We're a grassroots initiative established by a hopeful humanitarian. The mission is simple: spread kindness via little handwritten notes. We leave these tokens of kindness in everyday places like local restaurants, libraries, public transportation, and even public restrooms! Our hope? That you may find a note, be encouraged, and pay it forward.
Depression holds people under water just long enough to make their lungs sparkle with water, but not long enough that they disappear. I believe that’s the aspect of it that makes it so painful. Suffering for long periods of time gasping for air, but unable to articulate your needs.
There is a bittersweet emotional tension between depression and the desire to be immersed in efforts of self-help.
Can I cure my depression by eating a vegan diet?
Maybe I can go through years of intensive therapy and learn to fix myself.
I’m not trying hard enough.
The meds aren’t working and I’m more tired than I’ve ever been.
Maybe more podcasts, encouraging books, exercise, time with friends, and sleep will help me to get my head above water.
All of those things are wonderful, but when you overload yourself with the best of intentions when you’re in survival mode you will fall.
Maybe you cycle through self blame, self help, and self sabotage. The truth is that depression isn’t a destiny at all. It’s a journey. It may not be one that you set out for, but you are on the road with a painful yet magnificent teaching tool.
The truth is that the best effort you can put forth in dark times of depression is the effort of not giving up on yourself.
Focus on the fact that your lungs are filled with air. It doesn’t make the pain evaporate, but it will be enough to get you through one day at a time.
You aren’t failing. As a matter of fact, you can and will thrive.
I began a kindness initiative nearly one year ago. Little Hope Notes was born from compassion, creativity, and the desire to make a small difference. I remember how easily the words came to me when I would sit down and write a little hope note. The opportunities ahead seemed limitless and I’d smile at the thought of someone discovering a note and it being an encouragement to them.
Instagram seems to be a place to present polished versions of people. Those people share their victories and at times they share their struggles. I didn’t know where I fit in and I didn’t know how to make Little Hope Notes an encouraging platform when I was struggling so desperately with my own mental health.
I began to avoid all social media for my own well being. It felt impossible to be positive when I was comparing myself against every account I scrolled past. I hid.
I didn’t just hide on screen, but off screen too. My own depression gripped me so tightly that I stopped writing little hope notes. I stopped sharing about it. I stopped showing up for myself. Under I went into a place that I can only refer to as the darkness.
When I was down there I thought about how desperately I wanted to feel alive. I wanted to feel peace and have a deep understanding of myself. Then, a moment came when I realized that all of the Little Hope Notes I had written for others really spoke to me as well.
Was it possible that I had been writing what my own heart needed the whole time?
That depression clung to me for a long time, but as the sun began to thaw the outer edges of my heart I began to see. I saw those that were struggling and I knew right then and there that it wasn’t just enough to share encouraging words with others. I had to show hope. Sometimes hope doesn’t look promising at all. As a matter of fact, hope tends to push us out of the soil when we are at rock bottom.
There are 5 mental health confessions that I need to share. These things occur when I am at my worst and I am realizing that isolating myself in a confessional booth isn’t what hope looks like. It’s coming out into the open and sharing it with you because maybe you’re hurting, too.
I distance myself from the people I love most. I never feel guilty about it because my trauma response of wanting to self preserve is stronger.
I have been in therapy for 5 years and I only started telling my therapist the truth two weeks ago. I wasn’t blatantly lying, but was so defensive that I didn’t even know what my truth was. Years of self sufficiency can make it hard for vulnerability to move in.
Suicidal thoughts come into my mind often. Although I have a strong support system and a safety plan, it doesn’t make it hurt any less.
I’m learning slowly that I deserve love and peace. I am in this strange place of showing myself tenderness and grace. Sometimes that’s too uncomfortable to sit with so I keep running.
I’m a peacemaker. I always have been. That quality has led to a lot of pain in my life–trusting too much too quickly. When I feel that people aren’t trustworthy I enter a place of self sufficiency and swear them off before they even had a fighting chance.
If there’s anything that I can say I know about you for sure it is this.
You are safe to confess what you struggle with. You’re loved simply because you exist and there’s nothing that can extinguish that light inside of you. Hope is always there. See if you can find her the next time a storm rolls in. She’ll be the one waiting on the shore for you.
