Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Courage is your birthright!

Last week I sat with two friends of mine from school in a bar in Kensington. We talked as we normally do, about politics and ideas, sexuality and the memories of the crazy people we knew more than twenty years ago now.

I doubt if it takes long for any group of men to start talking about courage and respect, whether it's in terms of particulars or just abstractly, and that's where we ended up.

A friend of mine, who is gay and who has never been the macho type, talked a lot about his idea of courage. The older he gets, the more traditional his ideas of masculinity are, and he basically said a man must be ready to fight, to defend himself physically.

That was the high ideal of courage, and I suppose I would have to agree with him.

I love reading masculine writing, from Hemingway to Homer, there are great examples of fearless feats in the long history of western literature.

High risk masculine courage is revered, or was until very recently. All of this is for good reason. It should be obvious why.

The trouble I had is that it brought home to me that this kind of courage doesn't really speak of me.

For a while I felt ashamed of that. I haven't been tested like Achilles, or Muhammad Ali, or any number of young men who have grown up to defend themselves with their own hands.

Does that make me a coward? I felt for a few days that it did, and I felt like shit about it.

But today I went for a long walk, in one of my favourite parts of London, and I started chewing over this idea of courage.

I haven't abandoned the love of warrior energy that me and my friends were talking about. But it did occur to me that there are other kinds of courage.

This same friend, the gay one, came out to me when he was 19/20 – after knowing me for years.

I fully admit it now, I didn't take it well, and was shocked, felt something of the masculine relationship was lost (another blog post, suffice to say I am over it).

Coming out, to a friend that you know might not take it well – that's courage.

Gay men to me are the perfect examples of emotionally courageous men. What they have to go through a lesbian will never be able to imagine (get over it, it's a truth).

Since the Orlando shootings this special kind of dissenting, isolating courage, has come into sharp relief.

And there are other examples of male courage, that don't involve simple physical bravery.

Men who choose typically non-male professions – male dancers, male nurses, male child-carers and therapists. It takes courage to buck the trend, because as any man knows, masculinity is already fragile, you're not a man until you have proved yourself.

I write about all this, because I know I am not the only one who feels guilt about not being fucking James Bond.

What we forget though, is that most stories of courage and risk are designed to be unreachable fantasies. It's called catharsis.

I came to the conclusion on my long, very non-macho, walk today, that stories of great courage like The Illiad or For Whom The Bell Tolls, speak to us not just because we have excess testosterone.

They speak to us, because the great trial for a man is to be fully himself without losing his masculinity.

Masculinity depends a great deal on social standing, on virtue and leadership.

Very often the movement to be wholly authentic challenges the easy shortcuts society has designed for assessing these qualities.

If I look at the long list of male heroes I have, all of them are embodiments of a specific kind of emotional courage. Whatever physical prowess they have is really symbolic to me.

I admire and look up to men who have dared to speak unpopular opinions, who have challenged social expectations, who have chosen their own path and who have had the intuitive self-command to trust an inner voice over the external, cultural onslaught that we all get from family, school and peer groups.

I suspect that this is the real courage that men admire, and the courage we read about as boys and which still fascinates us in the cinema, is a cathartic reassurance of that inner, emotional courage we know we need.

Being a man is not about living up to social expectations – from women, family or anyone else.

It's something we have to discover and grasp with both hands, and very often the shocking truth about who we are does not fit in with the cultural memes we have grown up around.

It takes courage to discover your masculinity. It takes courage to choose it too.

To be a man, is to live with courage, even when the truth about your masculinity terrifies you.

So it's time we gave ourselves a break. Courage is an emotion, and we all have it.

Feels good, doesn't it?  

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