I’m a sensitive man.
By that I don’t mean one who is touchy, emotionally volatile, or easily hurt (though I have all these characteristics), I mean in the literal sense of one who has a high capacity for sensing.
I’m pretty sure I was born sensitive. Though I was also born the son of a somatic therapist. As a child, my father would encourage me to cry, to express my desires and to feel the impact of things. He said feelings were good, and so under his tutelage, and the natural sensitivity of my mother, I learned to feel. A lot.
It’s a double edged sword. One side powerful. One side compromising. And it’s a characteristic that I’ve struggled to integrate with the fact that I’m a man.
Here’s how the established logic worked inside my mind.
- I’m a man.
- Men are supposed to be masculine.
- Sensitivity is a feminine trait.
- Therefore, I’m either not masculine, or I should stop being sensitive.
It’s been a long road to untangle that one. And I don’t just mean conceptually, I mean somatically and archetypally. The cultural voices are loud. The biology is deeply wired. The new models are still sketchy.
But untangle it all we must. Times are changing remarkably fast, and we’re rushing to create new stories about men and women, to fill the void left by the throwing out of orthodoxy.
Should men be sensitive? How can deep feeling and masculinity co-exist? These are pressing questions for our culture, and for me personally. Here’s my take on the answer.
Sensitivity is the opposite of numb
We consider insensitive people to be those that don’t consider the feelings of others. They’re not aware of the impact of their behaviour. This stems from the fact that they can’t actually feel themselves, and thus cannot feel others.
They don’t notice that the loud conversation they’re having on their phone is irritating every other person in the otherwise silent train carriage.
They don’t hear their own loudness. They don’t notice their own blindness. They can’t feel their own delicate and ever changing emotional flavour.
This is very helpful in certain situations, or for certain roles. And it’s a vital adaptation to the experience of pain, an adaptation that we all make in some way or another. A child who is abused must desensitize themselves. The pain will kill them otherwise. And we’re all abused to one degree or another.
You could also say that sensitivity is the original state. The state we are born in, a permeable sponge of experience.
Being sensitive doesn’t mean you’re ‘emotional’, it means you’re more highly attuned to all sensory data. It’s like a highly calibrated microphone, able to pick up the quietest of sounds – things no one else can hear. But when a siren goes off, the sensory input is too high, overwhelming the microphone and distorting what’s captured.
It is this sense of overwhelm that I experienced as I child in school. When other kids said hurtful things to me, I experienced the hurt with great visceral detail. Break times were the hardest – the sensory overload of more children than I’d ever seen in my life, all playing at once. I would find quiet corners to hide in.
Though it also meant that I could sense the mood of my teachers as soon as they walked in the room. He’s angry today – better stay quiet. She’s happy today – maybe she’ll take us to the music room again!
As I got older I tried as hard as I could to hide my sensitivity. It was a weakness that was not respected by my peers. So I played it tough (as best I could), so I could be one of the boys.
We don’t want our boys to be sensitive
Traditionally, we don’t encourage boys to be sensitive. We tell them they need to toughen up.
And for a culture that long required its men to physically protect its borders – whether the farmer protecting his family from criminals, or the soldier protecting his people from invaders – sensitivity was indeed not a useful capacity for them to have.
The chief consequence of high sensitivity is the possibility of overwhelm. I feel so much that I get flooded by sensation and lose myself.
In the midst of combat, when people you care about depend on your conscious vigilance, this is a serious handicap. Freezing up from overwhelm as the enemy storm toward you means death. And not just for you, but for your comrades who depend upon you, and your family, who will have no one left to protect them.
This is why tough men call sensitive men ‘pussies’. This is not actually a denigration of female genitalia, but rather a comment on the disposition required for men in combat. That is, you need to be hard, not soft.
Soft means dead. And dead men can’t protect anyone, which is what we’ve spent millennia doing. Thus history has bred us to be tough. It was an evolutionary necessity. We’re all the descendants of tough men who numbed themselves sufficiently to go to war, and protect us from invaders.
But now the men are confused
For an unbelievably long time, this is how it was. Men did men’s jobs and women did women’s jobs. This wasn’t a patriarchal conspiracy; it was the way things were. Women spent their lives creating our homes and bringing up our children, and men spent their lives working our fields, and protecting our borders.
In a couple of generations, we’ve unravelled millennia of tradition. And we’re all reeling as a result.
Men are confused. I’ve been confused. I was brought up at least as much like a girl as I was a boy. My father himself was trying to work out what it meant to be a man in this new age.
My culture confused me. It told me guns and violence were wrong and were the ills of history. And yet at the same time, fed me exhilarating films and cartoons where men used guns and violence for good. I didn’t know what was true.
And it’s because we are confused. All of us. We ripped up the rule book, and now we no longer know where we stand.
Women have done a pretty damned good job at learning the masculine game. They’ve stepped into the public arena and learned how to be hard. Women who kick ass are celebrated. As they should be.
Men who feel a lot are still struggling.
The sensitive men of old
It was a couple of years ago now, in the midst of a training course with my Tantra teachers that I asked them about this topic.
“I’m worried. By sensitizing myself, am I not compromising my masculine ability to get shit done, to drive through difficulty? I’m worried I’m making myself less of a man.”
They told me of the men of the past, the ones who felt deeply, and were celebrated for it.
The most effective hunters were those who could feel the animals as they walked through the forest, and thus knew where to find them.
They told me of the Polynesian Wayfinders. The veritable kings of the South Pacific tribes, who through their immense sensitivity could feel the layers of ocean currents beneath their wooden canoes, know where they were, and thus navigate across hundreds of miles of open ocean with no compass or sextant.
These guys were so deeply sensitive to the world that they facilitated the spread of a people from the Indian sub-continent, all the way down to New Zealand, and all the way across to Hawaii.
That takes balls man. And I mean that literally – the way they developed that sensitivity was by tying their testicles to the tiller.
It takes a real man to be sensitive
And by real man, I don’t mean the macho man of old, but the man that is equipped with the range and depth to face our new evolutionary challenges.
This man need no longer be the specialist of old – the soldier, who had to numb himself in order to survive the horrors of war. For, many men are still playing that role in their droves, it’s just that the battlefield went indoors, and the weapons became products and stocks, and the killings monetary in nature. But they’re still numb.
And becoming a deeply sensitive man so you can nurture children, empathise with the oppressed and cry in the woods with your brothers is not enough. I’ve met these men, I’ve been this man. It doesn’t work.
The answer I believe, is that the sensitivity of the modern man must be used for the purposes of masculine ideals, just like the men of old. While our world has changed radically since those times, the principles are I believe, the same.
A sensitive man is so much less capable of creating unnecessary hurt in another, because he feels the hurt in another. And as he deepens his ability to feel, he is released to embody that archetypal masculine action – penetration.
It is this nature that is under cultural attack. But the problem is not that men penetrate, it’s that they do so without feeling the consequences. The more I as a man am able to feel what it is I am penetrating, the more I am able to take skilful and appropriate action.
By feeling the texture of my client’s heart, I can slice through his avoidance, into the truth of what he does not want to face.
By hearing the pain and suffering of those around me, I can hunt down the dangerous ideas that maintain their victimhood.
By sensing the currents of my life and all those I am connected to, I can navigate through the unknown, to a better and more beautiful future.
Men are designed to penetrate, to break through boundaries, to pierce the status quo, to open what was closed. This can be done with grace, or with brutality. And sensitivity is the difference that makes that difference.