Our inner dialogue can become exhausting to live with if we are constantly hearing and believing the worst about ourselves. When those times of discouragement come take time to replace those thoughts with the three truths to live by.
1. I am not alone
When we face hardships the first thing that can pop into our mind is Nobody understands me. Then, our emotions kick in and we feel isolated and alone. Regardless of what you are going through, you are not alone. There is someone in the world that is facing something that is breaking their heart as much as your trial is breaking yours. We hear so often about what makes us different. Whether it’s the color of our skin, the place we grew up, or the education we have received–we’re constantly bombarded with our differences.
The truth is that we’re all more alike than we realize–especially in our suffering. Nearly everyone knows what grief feels like. There aren’t many people that don’t know what sadness or fear feel like.
It’s so vital that you remind yourself of the community, friends, and family around you. If you don’t feel like you have any people to love and care for you in those areas then keep your eyes open for encouragement. It isn’t far fetched to think that we find the hope we need just when we need it. Most of the time it’s in the most unexpected places.
2. I matter
You matter. Your life matters. Your opinions, hopes, fears, and dreams matter. This is a truth to keep close to your heart today and always. Why? Because sometimes we all feel like we are in a robotic mode through life. We can feel that life is happening to us and not for us. Our opinions become buried deep because we think that they aren’t important. Dreams collect dust because we’re not confident enough to make them a reality. We hold our fears with a tight fist afraid that someone may see them and push us aside.
Our hope is that you will always know that you matter. On hard days, you matter. When you make mistakes, you matter. Those times that you’d rather not share your heart, you matter. There isn’t anything that you can comprehend that is as vast as your importance. The galaxies themselves pale in comparison to the beauty that is within you–simply because you are.
This is not giving you a mirror to hold up to yourself and count what you perceive as flaws. This isn’t a lesson on humility or an encouraging piece on how to embrace your quirks.
Perfection is fleeting. We accomplish something and the feeling of victory and encouragement fades as quickly as the setting sun. Trying to attain perfection is like trying to catch the morning fog in your hands. It’s impossible. Girl, this is your chance to lay all of that down. The need for control is deeply rooted in many of us. Many of us carry that burden because we felt unsafe and insecure in our childhoods. You are weary and you’re going to fall to pieces if you keep chasing after perfect. She’s an illusion and will always be ten steps ahead of you in your mind. Being imperfect means you’re human. Being imperfect means you’re breathing. Being imperfect means that there’s cause for celebration. You do not need to fix, become, or salvage yourself. You are imperfectly perfect.
Every morning the mountains would stand strong and silent against the dark sky. Then, the sun would slowly illuminate the treetops and the birds would begin to sing against a golden canvas. Those mountains would stand with their smooth scoops dipping into the valley below and greet me each morning. I would play with my cousins until the summer sun melted behind the ridge and the sky was left a cotton candy pink. Later, with my pajamas on and blankets resting on my cheek, the moon would light the tallest trees and the mountains and I would fall asleep together.
It was under that cotton candy sky and between those mountains–like bookends holding my life upright–that I began to hide. My temperament, childhood trauma, and desire to make others happy caused me to press on and act as if I was not affected by difficult times.
The Safest Place
“Please, help me. I don’t know what I need, but I need help.”, I begged with tears in my eyes.
I wiped my sweatshirt sleeve across my running nose and anxiously crossed my ankles.
“I can do that.” she said as she leaned in closer.
I was 28-years-old and was seeing a therapist for the first time. I looked around her home office and tried to count the books on her shelf to distract myself.
“I can see that you’re anxious right now. I want you to think of somewhere that brings you peace.”
I shifted in my seat and nodded my head in agreement.
“Where is that place for you?”
“The mountains.”, I said just above a whisper.
“What about the mountains makes you feel at peace?”
“Everything. I called them home for the first 19 years of my life. They’re so much bigger than I am and make me feel so small in the best way. I’m never alone when I’m in the mountains.”
“That’s beautiful. I want you to think of the mountains any time that you’re feeling overwhelmed during our sessions.”
Between Then and Now
I have used that technique in many sessions with my therapist since.
Maybe you’re on the edge of seeking treatment to work through past trauma, a new mental health diagnosis, or a combination of the two. It’s not going to be easy. As a matter of fact, it may be one of the most difficult things that you’ll ever do.
