The Burden of Masculinity: Are Many Men Dying in Silence? (Part 1)


Photo credit: Brotherly Guide (Identity), Instagram, 2017

Many men are dying in silence. As overwhelming as this may sound, it is true. In recent times, I have had to reflect on masculinity with some renewed mindset and how it has remained tricky for many men, including myself. I have been putting off writing this article for several months now. Each time I began to write it, I lost courage. I wondered if people would agree with me. How many men would even be honest and flexible enough to own up to this problem? What does it matter? People have written on this subject before, yet nothing changed. In the end, I resolved to pen this article because I thought that perhaps I could succeed in reaching out to a male and a female reader – two people at least – who may find reason to agree with me and to join this conversation.

My friend Daniel is studying in China. One night, he saved a man from taking his life. He had just seen a visitor off at about 11 p.m. when he noticed a young Chinese man sitting on a grassy slab across a busy road, hugging his knees in a crash-or-brace position, and heavily sobbing. His expensive power bike was parked beside him. Daniel wanted to keep walking as he felt intimidated by the muscular man’s height, expensive looks, and bike. But, as he observed the intensity of the man’s sobs and his resigned look of helplessness, Daniel stopped and approached him. The man initially refused to speak to him, but after Daniel, who was fluent in Mandarin, spoke to him in the language, the man uttered his first words: “Nothing, don’t worry. I will be fine.” Long story short, the man was anywhere between 28 and 30 years old, came from a wealthy home, was a student and working, was tired of living, and had planned to jump into the busy expressway in the next five minutes and be hit by any vehicle that would have the misfortune of helping him end his life, before Daniel showed up. Daniel gave the man a few soothing words, and asked if he could hug him. Before he could finish his question, the stranger flew into his arms. An only child, he was going through some issues with his parents who, obviously, weren’t showing much understanding, and were being too hard on him because of his being their only son. But a simple hug, and a few words, went a long way. Today, Mr. Stranger is still alive.

The second incident is one I had to wade into, to lend a supportive hand.  Mr. Godfrey showed up one Wednesday evening at the door of a fellow postgraduate student who lived in the same flat as me. He was homeless and was escaping from his well-known life in another part of South Africa where he had lived for over a decade. He was recently divorced, without a child, had lost most of his wealth to his ex-wife, including his business, houses, and cars. The humiliation was mounting, and he had had enough. He picked up his phone and called my flatmate whom he had last seen two years ago. He told him he was coming to stay with him for a while, as he had run out of options. It was a matter of life and death.

Mr. Godfrey had stayed with Benedict, my flatmate for over three months before I came into the picture. My flatmate had another person he had promised to accommodate before Mr. Godfrey, his old friend came along. Benedict approached me to help shelter his old friend for about a month. While with me, Mr. Godfrey opened up about how he was contemplating suicide, how his father and sister were losing their minds because of their expectations of him, how his friends and associates had forsaken him. No one gave him space to breathe, to live. No one understood what he was going through. From what he told me, he was blamed for most of the things that had happened to him, and he caved in under the burden of those blames.

These are a few of the stories of men who are undergoing unknown suffering and dying in silence. Men are increasingly being crushed under the overbearing weight of masculinity with little or no room for respite because society traps many men in its idealistic, false, and hypocritical sense of maleness and patriarchy —one that makes it difficult to be anything but “strong”, “macho”, “manly”, “brave”, “wise”, “successful”. Masculinity is those problematic and traditional set of characteristics, behavioural patterns and societal expectations associated with men and boys. From birth, men are told to “man up”, to “stop behaving like a girl”.  They are taught to believe men don’t cry. They are forced to constantly wonder if they are “man enough”, or successful enough, or the major breadwinner in their families. Many men do not have the privilege women have to vent the frustrations they experience in their homes, workplaces and similar spaces. I say “privilege” because society often feels that it is only women who could be vulnerable, or marginalised. Attempt bringing up men’s rape, or domestic violence against men and people with a skewed and entitled sense of feminism shout you down. Society seems to have become pro-women, and men’s movements have been sidestepped in favour of the more robust and trendy feminist movements. But the truth is, men’s issues do exist.

… To be concluded

(Disclaimer: All names used in this article are pseudonyms. They were merely used to facilitate reading and comprehension of the stories shared.)

Chikezie Uzuegbunam is a doctoral scholar and Teaching Assistant at the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town in Cape Town