By Ryan Stewart 10-05-2016

It’s not always easy for men to say how they feel.

Nearly 9 percent of men in the U.S. have daily feelings of anxiety and depression, and fewer than half of those men seek help. That’s 5.5 million men who battle mental illness each day, alone. And suicide is the second leading cause of death for men aged 10-34.

So what tortures men?

A new short film from MTV, "American Male," explores how social expectations of masculinity afflict male minds — and in particular, the minds of frat guys who feel homoerotic urges they don’t know how to explain or admit. The film follows a muscular white male as he tortures himself for his shoddy beer pong skills, his feminine hand gestures, and his alternative sexuality.

He cautions us with masculine one-liners like “Order beer, not wine,” and “Women second-guess, men go with their gut” as he parades through a frat party, crushing beers like crackerjacks. All the while we see a rage building as he attempts to fit himself into a box which he clearly does not fit. Eventually he snaps, beating a younger man with a paddle as he screams homophobic epithets.

The story is striking and saddening because so many of us know this man, or one like him. Yet rarely are we privileged to the inner dialogue of hyper-masculine characters, or privy to their demons of self-hatred. But we wonder.

We’ve seen alarming signs on a man’s face before, and questioned if he’s really well. Despite his suave jokes with the ladies, despite the way he makes us feel small as he strides into a room, maybe we’ve caught his face after a friend burned him with a joke too close to home. We’ve seen him doubting, ready to erupt.

Often, the moment passes and he recovers to toss a zinger back at his friend. “I hope Jack’s doing well,” we say to our friend as we walk away. “Are you kidding me?” your friend replies. “He was the life of the party!” But what if these men — lonely and desperate to be their true selves — had a space to be weak and honest?

Could gathering together in morning prayer offer a counter-formational practice to the liturgies of American masculinity?

I recently moved into a home with five men I didn’t know. At one guy’s suggestion, we began praying together at 7:30 a.m. each weekday. The small room where we meet has become a place where, if nowhere else during the day, I can be honest.

First, one guy opened up about missing his ex-girlfriend. To me he had been the epitome of confidence — always striving, joking, swaggering — but when it came to this girl starting to date another guy, he confessed to trouble sleeping and tears shed the night before.

Another shared that he’d been feeling depressed the past few weeks. I’d hung out with him many times over that period — laughing and bantering — and it wasn’t until the day’s prayer leader asked, “How can we pray for you?” that he felt welcome to share his struggle.

Rarely do I look the men in my life in the eye and ask about the last time they cried, or what they fear. But here, it’s okay.

Prayer asks us to lay bare our most intimate struggles. And in a group that meets consistently, it asks us to delve deep into our burdens, and to keep those of our friends in the forefront of our minds.

Another time a guy prayed about how he’s thankful for my friendship, in front of the others. I was stunned. I felt this new friend and I were beginning to get along, but I hadn’t said it. And now we can carry this undercurrent of love through our banter over dishwashing and drinking. What is too often difficult for men to say to each other’s face becomes easier in public prayer before God.

Too often, evangelical faith expressions like morning prayer are moored to unhealthy masculine visions — whether it’s unfettered American nationalism or an obsession with macho bravado (I see you, Mark Driscoll). But what may sound like simple pietism or backwards spirituality can also lovingly tear away the masks men think they must wear.

In fact, it’s precisely the “low church,” evangelical nature of our prayer mornings that fosters intimacy. We are not reciting written prayers addressing themes of power made perfect in weakness (though that’s great, too). Instead, we’re looking each other square in the eye, and saying, “I’m here for you. Tell me your burdens, and I will tell you mine.”

This time of prayer is not just communal self-therapy, a clearing of the air. In some way, that will forever and always make me uncomfortable, we are trusting with these prayers that God really can heal our emotional wounds. And this, too, transforms our masculinity. Good prayer teaches men that success doesn’t fully depend on them — it depends on God.

And this is a God whose love for us, we believe, is indescribable and uncontainable — whether or not we have tiny muscles, gay or queer orientations, poor beer pong skills, silly hand gestures, or purple polos.

What American male does not need to hear that he is truly loved? “Look to the Lord and be radiant,” writes the Psalmist, “so your faces shall never be ashamed.”

What if frat houses met daily to confess their fears and anxieties? What healthy vision of masculinity could stir in the hearts of these young men?

And what if Christian men prioritized practices that cultivate not only courage and strength, but vulnerability and sensitivity? How much better might faith guard against the poison American society pours down the throats of its men?

It’s time for tough guys to start praying. Lord knows we need it.

Ryan Stewart

Ryan Stewart is a Masters of Divinity student at Yale Divinity School, where he studies race, religion, and literature. You can find him on Twitter @RyanMcStew.

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