In all of my imperfection, I want to step forward and tell you that it will be worth it.
I’m holding space for you in the mountains. The sun is setting now; the sky turning golden pink. Soon, the moon will settle in for the night and the crickets will chirp by the creek. Then, lovely soul, the sun will rise and warm your face again.
Nicole means Victory for the People. I remember sitting on a green upholstered church pew when I was little and reading that on a bookmark that I owned. I’d twist the burgundy tassel top around my fingers and imagine myself helping people that needed help. I never realized that victory was meant for me, too.
To date I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder three times.
I have lived in denial for about two years and have avoided being medicated like the plague. I couldn’t reconcile that I was being diagnosed with the same illness that my father had, even though he had bipolar type 1 and I have been diagnosed with bipolar type 2. If you’re curious about the difference between the two types, I encourage you to read about it here.
Over time, the depressive episodes have gotten worse and lasted longer. The hypo-manic episodes have surfaced as severe anxiety and paranoia. Just this week, I hit rock bottom and realized that my misery outweighed my actual fear of going on medication. I saw the psychiatrist on Wednesday and began medication immediately.
I’ve lost too many precious days with my family to postpone treatment any longer.
I’m ready to redefine my normal and to discover facets of the “real” me again.
All those years ago when I was imagining myself being a helper, healer, and victor for those in need on a church pew in East Tennessee, I think I had it all wrong. I’m learning that victory isn’t always what we imagine.
Maybe I’m not running into a physical battle like I imagined as a kid. I’m not advocating for justice in a courtroom or championing for the rights of the oppressed.
I’m advocating for myself and because I’m doing that, I am fighting along some of the bravest people I’ll ever know. That’s you, by the way!
I believe victory isn’t about what you accomplish, but instead how you persist.
My middle name is Nicole.
I hope I can help you you acknowledge the victories you have every day.
Ten Novembers ago Ricky died of pneumonia at the age of 43 which was ironic since he had battled addiction for most of his life and attempted suicide eight times.
Ricky was my father.
The Early Years
His childhood ran parallel to my childhood experience. A young kid raised in East Tennessee, a love for art, and an alcoholic father.
I was held by my 17 year old mother when I was born. Ricky looked down into the incubator at me soon after with a huge smile on his face. There’s a picture to prove that he was there and that he cared. I looked at that picture a lot growing up. I needed the reminder. He was 22 and I imagine he was hopeful. That’s what I get from the photo–hope and pure pride.
Ricky was gone by the time I was 4. He sped away one morning in his car and squealed the tires around the curve at the bottom of the road near the treeline. I went back inside and went about my day. I think I played with Barbies while Mama cried in her bedroom.
I saw him on the occasional Christmas and Birthday where he’d shower me with gifts that his mom had paid for and wrapped herself. Nobody told me that, but I knew early on. There was no way he would have known what I wanted for Christmas, my favorite color, or that I loved my presents to be wrapped individually, but stacked and tied together with a large bow on top.
When I was 9 years old I told him I never wanted to speak to him again. The anger had caught up to me. Besides, Mama had remarried and I had a real dad that knew my favorite color and took time to play Frisbee with me outside.
I stewed in my resentment for a long time which I still believe is perfectly reasonable for any girl that’s been abandoned by her father.
When I was fourteen, I saw Ricky sitting outside of the assisted living home where he’d been living for a year, smoking a cigarette in his wheelchair. I had mom stop the car and as soon as she shifted the car into park, I opened the door without hesitating. I knew if I hesitated that I wouldn’t be able to muster up the courage. I had to do this on impulse. He spotted me almost instantly and said, “Hey baby!” I hated when he called me baby. I kept walking until I was by his side.
“I forgive you.”, I blurted out. “You left me and I forgive you.”
His blue-green eyes filled with tears and he exhaled the last of his cigarette.
I don’t remember what he said or if I went back to the car immediately.
Cigarettes and Cassette Tapes
When I think of Ricky, I think of three things: cassette tapes of 80’s rock n’ roll, cigarettes, and fudge Pop Tarts.
I’d love to say that my forgiving my dad changed everything and that we grew to become best friends. The truth is that I still cringed when he hugged me when I was leaving from our weekly visits. I hated when he said I reminded him of himself. It made me incredibly sad when he talked about his alcoholism and pleaded with me to always choose my future family over anything else. Even though it made me sad, I changed the subject or made an excuse to get off of the phone. I couldn’t comfort him because I didn’t know how.
