Being and Dartmouthness
By Kip Dooley, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, May 11, 2012
When I came to Dartmouth, some of my closest friends were women. But by the end of my freshman year, I barely spoke to women at all outside of passing hellos or frenzied, convoluted exchanges in the basement. The lack of female friendship in my life became a recurring frustration. What I sensed then — and what I recognized once I left Dartmouth my junior year for an off-term — was that it wasn’t for lack of friendly women. There was something inside me getting in the way.
That something is what sociologist Michael Kimmel calls “the central organizing principle of our cultural definition of manhood” — the fear that other men will judge us as being something less than a man. I don’t intend to over-dramatize the social challenges young men face, nor do I want to disregard those that women face. Though very different, they are deeply interconnected. There are libraries full of theories and stories that do the important work of exposing and explaining the way gender operates in society, so I won’t attempt to do the same here.
What I’m more interested in now, and what I think gets lost too easily in our discourse on masculinity, is how we as men learn to negotiate the social pressures we experience. How do we set out to become the men we ourselves want to be?
Before telling a brief story from my own experience, I want to share one more telling fact from the oeuvre of gender theory, again from Kimmel: “In one survey, women and men were asked what they were most afraid of. Women responded that they were most afraid of being raped and murdered. Men responded that they were most afraid of being laughed at.”
Being a male athlete and fraternity member, I’ve had more than my fair share of “guy time” at Dartmouth. Spending time with my guy friends is important to me, and I expect it always will be. But too often, all-male spaces turn into forums for policing one another’s manhood. There are a number of tropes I’m sure you’re familiar with: gal pals, weirdos, pussies, faggots. These labels vary in their intensity, and their politics is a topic for another article. Suffice it to say that for a long time, it overwhelmed me. It colored almost everything I did, from how I dressed to what classes I took to how I interacted with women.
During winter break after my off-term last fall, I started spending more time with my older brother, Matt. Through adolescence we’d had an amicable, though quiet, relationship. I think we always viewed each other as being very different, so we rarely asked each other for advice. A few times during my sophomore year, though, as much to my surprise as his, I had reached out to him for help.
Matt has always been more introverted than me. He played lacrosse at Haverford College, but it was clear from day one that he didn’t fit in as easily as I did on a college lacrosse team. He majored in religion and spent his summers visiting monasteries. If my problems were born of always wanting to dive into the social fray and fit in, his were born of keeping a wary distance from big groups, afraid of compromising his individual ideals. Having gained some clarity during my off-term, I was trying to figure out how I wanted to move forward when I returned to Dartmouth. Matt recommended I read Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk. I’ve been called a lot of things, but Catholic isn’t one of them. Still, I gave him a shot.
Thomas Merton writes a lot about solitude. Solitude! That sounds like a manly virtue. Merton says it’s the key to discovering your true self — the spirit that exists beneath the layers of personality that we build up over the years to meet the expectations of our community and society. I began spending more time alone, actually listening to my thoughts rather than distrusting them or worrying about fitting in. I began to notice the things I thought, did or said that came from some place other than my own head. And slowly, they began to fall away.
The essayist William Deresiewicz adds a key element to the understanding of solitude — paradoxically, solitude prepares you for friendship. By developing your own thoughts, you approach friendships with something more to offer than simply what you have been told by your community, team, frat or society. In the act of listening to yourself, you also learn to listen more closely to your friends.
My girlfriend, whom I met last spring, and I always joke about whether or not she would have been interested in me had we met during freshman or sophomore year. I’m not sure she would have. Truth be told, I wasn’t bringing much to the table. It wasn’t that I was an uninteresting or unworthy person — I had just trained myself to stay within the parameters of traditional masculinity. I’d let my fear of rejection and ridicule paralyze me.
People always talk about how everyone needs a break from Dartmouth sooner or later. The off-term gives us much needed space and perspective. I think friendship, especially male friendship, requires some time away, too. Men are raised to treat each other in a certain way, always challenging, competing, at times ridiculing. I doubt any of us truly want to keep each other small. Pursue solitude — in the woods, on the road or just walking through town. We all stand to gain.