The last thing I expected when I went to hear former NFL defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann speak about masculinity was to practice meditation with him.
Ehrmann spoke last week at Redemption Point Church.
The National Center for the Development of Boys, in conjunction with McCallie School, hosted the elite athlete turned educator, coach and professional speaker. His résumé seems endless, but I had never heard of him before this event.
I firmly believe that every area citizen could have benefited from hearing his talk, especially in light of the recent accusations against Ooltewah High School athletes and coaches.
A women's studies minor, I've spent a lot of time thinking about feminism, femininity and gender roles. But I've been remiss in not pondering more about masculinity, the associated stereotypes and their effects.
"The three scariest words that every man receives in his lifetime is when he's told to 'be a man,'" Ehrmann said. "When you tell a boy to be a man, it's almost always in the context of 'You're not enough.'"
That idea wasn't new to me, but Ehrmann's storytelling, personal experiences and the way he connected it all to societal expectations and sports were enlightening, moving and—at times—depressing.
And it made me think in a way I never had before about every man I love or have loved. I had questions about their relationships with their fathers.
Had they ever been told to "be a man" in a way that made them feel shame? Had that idea been ingrained into them from such a young age that they were conditioned not to share emotions or to hide them behind humor and other shields? Had any of them thought through all of these questions, even a little bit? And if so, had they ever articulated it?
Ehrmann said that masculine stereotypes are based on three fundamental lies that are pervasive in our society:
—Being a man has something to do with athletic ability.
—Being a man has something to do with sexual conquests.
—Being a man has something to do with economic success.
Ehrmann's father beat some of those ideas into him as a child. He told a story about being 5 years old, his father holding up his hands for his young son to punch. He wanted Ehrmann to get a certain jab just right.
Ehrmann couldn't do it and began to cry. And that's when he encountered the "be a man" indignity, created by one of the people who was supposed to love and protect him.
Later, Ehrmann talked about his brother, who was 10 years younger than him and whom he raised as a sibling, but also like a son.
"I taught my brother what I knew about being a man," he said.
His brother grew to be a great athlete, and when he graduated from high school, prepared to play college football, Ehrmann got him a job training with the Colts. One day, a trainer saw a massive black and blue mark on Ehrmann's brother's chest.
It was cancer. The kind of diagnosis that meant death would come soon. And as Ehrmann's heart broke, knowing his 19-year-old brother was on his deathbed, he had a revelation.
"I realized at that point that I was a socialized male," he said.
"I spend a lot of time in silence and meditation. I do a lot of breath work. Your breath is the only thing you can control. It's a way to get to your true nature, your essence."
Source: Joe Ehrmann
He didn't have the vocabulary or skills to express love and appreciation to his younger brother, he said.
But he slept on a cot next to him every night (except for NFL away games) in the hospital.
His brother soon died, and Ehrmann described being at the funeral and watching people go back to their cars, back to their lives. And he wanted to scream, "That's it?!"
You live and die and then people go immediately on with their lives? That's it?
That was his turning point. He was 29. He had played in the NFL for six years, but he had no concept of what he was about or what life was about, he said.
So he started exploring what it meant to be a man, a woman, a human being.
Ultimately, he came to understand that when you're on your deathbed it will be relationships that matter; it will be the kind of person you were and the positive changes you made for the world.
But how do we grow a new generation of men and women who understand all this in the midst of the lies Ehrmann mentioned?
"What if we coached the boys' hearts?" he said. "It's the heart that defines who you are as a human being."
And, in case you didn't think I was getting back to it, this is where mindfulness and meditation come in, because part of the reason we believe every lie or thought we have is because of our egos. I've written about it before (click here), and Ehrmann described the ego as a false self.
And to resist that false self takes discipline, such as meditation practice.
Ehrmann led the group through two minutes of meditation.
"We've got this responsibility to continue to grow," he said. "It takes time to continue to grow. It takes discipline ... All of us have to make peace with that inner critic."
Men and women need to think about their childhood experiences and how they shaped their views of masculinity and femininity, he said. Then, we have to go on our own journey to make peace with it all.
He talked about the importance of being in the present moment to help awaken our true spirits.
And meditation helps with all that.
"What happens when you [meditate] long enough, control that [inner] critic, quiet that inner voice, is your true nature emerges—the nature you were born with," he said. "So I was this young, kind, gentle, compassionate little boy, and my father beat that out of me. It's taken me a long time to reclaim that."
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