He would stay up late in manic episodes recording cassette tapes for me.
Side A: Kiss, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses / Side B: more Kiss, U2, and AC/DC
He would meticulously write out the lyrics in tiny perfect hand writing on the cassette cover. He’d give them to me almost every visit and I’d end up throwing them away during my next visit to the car wash. I still don’t know why I did that. Maybe it was to keep myself from loving him too much. In case things didn’t work out then I wouldn’t have remnants of him around my car.
The Last Chapter
I did grow to love him, though. It turned out that I always had. The little girl that had refused to care for so long had actually cared all along. I began to notice that Ricky’s mood was always unpredictable. Some of my visits he would spend laughing and cracking jokes. Other days, he would go back to sleep while I watched TV. He’d wake back up to smoke a cigarette and then go back to bed. I’d let myself out without waking him and would drive the long way home to sort through the feelings of abandonment that would resurface.
He was sick. I knew that the bipolar moods were not his fault and that the depression had a strong hold on him. Still, I felt like a little girl yearning for her dad to pay attention to her.
The last time I saw Ricky was at my wedding. He had saved large portions of his disability check so that he could buy my wedding dress. After the ceremony, I gave him a quick hug on my way to have photos taken. He said he wasn’t feeling well and needed to go home. The hug felt awkward as always and I found myself pulling away before he was ready.
Two months later I was watching his casket get lowered into the heart of the earth. He was only 43 years-old. He had left me again. This time, I couldn’t reconcile. I wanted to dig through the landfill and find the cassette tapes. I craved an awkward hug and all I wanted was to hear him snore while I watched the same infomercials again and again.
More than anything, I wanted to know his favorite color. I never got to ask.
Lessons in Love
I have Ricky to thank for teaching me what love is.
Love is complicated. It isn’t always pristine and comfortable. Love is putting in the hard work. Love is forgiveness. Love is apologizing for the past and doing your best to be present in the moment. Love is allowing people to be imperfect and realizing that we too are imperfect.
Love is more than knowing someone’s favorite color. It’s knowing that you’d give your very life for them if you had to. It’s sacrificial and it’s ultimately the only thing we will die remembering.
Ricky, I know your life was really hard.
I know you tried your best.
Me forgiving you changed everything for you. Realizing you loved me changed everything for me.
Mama, I see you. I see beyond your pajama pants and messy bun in the school drop off line. Two panes of glass separate us–yours tinted darker than mine. There, in the shadow that the morning sun is casting on your face, I see the dark circles under your eyes and the taut thin line that your lips create just above your chin.
I look in the rear view mirror at my daughter.
She’s talking about how she doesn’t need her coat because the sun is out. It’s 34-degrees outside. I catch a glimpse of myself in that rear view mirror then I look back over at you. I see myself in you. We’re tired, aren’t we? Being a Mama is hard.
Nobody told me how hard it would be to navigate motherhood. No one took me by the hand and showed me that I can live with Major Depressive Disorder and still be a good mom.
Maybe you’re reading this as you’re rocking your newborn to sleep. Maybe this is reaching you as you’re sitting on your bathroom floor crying while your toddler throws a tantrum just outside the door.
I am writing this to you wherever you are, Mama.
I am writing this to me.
I know what it’s like to be full of enthusiasm and greet the day and your child with wide eyes and sweet kisses. The day ahead like a blank canvas–yours to fill with color and memories. Breathing in the scent of your kid as they lean in for a tired afternoon hug feels like magic.
Then there are the other days. Those days.
I know what it’s like to be full of dread and greet the day and your child with a hurried pace and tired eyes. The day ahead like a burden–yours to crawl through. Catching your breath at the end of the day as you lay your head on your pillow feels like magic. The regretful rush, lack of patience, and short temper sit heavily on your chest. Hot tears form in your eyes, but you never feel them fall because you’ve already fallen asleep.
Most Mamas can fully relate to both scenarios.
There’s the other days. The days when everything in the external world is just as it should be, but the storm rages inward. There’s a cloud so dark and heavy hanging above you and you can feel yourself fading–becoming it.
