“Reinventing Masculinity: The Liberating Power of Compassion and Connection” — by Edward M. Adams, a psychologist practicing in Lambertville and Sommerville, and Ed Frauenheim, Princeton University Class of 1989 and senior director of content at Great Place to Work US in San Francisco — joins the ongoing discussion regarding the psychological situation of men in a changing world, especially contemporary American men.
“People have been debating the nature of what it means to be a man for thousands of years,” they note in the 218-page book. “The ancient Greeks themselves had multiple, sometimes conflicting masculine ideals. There is the concept of the brave, strong hero who ventures forth on adventures and conquests — captured by the figure of Odysseus in the classic epics “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” But the Greeks displayed a range of masculine models in their pantheon of male deities, including Zeus, the all-powerful ruler; Ares, the god of war; Apollo, the god of reason and moral virtue; and Dionysus, the god of pleasure, awe, intuition, and ecstasy.”
They then begin to hone in their topic and note:
“Definitions of masculinity — that is to say, male gender roles — have differed across cultures and changed over the course of human existence.
“For example, at the time of the American founding fathers, the culture encouraged intimate friendships between men — men holding hands walking down the streets of Philadelphia in 1776 would likely raise no eyebrows.
“Reflecting that reality, Division 51 of the American Psychological Association — the wing devoted to the study of men and boys — no longer refers to masculinity as a singular, fixed concept. Division 51 of APA now uses the term ‘masculinities’ to indicate that there are many ways men live within and express manhood.
“If you survey the landscape of masculinities and words used to describe the ways men are conditioned to live their lives, you will find phrases ranging from ‘toxic masculinity’ to ‘caveman masculinity’ to ‘traditional masculinity’ to ‘noble masculinity.’”
The writers then say they decided to use the phrases “confined masculinity” and “liberating masculinity” to describe where masculinity has been and where it is headed.
“We chose the terms for a number of reasons,” they continue. “First, they are grounded in the work of Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita (1874–1938). He developed what is called Morita therapy, an action-oriented approach to counseling that blends Western and Eastern principles. Morita made a distinction between the ‘confined self’ and the ‘extended self.’ The confined self is self-absorbed and excessively preoccupied with one’s own needs. It’s a mind entangled in subjective fears. Morita believed the confined self was the road to neurosis or poor emotional health.
“The term ‘extended self’ used by Morita described positive mental health through connection, compassion, and service to others. Morita’s concept of the confined self, with its ‘me’ focus and fearful outlook, captures key features of the way men and women have been socialized to think about manhood for centuries.”
The writers say another reason they selected the term “confined masculinity” is that “this is a masculinity defined by its limitations. It is centered on restrictions regarding deep-seated beliefs about manliness — about what roles men ‘should or should not’ play, how men perform those roles, in what domains men can act, and for whom. There is also an underlying sense of finiteness and scarcity associated with this concept of masculinity. The mindset of scarcity — about things ranging from resources to sex to status — is intertwined with a fixed worldview. For confined men, a fundamental mental inflexibility creates anxiety around change and ambiguity, as well as confusion around sexuality and the feminine.”
Adams and Frauenheim say confined masculinity identifies three main roles for men: the protector, the provider, and the conqueror.
“These are the central archetypes or standard models available to men under traditional views of what a ‘real’ man is,” they write. “These archetypes have ancient origins and tend to be universal across cultures. They hold value because they speak to timeless human experiences and adaptations. But in each man’s life these archetypes play out in ways that are influenced by time and place. And, like everything else in psychology and biology, there are always individual differences. By keeping individual differences in mind, we can apply the archetypes to our lives, knowing their place is in the realm of the imagination.”
The authors say an antidote to “confined masculinity” is for men to adopt an approach that involves “The Five C’s,” or five words that share the letter: Curiosity, the wondering if there’s a better way than the traditional models of manhood; Courage, the challenging of subjective fears and social constraints on individual expression; Compassion, acknowledging suffering and pain within oneself and in others; Connection, accepting life as an interconnected system; and Commitment, “persisting in the work to expand gender roles in favor of a liberating, powerful masculinity that works for all.”
After exploring the topic further and saying that it isn’t just a male problem because, noting that some women also subscribe to problematic masculine practices and that in order to “succeed in realms where men have had more power, some women have adopted the attitudes and actions of confined masculinity.”
Additionally, they say, “Women also can expect men to fit the contours of a constrained concept of manliness. They can reinforce confined masculinity in the way they praise, reward, slight, shame, and punish men — sometimes sending mixed signals.
“Such contradictory messages can raise tricky questions for men, especially how to balance winning the bread with having enough time and energy to break bread with loved ones.”
The writers also say that while “virtually all men have been exposed to and influenced by this forceful ideology, but that doesn’t mean they adopt it wholesale.”
While the book is an easy and engaging exploration of manhood today, the two recently wrote an addendum of sorts that is not in the book.
A November, 2020, U.S.A. Newspaper editor used the two types of masculinity to contrast President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden.
Using Adams’ practice and years of studies, the two made the following observations:
“Trump is king of this confined, juvenile masculinity. He is defined by misogyny, combativeness, and an obsession with seeming strong.
“Trump’s mockery of masks and disregard for social distancing amid the pandemic, for example, reflect a cramped, ‘me only,’ adolescent masculinity. To view masks as unmanly and social distancing as cowardly is to embrace childish understandings of personal freedom and courage. Trump and men like him ignore the rights of others to remain free of avoiding a deadly illness, and skip the self-discipline, the mettle, to refrain from longed-for social gatherings.
“Biden, on the other hand, generally lives out a liberating masculinity. He chose a woman of color to be his running mate, symbolizing his willingness to tackle questions of gender and racial inequality. He is mature and humble enough to listen to scientific experts when it comes to masks and physical distancing. He recognizes the need for global collaboration on climate change.
“Yet Biden’s most dramatic difference from Trump involves compassion. Instead of letting personal tragedy harden his heart, Biden has shared his sorrow and has opened his heart to others who are suffering.
“Perhaps the most striking moment of the first presidential debate was when Trump falsely accused Hunter Biden of being dishonorably discharged from the military for cocaine use. Biden corrected Trump on the facts. But rather than deny Hunter’s struggle, he turned to the camera and said this: ‘My son, like a lot of people … had a drug problem. … He’s fixed it, he’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him.’
“Because Trump bullied less in the second debate, many felt a sense of relief. But he continued to make grandiose claims on matters like the economy, his pandemic performance, and his achievements for immigrants and Black Americans. He repeated the line that with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, ‘nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump.’
“In contrast to Trump’s braggadocio, Biden offered humility and a willingness to change. About the 1994 crime bill that resulted in many young Black men in jail, he said: ‘It was a mistake. I’ve been trying to change it since then.’
“Signs point to a country ready to leave behind Trump and his backward, self-absorbed masculinity in favor of Biden and his contemporary, inclusive male ethos.
“Many American men clearly are ready to break free of rigid, obsolete, often toxic man rules. In this election, with manhood on the ballot, we hope both men and women will choose a masculinity for our times, one that liberates men and all those around them to live healthier, happier and more connected lives.”
“Reinventing Masculinity: The Liberating Power of Compassion and Connection” by Edward Adams and Ed Frauenheim, $17.95, 218 pages, Berrett-Koehler Publishers.