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I still remember the exact day.

November 14th, 2015. Two friends and I had just finished co-leading a men’s training in the mountains above LA. We had spent the weekend device-free, exploring healthy masculinity with a large group of men. 

That morning, my friends and I drove down the mountain, sharing stories and laughing loudly with the windows down. Once we arrived in cell phone range, we learned about the Paris Attacks which had happened the day before. I felt shocked and devastated by the news; my heart was wide open from the healing work we’d done at the training.

That evening, as daylight turned toward dusk, we were sitting around the kitchen table at my friend’s house in LA chatting about where to go out for dinner. Then, without warning, gunshots rang out – so close that I could see the muzzle flashes outside of the window, just over my right shoulder. We instinctively dropped to the floor, holding our breath.

A few dogs barked in the distance. And then, complete silence. In an instant, I shifted into “crisis mode.” Adrenaline raced through my body, shutting down my emotions and focusing my mind in order to be ready for action. I stepped into a hyper-aware survival state. 

After a long few minutes had passed, we ventured up from the floor and cracked the blinds to see what was happening. The commotion in the streets was gone and a strange peace fell over the neighborhood. Inside, I could still feel a pulsing intensity rushing through my veins.

Thawing the Freeze

Eventually we got ourselves together, packed into my friend’s car, and headed out for tacos. I can still remember the numbness I felt as we arrived at the restaurant. I was in a disembodied state. It was oddly calm and frightening at the same time. It felt peaceful to feel singularly focused and mentally sharp, and frightening to feel emotionally distant and defended. 

I ate my tacos in a sort of trance, perceiving the voices around me but unable to follow the conversations. One eye fixed on the restaurant door, as if the shooter might enter at any moment. I ran through escape plans and survival strategies in my head. I was on edge.

As we arrived home later that evening and settled in for the night, my feelings finally caught up to me. In a moment, all of the emotions that had been frozen inside me cracked and I began to cry. Through that process, I was able to release the pent up fear, anger, and sadness that had been stuck in my body. My nervous system started to settle down again and I slept soundly that night.

Prolonged Emergencies

Looking back on what happened that day, I learned that I have a sharp and focused crisis mode, which served me well as I navigated a potentially dangerous situation. And I’m grateful for that. I was able to stay calm and focused in that moment, rather than panicking. The core characteristics of crisis mode for me that day were emotional disconnection, mental alertness, and physical disembodiment.

Since that evening in LA, I’ve learned that different kinds of perceived threats can elicit variations of this same crisis mode response in me. The most insidious threats are the ones that are ongoing and feel out of my control (e.g. climate change, the global pandemic, cycles of violence and war, the terminal illness of a loved one, etc.). Rather than an acute moment of danger that comes and passes like the gunshots in LA, these nebulous threats take the form of prolonged emergencies that tend to keep our nervous systems in a semi-activated state. 

In a world with so many converging crises, a crisis mode of underlying numbness and dissociation can become normalized in our everyday lives. This emotional disconnectedness serves the purpose of blunting our exposure to the pain and suffering of the world, but it also robs us of our capacity to be emotionally intimate with ourselves and the people we love.

The Power of Tears

Several months ago, I broke down in tears during a heated conversation with my wife. I don’t usually do that. She felt that I had been pushing her away and that I hadn’t been showing up to meet her in our connection. I realized, through the tears, that I hadn’t cried for a very long time. I hadn’t shed a single tear since the pandemic uprooted our lives, since George Floyd was murdered, since the election, since I’d left my job to start my own business, or since my daughter was born. 

So much had changed, and yet I had been burying all of my feelings deep inside, stuck in a prolonged crisis mode – an endemic numbness – that I was barely even aware of. In that moment with my wife, I realized that I was pushing away from myself and, as a result, had been unable to cultivate a real connection with her or anyone else. 

That morning, she was relieved when I finally broke down and cried in her arms, encouraged – not threatened – by my vulnerability. She said, “I can’t believe you haven’t cried in so long; I cry almost every day!” Her permission to be raw and messy in that moment was healing and transformative for me. It has deepened our connection.

The tears burst open all of the feelings that had built up in my body and I felt more powerful, more emotionally available, and more present. Tears were my pathway out of the fog of numbness that had kept me in a distant, disconnected state for months. I’ve finally started feeling like my full self again.

I am left with some pressing questions: How many men are stuck, as I was, in a prolonged crisis mode right now? What are the impacts of this protective stoicism on their lives and relationships? What might be possible if more of us found the support we needed to move through the numbness and reconnect to the full range of our emotional capacity? How can we, as men, support each other to do this important and challenging work?

The Stoic Warrior

I recently co-led a workshop that focused on cultivating emotional awareness to support meaningful and sustained engagement in equity and justice work. I asked the group what emotions they were feeling in the midst of all of the violence, disruption, and change in the world today.

One participant, a White man, shared that he wasn’t aware of any emotions coming up for him at all. I asked him to share more. He shared that he believed that his family needed him to be strong, consistent, and level-headed and he didn’t want to burden them with his feelings. “So you do have feelings?” I asked, with a tinge of levity. He nodded, noticing my sarcasm, but the truth is that I knew exactly what he meant. His story was my story.

As men, many of us believe that it is our duty to repress our emotions (and our vulnerabilities) so that we can show up as a steady presence in support of our families and loved ones. This can feel like a sacred duty – an archetypal protector role – that our families need us to embrace. 

While showing up as the ‘Stoic Warrior’ may be comforting to our loved ones in real emergency situations, getting stuck there can be harmful. Sooner or later they will notice our distance; our absence from their lives. They will feel the heaviness of the burden we carry for them that they never asked us to carry – and don’t want us to bear any longer. They may feel superficially safe but, at a deeper level, they may feel abandoned. And we might too.

No amount of battle armor can offer our loved ones what they need most – to feel met in the messy imperfection and vulnerability of being human. To be willing to stay connected and be present, even when the pain is overwhelming. To show up wholeheartedly together.

With fierce loving compassion,

Dan 

 

P.S. Interested in learning more about this work and getting involved? Contact me directly or join the Wholehearted Masculine Collective – a global community of men (and folks of all gender identities) who are exploring wholehearted masculinity, authentic leadership, and shared power for positive culture change.

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