Then, there are the times adjusting to a new psychiatric medication. There’s the initial hope followed by the deep fatigue and other symptoms that creep in and take over for the weeks following. Finally, the medications sync with your system and you feel some sort of relief from depression’s weight and anxiety’s grip. You’re left wondering if the weeks of investment are going to pay off–the torture of adjusting to new chemicals swimming in your body.
The stigma associated with medication seems to find you on a cellular level and although you’re happy to feel more like yourself, you’re also struggling with feeling like a failure for having to need help.
All of this is so difficult. Yet, only the faithful few–sometimes the faithful one–check to see how you’re doing.
Motherhood is an all encompassing, invigorating, and absolute “play it by ear” song and dance. For those living with a mental illness it feels impossible to care for yourself–not to mention the tiny human that God has entrusted you with.
So, we prioritize those we love and let whatever treatments that may or can be wait on the horizon for another day.
Mama, this Little Hope Note isn’t a list of things you can or should do to make your mental illness more manageable. Thankfully and also ironically unfortunate, there are enough of those blogs awaiting you in your next Google search.
What can I give?
I just want to acknowledge you. I want you to know that you’re lovely and you are loved–as you are.
You aren’t broken.
There isn’t a day that I don’t think of you. In fact, acknowledging that you exist means that I’m not merely existing, but am part of a community–a tribe of Mamas suffering, but loving deeply despite it all.
This guest post is by my dear friend Kiersten. She’s a nurturer, a soul filler-upper (that’s a word, right?), and hysterical breath of fresh air. She loves deeply and creates art with all of her soul over at all.from.home. Kiersten offers virtual yoga retreats a few times a year where she invites you into a safe slow yoga flow, a meditation on scripture, and a corresponding craft. Follow her on Instagram to stay in the loop and join us in her next retreat. She has been a huge influence in my own journey in true self-care and honoring my body by seeking regular rest.
I’m currently sitting in bed eating Ben and Jerry’s as I write this. I think that’s pretty appropriate with this topic.
The relationship between rest and me has always been a
murky one. What is laziness, and what is this so called “self-care?” Where is
the line? What is “rest,” and am I even allowed to have it?
As far back as I can remember, I’ve worked for rest. I’ve worked myself to the bone so that I could be deserving of a nap. I’ve pushed myself to the point of being sick, so then I could rest guilt-free, because “doctor’s orders!” I’ve spiraled in anxiety and depression over and over, because I didn’t give my body a voice. And why?
I grew up as a minister’s kid in a Christian home, and
would still say of myself that my faith in Jesus is the biggest part of who I
am. While I am so grateful for my upbringing, I think that this has often been
my downfall. Growing up in the church, and constantly being involved in
ministry has more often than not left me feeling that I am not enough. I don’t
bring enough, I could never help enough people, I don’t donate enough money, I
don’t give enough hours, I don’t fast enough, I don’t pray enough, I don’t care
about the “headed straight to hell” souls enough, etc. etc.
I do want to note that this is MY experience. My
experience has been in the area of religion. Maybe yours is in a career path, a
relationship, or a family situation. I don’t know. But what I do know is that
this seems to be a huge part of the human condition, no matter what or who you
believe in. This overall dreadful feeling of “never enough.”
What if the reason we feel this way isn’t because we aren’t enough? Because we are completely drained? Will you do something for me?
Close your eyes, and picture a house plant.
Imagine the leaves are brown, dry, and droopy.
Visualize the soil pulling away from the side of the
planter due to how dry it is.
Now, see yourself getting a glass, and filling it 1/8th of
the way with water.
See yourself walking over to the plant, and trying to
water the plant with that amount of water.
Can you see the water barely wetting the soil at all?
Imagine that you are that water glass. Trying to nurture
and create life, hoping to make some sort of difference, but totally and
completely empty from the start. It was never going to be enough, because you
started with a near empty glass.
I believe that God created the world in seven days, and on
the seventh day, He rested. Now, he made man on the sixth day, right? Why not
on the first day, so that man could help God do all the work? No, the very
first day of man being a living creature, he woke up, and God said, “Today, we
rest.” He started him off with rest. God knew that to give anything, there has
to be something received first.
What if instead of living for rest, we lived from rest?
