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How Do We Talk to Teen Boys About Men Behaving Badly?

Our year started with stories of men behaving badly and has gotten worse over the last few months. More playground-like name-calling from the POTUS, the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults and cover-ups and the many men whose acts of sexual harassment we are now learning about (including prominent Jewish men like Jeffrey Tambor, Al Franken, and Mark Halperin) and a horrific mass shooting perpetrated by a man. If you didn’t read this excellent essay penned after the slaughter in Las Vegas, I highly recommend “Thoughts on Vegas, and Why Men Keep Doing This” by Charlie Hoehn.

Hoehn focuses in on one of the central ideas behind Shevet Achim – that social isolation is dangerous – and that in a world where men are taught to isolate themselves, we need to create a counter-culture of community.

I once heard the catch-phrase “show me a bad man and I will show you a sad man” from a psychologist. The question I keep coming back to, time and time again when I hear stories of male violence, is this – what is the link between male depression and male aggression?

The Mayo Clinic has excellent resources on depression, and I found this paragraph about gender and depression to be especially helpful:

Depression signs and symptoms can differ in men and women. Men also tend to use different coping skills – both healthy and unhealthy – than women do. It isn’t clear why men and women may experience depression differently. It likely involves a number of factors, including brain chemistry, hormones and life experiences.
Like women with depression, men with depression may:
  • Feel sad, hopeless or empty
  • Feel extremely tired
  • Have difficulty sleeping
  • Not get pleasure from activities they once enjoyed
Other behaviors in men that could be signs of depression – but not recognized as such – include:
  • Escapist behavior, such as spending a lot of time at work or on sports
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Controlling, violent or abusive behavior
  • Irritability or inappropriate anger
  • Risky behavior, such as reckless driving

This list sharpens my question. Why do some men cope by acting in violent or abusive ways?

My sense is that it is not because some men are “evil” and it is not because some men have a genetic disposition to violence. If you want to read a superb essay on this, check out Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky’s “Testosterone Rules.”

What is happening is a combination of genetic factors, hormonal factors, and environmental factors. And it is the environmental factor – culture – that we can change easiest. As part of Shevet Achim training, we say over and over again that “men are good” is a message that men rarely hear – and need to hear. Can putting that message out in the world really change men who are using aggression as their way to cope? I believe it can help.

Reb Nachman of Bratslav, who struggled with depression, wrote this prayer to help himself and others cope:
“God, I stand beaten and battered by the countless manifestations of my own inadequacies. Yet we must live with joy. We must overcome despair, seek, pursue and find every inkling of goodness, every positive point within ourselves – and so discover true joy. Aid me in this quest, O God. Help me find satisfaction and a deep, abiding pleasure in all that I have, in all that I do, in all that I am.”

I hope that you’ll have discussion with your teen boys in your Shevet Achim group about depression and pain and how men cope. Just by creating a space where men try to understand one another you are part of the healing that the world needs.

B’Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Brenner
Vice President of Education
Moving Traditions

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