Jeff Perera looks back at an experience with two young boys on the train, and reflects on what he wishes he said to them.
I used to be a little boy
So old in my shoes
And what I choose is my choice
What’s a boy supposed to do?
Disarm – The Smashing Pumpkins
Rush hour at the end of a Friday is fascinating. People racing to escape the place they spend the majority of their waking hours, retreating into what they believe is their actual life. One odd Friday after work, I found myself in a mostly-deserted subway car barreling out of the downtown core. Sitting to my right was a woman wearing headphones lost in either the music or the textbook in her hands. Either way, she likely couldn’t hear the two animated young boys sitting across from us.
Two boys, no older than thirteen, both with smartphones, both wearing the latest fashions, both trying to pass for well beyond their age. I felt like I was watching a parody, part of me wanted to look around for the hidden camera. They loudly threw slang-drenched sentences at one another like they owned the place, showing each other images on their phones with mimicked, carefully rehearsed body language.
“Hey, check this out!”
The other looks, then sits back, shaking his head with a matching cool sneer declares
“That’s gaaay…..that’s gaaaaay.”
I couldn’t take more of the charade, and suddenly exhaled like I was kicked in the gut.
“Guys, talking like that is not cool!!”
Like deflated balloons, their tween-macho-bubbles burst. As if their spines were pulled out the back of their neck, their heads dropped as they sunk into their seats with the posture of jello, becoming young boys again.
We just sat there. The three of us. Perhaps they were the young boys on your street, in your apartment building, or in your life. Trying desperately to find their way, forever travelling on the Subway of Life without a guide or a map. Instead of growing up to be Men, some boys grow up to be Adult Boys. The question we urgently need to ask ourselves is:
For our young men and boys today, is growing up an ascent or descent into Manhood?
The truth is that more young men are lost than we want to admit. It’s always has been this way, and given the state of things, how else could it be? The world we create for them is like an enormous mansion with endless rooms. We give them all a promise that it’s all for them, but give only some boys the keys to most rooms, leaving the rest to become lost. They feel burned cause they were sold a promise of having it all as a man, and that being a man solely means having it all. They spend their entire lives trying to find themselves, find their way home, find a way out.
” When we teach our sons how to throw a ball or slap a puck, let us also teach them how to gently hold a hand. Teach them how to hug. Often, we think small things are irrelevant – they are not.
Before you set foot in this world, before say your first words or have any say in anything, the path forward is decided for you by others. A double-edged sword strikes an impossible divide across one’s humanity, like a knife trying to separate water in a bowl. This is the way society divides what it means to be a boy or to be a girl, one of two ways forward.
We are carvings.
Some artists will tell you they are simply freeing the art locked inside the medium they are working with. They are just removing the unnecessary excess to reveal the art, the message locked and breathing within. Michelangelo is quoted as saying “every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it“.
So you start sculpting a child, that new block, their mind, body and spirit.
When we choose to sculpt a boy out of the block, the hands of society can chip away and attempt to discard pieces of their humanity. Anything deemed ‘non-masculine’ can be discarded and denied them, such as emotional literacy and connection, empathy, consensus decision-making connected to your heart and mind. We preserve a tough and silenced core. Some of us thankfully were carved to still have access to the full range of our humanity. Some of us are trying to hold onto those discarded pieces.
“If we will consciously, consistently teach our sons – regardless of our biological connection or their age –who and what women are, we will redeem ourselves as guardians of the next generation.”
Japan’s Kosho Sudo (on the right in this picture) is a master Buddhist sculpture craftsperson. Here, Sudo and his students carve a statue of Buddha made from pine which was hit by a earthquake and tsunami. About 5,000 people have contributed to the carving of the nearly nine-foot-tall, six-foot-deep statue.
As with this statue, thousands of people together carve out ideas for any given young boy of what they can be, or cannot be. We do this. All of us. We all are holding the chisel. What are you carving out for today’s and tomorrow’s generation?
The tools are in your hands as they are in mine.
Jeff Perera has spoken to people from all walks of life for over 6 years (from organizations to community spaces to grade school, high school and post-secondary students) about how society’s unattainable concepts of masculinity are effecting men and boys as well as impacting women and girls. He has delivered two TEDx talks on Masculinity and men’s toxic pursuits of identity: Words Speak Louder Than Actions and The Ladder of Manhood. Jeff started Higher Unlearning, as an online space to explore how ideas of gender and masculinity play out in everyday life where we work, live and study.