The Paradox of Pain: Groupthink, Vulnerability and the Quest for Male Legitimacy

by Tavis Cote, Staff Writer

Icy-hot, sugar-free gummy bears and a gallon of milk.

If you’re wincing right now, this article is for you. If you’re not, then you deserve to know why what seems like a slapdash run to a convenience store has, at one point in the life of the guy next to you, defined what it means to be a man.

Every year at summer camp, our church had a tradition. One night of the week, all the guys, from freshman in high school to the college leaders to the occasional camp staff counselor, would gather in the biggest six man cabin they could find. Shirtless, packed like sardines, sweaty and restless and full of adrenaline, we waited for our leader to bring in the bag full of tonight’s entertainment. Six gallons of milk. A jar of habanero peppers. Five sticks of butter. Four tubes of icy hot. A few tins of sardines. Sprite and a dozen bananas. A deck of cards. A large trashcan. The rules are simple: low card had to participate; high card gets to choose the remaining participants. The challenge must be completed once started—aim for the can.

We chugged milk until we threw up, and then chugged more, until we threw up cheese, and our teeth chattered from the cold of the liquid inside out stomach. We ate whole sticks of butter. We ate three bananas each and then chugged sprite to projectile vomit across the room. We downed capsaicin until our heart burned and our mouth turned to fire. We took sardine juice like shots. We gave our testicles chemical burns until everyone, blind and groaning with Icy-Hot pain, could do nothing but lay on the floor and wait for the storm to pass. Clinical dehydration. Severe nausea. Massive headaches. Permanent intestinal damage. We looked forward to that night.

Men, as a rule, do not share their pain with other men. We are told that manhood is strength, and strength is grit. A ‘real’ man doesn’t need help dealing with his own problems. A ‘real’ man takes hardship without so much as a break in his stride. The problem is, of course, that real men need to share pain with other guys. Friendship, brotherhood, is nothing without the bonds of trust derived from shared vulnerability. Because I’m a man, I need brothers and I need help, so I need to be vulnerable. But because I’m a man, I can’t be.

This is where challenge night comes in. You see, it doesn’t count as true vulnerability if you volunteered for the pain, or if the pain doesn’t really mean anything. With challenge night, you can at once openly suffer in front of other guys and maintain your status as a man. A loophole, if you will. And so we waited eagerly, excited to throw up and pass out and forge trust in the fires of self-destruction.

I don’t have to tell you what’s wrong with this picture. You know as well as I do. But the next time a guy is isolating himself from the world, know that he’d rather self-inflict torture for a glimmer of relational legitimacy than admit he can’t face life without help. It’s not the male ego that makes us so bad at vulnerability, it’s male fear: the fear of being de-legitimized as a man, the fear of being labeled as “weak” because you couldn’t take it on the chin. Yes, it’s ridiculous. But it’s very, very real.

For my men: the next time your friend self-destructs inwardly, remind him of his manhood, and be vulnerable with him first. The first step to helping him open up is to open up yourself.

Ladies: the next time a guy won’t let you help him, even when he knows you could, don’t brush it off and say “guys are stupid.” Guys are good people held to stupid expectations by the people who perpetuate false and toxic masculinity.

He’s not obtuse. He’s not a coward. He’s simply afraid.