What would our lives, or marriages, our homes, our communities, and our world look like? The truth is that we’d all be pouring from glasses that are always full, not trying to squeeze out every last drop, and failing miserably.
I know I’ve asked a lot of questions here today, but I think that true rest to me is taking the time to notice. Rest can look like so many things, from naps, to creative time, to movie nights, to journaling.
But “true rest” to me is being present wherever I am, and living from the peace I have on the inside. It is asking myself questions all throughout the day.
Mind, how are you today? Is there anything you need to lay
Body, how are you feeling? What do you need? If it’s a nap
instead of a walk, that’s okay.
Soul, how are you? If you’re overwhelmed, it’s okay. Or if
you’re hopeful, you have permission to be excited!
And then not judging myself for anything I feel, but
answering myself in kindness, and taking the time to fill up my own cup.
Because if I don’t, I am doing the world around me an injustice, because I will
have nothing to pour out.
So, take some time today to find true, honest, real rest!
Maybe it’s an hour, or maybe it’s 5 minutes. I just want to invite you to take
some time to close your eyes, and listen. And hopefully be inspired to take a
This post is dedicated to all of the writers attending the hope*writers conference in Charlotte, NC this week. My hope is that you leave inspired and with an ache to write for the hopeless.
The words within you are just as much a part of you as the blood in your veins and run as deeply as your bone marrow. Perhaps those words flow through you with each beating of your heart.
Fear often tries to put you in your place–reminding you that you should stay silent. Fear tells you there isn’t a soul that would find healing in your words.
You’ve been silent for too long.
A new season is beginning.
Do you hear it?
Can you see it?
It’s a season of audacity and hope–one where your words heal you and then, the world. Push through the soil and bloom with your face toward the sun. If you do not write your words then nobody will–they’ll come to a slow halt with the last beat of your heart.
The time is now.
Write because you were born to do so.
Write because people need hope.
Write and never stop.
You matter—your words matter.
Writers, welcome to the Little Hope Notes community! Check out our shop to purchase your own pack of Little Hope Notes (free shipping) and start the kindness initiative in your own community!
Guest post by my one and only! My husband Matt is passionate about mental health awareness and encouraging men to live lives of vulnerability, healing, and fullness. Matt is a law enforcement officer and uses his years of experience in the profession to create a culture of empathy in his workplace and with those he comes into contact with–often those that struggle with mental health. Matt knows his own struggles with mental health intimately. That is a story for another day. For now, enjoy as Matt shares his views on true masculinity and how men can better themselves by living authentically.
A little more than a week ago, a viral video popped up of the Sevier County, Tennessee Commissioner railing against the Democratic party here in the USA. Among other things he mentioned, he lamented the fact that “a Queer is running for President” and that “a white male in this country has very few rights and they’re getting took more every day”. This statement was met with cheers and “Amen” from others in the meeting.
#MeToo and Masculinity
As we end the first twenty years of the 21st century we’ve seen a massive cultural shift in gender relations. With the #MeToo movement there was a recognition of bad behavior perpetrated by men, mostly in the workplace. Men were finally being held accountable for the systemic superiority that has permeated the culture. There’s also been a recognition of racial and ethnic disparity in our country, and a highlight of inequity that has persisted even after the Civil Rights movement of last century. In an effort to right the ship of American culture there’s been vocal outcries against men, mostly white, and we’ve collectively seen these people “cancelled” from the public eye. Men that say something unprofessional to a woman colleague are now being fired. White politicians that are found to have used blackface decades ago are now having their political careers challenged. There’s been an uprising that says: “This behavior will not be accepted anymore and it needs to stop.”
This should all be a good thing, right? Equality in the workplace, holding men accountable for what they’ve said or done to harass someone, and not allowing this bad behavior to persist should be helping men move into the 21st century, right? For many men that I’ve had encounters with regarding this subject, the attitude is one of feeling victimized by the culture instead of affirmed. Several men I’ve met in my line of work would quietly agree with the Sevier County Commissioner. Why are men feeling victimized about our culture’s insistence that all are treated equally? In my opinion, it is because the very idea of masculinity is being challenged. The way by which a man identifies as a man in still judged against a historic concept of masculinity and this hasn’t idea hasn’t evolved.
Man By Definition
In this historic idea of masculinity the worst thing a boy can be called is a girl. The second is gay, because of the femininity attached to such a label. As boys are socialized with other boys a hierarchy is established: the “best” boy is the strongest, the fastest, and the biggest. The larger boys represent everything that a boy in our culture thinks a man should be. Many boys fall victim to these leaders of the pack when their thinking or ideas don’t align with the leaders. Boys are bullied or picked on for spending more time with girls than boys. They’re picked on for any traits that could be interpreted as non-masculine: being too short, or too skinny, or having a high-pitched voice, or preferring to do activities that aren’t based on physical dominance. As boys mature into teenagers this intensifies and can lead to violence. But this time in a teen boy’s life also introduces other measuring sticks for masculinity: the conquering of women and the recognition of money relating to power. Teen girls are then approached as possible conquests instead of equals, and they’ve already been phased out of equality because they’re not boys. This entire attitude persists with varying forms of maturity and becomes more nuanced as teen boys become adults. Many of these belief systems based on the historic idea of masculinity become implicit and may improve as a man has more interaction with women in professional settings, but I think there may be lingering effects.
One of these lingering effects that I’ve noticed among young men is the use of “no homo” when mentioning something even vaguely complimentary or vulnerable to another man. I recently overheard an adult man talk about how the leaves at this time of year are gorgeous and the response from the other guy next to him was, “that’s so gay”. Even as a joke, this idea that men can’t enjoy beauty or show affection without being accused of being sexually attracted to another man and thus emasculated is very telling of the culture. The idea that a gay man is somehow not masculine is also logically perplexing. There’s no allowance for a man to be vulnerable, to display sadness, or to enjoy anything that may not be traditionally “male”. When men buy into this idea of masculinity they can then feel victimized when the very definition of what it means to be a man is changing in our culture. When a man hears that his perception of masculinity is being challenged, that man can feel like his identity is being challenged. There’s so much baggage attached to this issue and it hits to the very core of many men and who they believe themselves to be. And since self-reflection and introspection is already considered vulnerable and thus not “manly”, many men are deterred from taking inventory of what defines their identity and sense of self.
In my profession of law enforcement, this definition of the masculine identity is something that I find to be pervasive. The job can be very physical, confrontational and authoritative—all traits glorified by traditional masculinity. I found out that my employer, which is a very large and progressive community-oriented Department, is staffed by 88% of men. Only 12% of the workforce is women. Recently a Captain on my Department (four ranks higher than me) and I both stopped to help a man that was in a car accident during morning rush hour traffic. This accident was just outside of our jurisdiction and was the responsibility of that county’s Sheriff’s Department, but it was clear the deputy needed some help. My Captain and I were both in business attire so there was no way to identify our ranks. After we helped, the deputy told me, “Thanks for your help, and thank the woman too.” I jokingly told him that it had been a while since I’ve seen a Captain help direct traffic, and that the woman was my Captain. He responded in such a surprised manner and it was clear that he was shocked to see a woman in that position. There was no harm in his reaction, but I think it’s just indicative of the reality of my profession. With so few women, I think that it’s easy to work in an echo chamber of men’s voices reinforcing the stereotype of masculinity.
Don’t “Man Up”
So where does that leave us? I think that it starts with men. It starts with people like me having the courage to be vulnerable and to break those stereotypes. If there are men in positions of power and authority that can have this courage, they can begin to change what it means to be a man among the men over which they have influence. But even if you’re not a man that appears to have a lot of power, just the circle of influence you have can be affected by your courage to be your true self. Learning to allow yourself time to be introspective is a great start to discovering what makes you- you. If a man can practice introspection and can then allow themselves the courage to be vulnerable with another trusted man, the connection formed can be life-changing. Around one in five men have experienced sexual abuse. Two-thirds of gun deaths in the USA (over 30,000) are death by suicide, and 86% of those killed are men. Men have baggage and pain. Men have emotional wounds inflicted on them by people they’ve trusted. Men struggle with anxiety and depression. Men feel isolated, unloved, and unworthy of love. Men need connection and vulnerability. It’s time that we as men stop denying ourselves a meaningful and enjoyable and healthy life because we should just “man up”.
Being a man is being you in all your strengths and weaknesses and fears and joy. We have the power to go into 2020 living authentically. The most masculine thing a man can do is to be genuine.