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Big Scary Teddy Bears

For no reason I’m aware of, I’ve had a lot of really big men come to me for counseling over the years. There’s no gentle way to say this…a lot of them are scary looking guys. I know not to judge a book by its cover but I also know that life is hard when people are afraid of you before you even say hello. There’s a very black and white way in which people see these guys. They’re either terrifying or big teddy bears. To me they’re mostly scared little boys in overgrown bodies.

Lee was a gentle giant of a man. He was six and a half feet tall, barrel chested and muscle bound. He couldn’t look me in the eye. He’d stare down at the floor and I could see my reflection on his shiny shaved scalp. Lee told me he had done “very bad things.” I asked him his story. He never could make it through a single tale without sobbing. Lee was 50 and the “bad things” were done by age 15. He was just a boy. He was scared and had no one and did what he was told to do. I said it wasn’t his fault. He hugged me so hard my ribs bruised. His tears drenched my shirt and I held my breath for what felt like an eternity.

John was the original tough guy. Long hair, denim, leather, jailhouse tats and so much metal in his skin he looked like an impossibly good looking porcupine. John knew that people were afraid of him and he felt safe because of it. He came to see me because he couldn’t date a woman for more than 24 hours. John made a lot of progress; he just hated vulnerability. “Damn it, Jim. What do you want me to do? Should I put on a big frilly dress and talking about my feelings?” I explained that he could gather the toughest guys he knew and a dress big enough to fit me and I would be happy to. He laughed, “You’re the biggest pansy I’ve ever met and I want to deal with people like you do.”

Ken was one of my all time favorite scared little boys in an overgrown body. He was all about shock value. Everything about his appearance was designed to communicate two things. 1. I’m an obnoxious, immature jerk and you don’t wanna even talk to me. 2. You’ll never get a chance to hurt me cuz I’m as self destructive as they come. Ken had a full arsenal of offensive humor, an intimidating presence, and enough sexual innuendo to shock a brothel. Listening to him talk in an AA meeting I felt offended for every woman in the room. I missed it by a mile. This scared little boy was saying, “I know you hate me. I hate me. So F me and F you.” Looking back I can’t believe I didn’t see so much obvious pain. When a man like Ken decides he trusts you amazing things will happen. He shows you who he really is and who he really is is a great kid trying to be a good man. He’s stuck somewhere between five and fifteen. He’s self conscious and ashamed.

His self image sucks. What he sees is not an accurate reflection of his worth. He wasn’t taught growing up and he’s embarrassed to ask for what he needs to learn and to express what he feels. Generally if I ask a man what he feels he will answer with, “Good”, “okay”, “pissed off”, or “I don’t know.” What he usually doesn’t know is how to identify the emotions he was taught to ignore and to never speak. He knows not to admit his fears, not to tell people he’s sad, disappointed, or lonely. Men are crippled by what they cannot acknowledge, cannot share, and therefore cannot resolve. We are left with an emptiness that demands to be filled and questions we cannot answer.

We are desperate for role models, mentors, and father figures but we were never given permission to ask that any of our needs be met. To do so is to appear weak and to appear weak is to appear less of a man. Show me a guy who kills himself on the job site. I’ll tell you a lot about his self worth and I’ll make some educated guesses about his father. Show me a guy who knocks himself out daily trying to impress the boss, the coach, or an older friend and I’ll show you a little boy who didn’t experience his father’s pride. Show me a mountain of a man who stoops to help a child and I’ll say we give away what we want to receive. Show me a man who can cry and express feeling hurt and I’ll say that he’s a strong man.

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