys go to university than girls every year. And fewer men than women are becoming teachers, GPs, dentists, vets and lawyers.

Changes in the workplace have also started to alter home life as women expect or demand more equal and collaborative relationships in every environment.

What is being a man

Men used to have to be the “Alpha male” – a strong hunter gatherer. Now women increasingly want a more emotionally available “New” man who provides financially and is also a hands-on father and friend. In some cases, women may even prefer a stay-at home dad while they climb the corporate ladder.

In other words, the modern man is expected by women to embrace more traditional “female” attributes even though he has probably still been conditioned and programmed to be an old-school tough guy.

In his new book How Not to Be a Boy, the comedian Robert Webb points to the gender conditioning of men and the damage done when young boys are encouraged to behave in ways supposedly befitting their gender – not crying, not discussing feelings, not being gay, getting into fights and obsessing about sport.

Webb says: “What are we saying to a boy told to ‘man up’ or to ‘act like a man’? Often, we’re saying, ‘Stop expressing those feelings.’ And if a boy hears that enough, it actually starts to sound uncannily like, ‘Stop feeling those feelings.’”

The evolving concepts of masculinity and femininity are products of time, culture and geography. Each generation and place have their own ideas, and there is almost no consensus in our fast-changing global society. In fact, contrasting concepts very often create conflicting expectations and confusion.

Add to this the growing awareness of transgender and gender fluidity, and it makes for further confusion.

Joining together

Men’s movements have not been unified or energised in the same way as the feminist movement, which has its roots in inequalities such as the lack of rights on property-ownership, voting, divorce, contraception or abortion.

For men, the battle seems more internal – it’s more about being in touch with who they really are in a changing world and how they define masculinity for themselves. In my opinion, a modern concept of masculinity embraces the new idea of what unites us as human beings rather than what separates us as woman and man.

We all have our own male and female energy within us. In Chinese Taoism philosophy, the male and female energy, Ying and Yang, may be polarising but also interdependent, inter-related and complementary. It’s the harmony and synergy that make the creative force powerful.

“The soul,” American poet Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, “has no gender.” And we are more than a gender, we are first and foremost human beings. When we embrace our fellow men and women this way, we find peace and harmony between the sexes.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation