by Bruce Mulkey, originally published on his blog, brucemulkey.com
It was a warm June evening in 1961, the night of my graduation from Tullahoma High School. I’d just returned to Tennessee from playing in a high school all-American football game in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and was feeling cocky and impatient, eager to get the post-graduation celebration underway. As we sang the final notes of our alma mater, however, I was seized with a profound sense of sorrow. This is the last time I’ll be singing this song with all my long-time friends, I thought. Head bowed as tears streamed down my face, I fled the auditorium, hoping against hope that no one would see me crying. As I burst into the hallway, as fate would have it, I ran right into the arms of Ms. Mitchell, my cherished elementary school teacher. Ms. Mitchell did her best to console me: “It’s OK, Bruce, it really is.” But terrified my classmates would see me crying, I dashed to the nearest restroom where I stifled my feelings of loss and grief, washed away the snot and tears, and ran my damp hand through my butch-waxed flattop haircut.
I hadn’t always concealed my emotions with a mask of bravado. In 1943 I entered life a unique, loving, vulnerable, authentic little being. Before long, however, in reaction to the insensitive, thoughtless, or ignorant words and actions of the mostly well-meaning grown-ups around me, I gradually began to change.
Reprimanded for being too high-spirited and boisterous (“Settle down right now, young man!”), I tamped down my exuberance. Chastised for expressing my distress (“Stop that whining or I’ll give you something to whine about!”), I learned to stifle my disappointment and sadness. Ridiculed (“Boys don’t do it like that!”), teased (“Oh, is little Brucie angry?”), criticized (“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times . . .”), or shamed (“Big boys don’t cry!”) once too often, I began to constrain my curiosity and authenticity.
There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light
In the fine print they tell me what’s wrong and what’s right
And it comes in black and it comes in white
And I’m frightened by those that don’t see it
Thus, it became easy for me to believe that I wasn’t OK as I was, that I was somehow not good enough, that I should be different, that I should be a “real boy”—upbeat, competitive, independent, devoid of the softer emotions. So, in order to sustain the care and support I still required, I adopted the persona that the surrounding culture demanded. And over the years, I slowly perfected that image, forging myself into a hyper-masculine super-jock whose nascent sense of self-worth was bolstered by the admiration of fellow students, teachers, townspeople, and college football coaches.
Unfortunately, I had subsisted beneath my macho façade for so long that I had come to believe I really was the hard-ass whose primary emotions were anger, hilarity at mischievous pranks, and post-victory euphoria; who rarely interacted on a meaningful level with anyone; who almost never shed a tear; who regarded girls and, later, women, as lesser beings whose role was to serve and to pleasure men.
Beneath my seemingly impervious veneer, however, I lived in constant unconscious fear of being exposed as a fraud and suffered the incessant subliminal shame of living as one. When anyone even hinted at a chink in my defensive armor, I reacted with rage and, frequently, my fists. Nonetheless, a yearning for an authenticity long abandoned occasionally arose in my consciousness, a fleeting awareness that a different way of being was possible . . . if only I could find the hidden passageway.
It’s not as if life didn’t send me distress signals to awaken me from my pretense. During my twenties I totaled three cars, impregnated two of my girlfriends, and was kicked off the University of Tennessee football team. But I brushed these portents aside and assuaged my self-doubt and remorse with copious amounts of alcohol, pot, cocaine, and sex.
Finally, in the middle of my fourth decade, the wake-up calls became so excruciating, so undeniable, that they could no longer be ignored—bankruptcy, losing my home and business, divorce, and estrangement from my beloved daughter. Conceding, at long last, the futility of my existence, I hit rock bottom. I endured my dark night of the soul, stopped drinking and drugging, and reluctantly signed up for a weekend self-awareness workshop.
I was frightened and withdrawn at the beginning of the workshop; I participated but guardedly. On the second day, our trainer led a meditation during which he asked us (the thirty-or-so participants) to put our hands over hearts. He then directed us to gradually move our hands apart opening our hearts to ourselves, to those around us, to the people of the world. Filled with angst, I sat motionless in my chair, unable to move my hands. At the end of the meditation, we each had a chance to share our experience. “I couldn’t move my hands at all,” I sobbed. With great empathy, the trainer asked me to lie flat on the floor in front of the room, then asked the other male participants to pick me up and tenderly cradle me in their arms. Next, while the men gently held me, the trainer asked the female participants to touch me with love and compassion.
Time collapsed, as if it no longer existed. My heart opened, and the protective shield that I’d worn like iron for all those years began to dissolve. I was overcome with a powerful sense of well-being, of being loved and accepted just as I was—nothing to prove, no way I had to be.
There was a dream and one day I could see it
Like a bird in a cage I broke in
And demanded that somebody free it
And there was a kid with a head full of doubt
So I’ll scream ’til I die
And the last of those bad thoughts are finally out
I screwed up my courage and went on to fully engage in the remaining processes—releasing my pent-up anger, discarding the limiting beliefs I’d adopted, letting go of resentments, and peeling back the encrusted layers of machismo beneath which I’d hidden my true essence. At long last, I had found the hidden passageway!
At first I overcompensated and wound up in another drama—sensitive New Age guy. Soon, however, I immersed myself in the life-altering work I’d begun, sought support from mentors further along the path, and participated in a number of rigorous week-long workshops. Slowly but surely I clawed my way back to the authenticity I’d known in my youth, to the reality of who I truly was, to the homecoming I’d pined for these many years. I got in touch with my life’s purpose; stepped into a more genuine, more openhearted, more mindful masculinity; and began making amends for my more reprehensible past behavior. There at age seventy-five I remain, making the requisite course corrections from time to time as life requires.
While progressive shifts in our culture have taken place since my youth, I believe that most boys still endure a process of indoctrination similar to the one I’ve described; some will later awaken from their conditioning, as I did, but many will not. So, while I wrote this essay for myself as a journey of self-discovery and as an artifact to leave behind when I exit my mortal existence, I hope it will serve as a wake-up call to parents, to men, and to women, especially in times such as these when many are striving to create a culture in which sexism, misogyny, toxic masculinity, and patriarchy are eliminated and every human being has the opportunity to live their life as they see fit pursuing their own unique passions, whatever they might be.
When nothing is owed or deserved or expected
And your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected
If you’re loved by someone, you’re never rejected
Decide what to be and go be it
I presented a shortened version of this essay at Jubilee Community Church on March 10, 2019. To view a video of my presentation, click here. The name of the workshop I initially participated in is the More To Life Weekend. The song lyrics are from “Head Full Of Doubt/Road Full Of Promise” by The Avett Brothers.