If you read The Odyssey in tenth grade English lit, you may remember a story about Odysseus and his men, who were sailing around like good adventurers do, until they neared the island of the sirens. These creatures sang in such a fashion that they were irresistible to men. Odysseus, like a man’s man, knew that he would want to hear their song when he and his men drew near—but he didn’t want to die. So he had his men plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast of the ship before approaching the island. No matter how much he screamed or tried to free himself, his men were under strict orders to keep him immobilized. In the end, this measure of anticipation and self-awareness saved their lives.
In a culture rife with misconceptions about emotion and gender, this fable understands man’s emotional plight—and even offers a great solution. No, tying yourself up is not a great way to deal with women. But planning for future emotional states is a healthy and smart way to interact with yourself. In this case, Odysseus wasn’t trying to resist his emotions. He wasn’t trying to deny them. In fact, he wanted to hear the song of the sirens. But he outsmarted his tempted self. He planned for his reaction. He accepted the struggle. He prepared for it. He understood himself. For many men today who dislike the feeling of losing control, which emotions often stir, Odysseus’ exemplary foresight and preparation is an effective counter.
Emotions and Control
Have you ever tried dieting? Abstinence? Working out? Journaling? Controlling your temper? Getting to work on time? All of these things and many other parts of life require preparation. As a professor once told me, “Free will isn’t really free at all. We have inclinations and desires. ‘Free’ makes it sound like we have the ability to make completely rational choices in any given situation. We don’t.”
Guys, it’s easy to get discouraged at the inconsistencies in our emotions. One minute we might possess the capacity for deep compassion and care for another, and the next minute, we might kick into fight or flight response. But what if these sudden shifts are less about emotional maturity and more about wholeness? What if the problem is not that we are unfeeling, but that our emotional landscape is fractured?
Instead of feeling burdened and guilted by our changing emotional states, try accepting them—and then outwitting them. What men aren’t being taught is that the emotions we feel are not outside forces. They are part of us. When we fight them, we fight ourselves. When we’re emotionally disconnected from ourselves, we waste time and energy that could better be used for God or the people around us.
Masculinity and Emotion in the Bible
One of the most fascinating studies in contrast in the Bible are the lives of Saul and David. When Saul was a teenager, he was unexpectedly anointed to become the first king of Israel. His emotions betrayed him, and his initial reaction was to hide from everyone. This wouldn’t be the first time Saul was controlled by his emotions. Scripture tells us he struggled with anger and depression and “spirits” that God sent upon him. He was tormented and jealous, and even tried killing David multiple times. But Saul wasn’t originally a bad man—he was just severely emotionally unbalanced. He never truly accepted himself, his kingship, his family or his God.
David, in stark contrast to Saul, is portrayed as having a heart after God’s own. From the first meeting, we’re told that he had a certain essence and spirit within him that made him king-worthy. Instead of hiding, David, a mere shepherd at the time, faced his fear and stepped out to defend his nation from a foreign army. But he wasn’t merely a warrior. David was a musician, using his ability to soothe his king’s emotions when he was controlled by them. David responded to anger with compassion, even going so far as to pass up opportunities to kill Saul and take the throne.
David didn’t need to prove himself. He didn’t need to rush. He was comfortable with music, dance, poetry, friendship and leadership. Even when he was a fugitive, David made the best of it and ruled a village and small army for the enemy forces. He was not ruled by his emotions, and when he made mistakes, he quickly identified them and moved on. When Saul finally died, David wept. He didn’t rejoice in the death of his enemy. He felt compassion. David’s ability to look within, to connect with himself and with God, was so powerful that his words—both laments and praises—are still with us today in Scripture.
Training a New Emotional Reponse
David didn’t let his culture define his personal emotional space. We, too, need to give ourselves some room to feel. It’s easy to push our emotions aside in the moment, but we’re only creating barriers within ourselves when this happens. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton, suggests we treat our emotions like we would soothe a crying baby. Next time your fear rises up, imagine it as an infant and show it compassion. When you feel anger swelling in your chest, accept it and show it mercy.
You are feeling for a reason. Plan for these moments. Track your feelings. Get comfortable with identifying them. Is it anger? Sadness? Self-doubt? Love? Create a journal or track your emotions on a calendar (I prefer memiary.com). Spend time studying yourself. Heck, write a psalm. Each one of us has a Saul and a David within us. Every decision we make, no matter how insignificant, is a step toward one or the other.
You don’t have to be the perfect man. You don’t have to be emotional in the traditional sense of the word. But if you want to channel your God-given energies, it’s time to know yourself. It’s time to reclaim what it means to be an emotional man.