by Joe Davis
As a newlywed, one of my most joyful experiences is learning new ways to be a great husband and friend to my spouse. This has made me increasingly aware of behavioral patterns I’ve picked up throughout my life as a male-bodied person that are not only annoying to my partner, but contribute to larger cultural patterns that are hurting us all.
I want to do my part to help make things better, so I’ve committed to intentionally developing practices that work toward undoing the harm caused. And I know I can’t do this work alone. This is why I need those of us menfolk who would usually check out of the conversation to hang in there with me. This isn’t about guilt, blame or shame for things we didn’t say or do. It’s about being responsible and holding each other accountable for what we can actually do better together.
Here are three practices that have helped me on my journey of cultivating healthy masculinity.
Hearing and listening are not the same thing. I can hear the words coming out of someone else’s mouth and not give any energy or attention to genuinely understand what they’re saying. I want people to not only hear me, but to listen to what I say without prejudice or assumption, so it’s only fair that I offer the same respect to others when listening to them.
One of the behavioral patterns that I’m learning to curb is my urge to interrupt and dominate conversations. This behavior developed from wanting to make sure my voice was heard and my needs were met. It may have worked well for me in some contexts, but what about the voices and needs of others around me? My intent was not to ignore, exclude or minimize others, yet that’s exactly what happened when I didn’t make sure they weren’t just heard, but actually listened to them.
Instead of always foregrounding my thoughts and feelings, my practice is to lead with listening to others and simply asking, “What do you think?” or “How do you feel?” And ultimately being open to whatever their response may be, without judgment or defense.
I’ve come to call this kind of listening “compassionate curiosity” or “appreciative inquiry,” making space for best intentions of everyone when communicating. I didn’t come up with these terms or practices myself, but they’ve proven extremely helpful in conversations, especially when talking with someone who has a vastly different lived experience from my own.
Really listening allows me to pause and more deeply discover the humanity of another.
For me, this isn’t just about listening to my spouse when she brings my attention to behavior that needs to be addressed, but also listening to the voices of other women and queer folks. This is about not always centering my own needs and the needs of other men at the expense of the larger collective. I’ve learned that it’s possible to communicate and meet my needs without stepping over the needs of others.
When women and queer folks speak about their experiences, I not only listen, I believe them. As a Black man, I know what it feels like to talk about my lived experience only to have others question or deny what I say. I refuse to treat anyone like that.
I want to live in a world where people’s full humanity can be seen and heard. I know that we can listen to each other so intently that we listen each other to life.
Listening—really listening—is one of the most powerful practices I’ve learned, and I truly believe if we as men develop this practice together, we can transform ourselves and the world.
Another practice I carry forward is acknowledging that I don’t know everything and taking every opportunity to learn more. I used to think that being a man meant always having the right answers, knowing how to fix everything and being strong enough to carry whatever needs carrying. No one ever told me any of this explicitly; it’s just what I came to think from watching the men around me.
I thought this until I finally came to terms with the reality that I’ll always have more questions than answers, I can ask for help or pay professionals if there’s something I can’t fix and there might be days when I don’t feel strong enough to carry the weight of my own emotions, let alone furniture or barbells.
Perhaps the most profound part of this realization for me was also learning that just because I don’t always have the knowledge or strength doesn’t mean I’m inadequate, insufficient or not enough. It doesn’t make me any less of man.
In fact, it’s taught me what it really means to be human and to need other humans. I’m more open to the vulnerability and humility needed to be in healthy relationship with others—relationships where I can mess up and make mistakes and have the grace to grow.
I want my spouse to hold me accountable and to let me know when I say or do things that are hurtful, because I love her and don’t want to hurt her. If she brings to my attention that a joke I though was innocent and harmless actually contributes to a culture where she is unsafe, I not only want to stop anyone from telling that joke, but I also want to do everything within my power to change the culture.
When I’m really listening, I learn more and more everyday about how to create a culture and a world that is safe for everyone.
And as much as I’ve learned from my spouse, my mother, my grandmother, my sister, my aunts, my nieces and all the women and queer folks in my life, I’ve also learned to not always burden them with being my teachers. They shouldn’t always feel the need to do the emotional labor of educating us menfolk. We can also learn from books, films, theater, podcasts, etc. I have a computer in my pocket, and Google is a powerful resource! I don’t need to run to the nearest woman to ask all my questions and extract all her wisdom…that even sounds exhausting. Can you imagine how it must feel?
This is a lifelong practice of learning and growing, and we need to do it in community with other men who are always willing to learn and grow.
I can say that I’ve put in work and I finally “get it,” but the second I think that I’ve arrived, there’s a new area of blind spots and biases that I’m becoming aware of and developing new behaviors around. There will always be more to learn, say and do in this work. Let’s do it together.
Lessen the Harm.
Harm has already been caused again and again. Listening and learning from women and queer folks, this became clear. When my spouse would bring something to my attention that needed to be addressed, I would feel a tightness in my chest and become defensive. But what was I really defending? My identity. My ego. My sense of masculinity. Certainly not her.
I began to wonder what would happen if I used the same energy I used to defend myself to listen, learn and lessen the harm caused. How can I give more space to restorative practices and less space to behaviors that harm others, even if that harm was unconscious or inadvertent?
None of us wants to live in a world where we do harm to others and contribute to suffering. We want a world of safety of belonging. My friends and family know that I want that world just as much as anyone else, so when I’m checked on my behavior, it’s done in love. I’ve come to frame this as “being called in” instead of “being called out,” because we’re being called into a deeper relationship and being called into a truer sense of self.
I want men to be called into our highest sense of self.
Again, this isn’t about listing a long history of harm caused by men. This is about discovering and developing practices that can cultivate healthier relationships with ourselves and others.
This is not just about women, but the flourishing of all human beings.
Wanting to protect my wife was my primary motivation and my entry point into this work, but wanting to heal from the ways I’ve also been wounded has given me further motivation and allowed me to recognize how this work is deeply personal and intersectional.
Not all of the ways I’ve learned to be a man are harmful. I’m grateful for my father and the countless men in my life who taught me and continue to teach me how to uphold integrity and authenticity. It’s because of them that I am who I am today.
Yet I can also see the ways I and many others felt encaged and forced to fit inside an impossibly small definition of masculinity. If we practice listening, learning and lessening the harm, we’ll give more space in our bodies and our world to flourish as our most authentic selves.
Joe Davis is a nationally touring writer, speaker, and performer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is the CEO of production company, The New Renaissance, LLC, frontman of emerging soul, funk, band, The Poetic Diaspora, and co-founder / Artistic Director of H-Cubed: Hope, Healing, Harmony, a grassroots community movement centered on healing through the arts. As a student and educator, he has served as teaching artist at dozens of high schools and universities and most recently as the Artist-in-Residence at Luther Seminary, receiving a masters in Theology of the Arts. To connect, book or to learn more, please visit JoeDavisPoetry.com.
Categories: Winter 2020: "Practice Not Perfect"