The phrase toxic masculinity irks me a little. On the other hand, so does machismo. But then I turn around and the word empathy – now abused at the scale that only corporatism can pull off – leaves me feeling queasy. Unfortunately, due to my general work and reading selection this week, I’ve seen all of those phrases quite a bit already today – and it’s only Monday. Were it not Holy Week for us Catholics, I’d usually go pour a wee dram of Early Times bourbon into my rocks glass engraved with a quote from Alexander Hamilton and listen moodily to Robert Johnson’s genre-defining takes on guitar-powered blues, as an exercise in toleration.
But it is Holy Week, and as March of 2021 winds down, marking a year of the COVID-19 pandemic for those of us in the US, there is not much else to do but reflect on what being tough really is, while still listening to the blues. The funny thing is that toughness gets relatively maligned these days. We are often instructed to vent – which I think is healthy. We are often told to let it all out – which I can begrudgingly approve, contingent on circumstances, audience and method. We are often told to err on the side of complete empathy – which frankly I still am not quite sure I use correctly, but I’m pretty sure is confused with sympathy most of the time. We are often lectured at concerning the unhealthy repression of the past, especially by men, wherein the “stiff upper lip” and the “grin and bear it” mentality wrought so much havoc – which I can concede definitely can and did backfire.
But in the end, I think the real secret to toughness is actually to be found in the blues. After all, the blues are pretty straightforward. They are not endless, nor wishy-washy, nor repressed, nor that sickly, sweetly empathetic. They are just honest, oft-sardonic, lyrical, artistic treatments of the banalities that usually characterize the sadder aspects of the human condition.
That, I think, is the secret of toughness. You do not tamp down your feelings, nor ignore them, nor just exist in a state of perpetual emotional broadcast. Instead, you confront hardships head on, in a truly human fashion, by letting out how you feel in a controlled, creative endeavor that reflects the best of our ability to utilize our imagination and poetry of the soul, bluntly acknowledging how you feel about the scenario, and very often wryly noting there is not much resolution to be had other than to just accept reality. And then the song ends, and you move on, even if you may not ever quite forget. It unites the best of all the classic methods to dealing with grief, avoiding many of the current fashionable pitfalls that tend to lead to self-destructive loops of self-pity; it also maneuvers past the equally self-destructive cycle of repressed feelings and all-too-frequent resultant abuse.
In the end, the blues really are the blueprint.