(This issue I’m going to switch gears and take a look at a topic related to emotional health which, if brought to more to light, could have a profound effect on people everywhere.)

Three little words.

In all, a total of six letters.

But according to Joe Ehrmann, together the three words represent one of the most culturally destructive phrases of all time.

He says if you change the meaning of these three words, you would change the world.

Ehrmann, who turns 66 on March 29th, is a minister and motivational speaker.  He also played nine years in the NFL (primarily for the Baltimore Colts) starting in 1973.  Because of his transformational work to change the culture of sports, he’s often referred to as “The Most Important Coach in America.’  He’s also the subject of the 2004 inspirational book Season of Life. 

In early 2013, he gave a Ted Talk about these three words and why he feels they need to be redefined.

His message is one that could change your life…no matter how old you are or whether you’re male or female.

So what are those three little words?

“Be a man.”

They are the three scariest words that every man hears in his lifetime, he says.

I’m sure you can relate to what he’s talking about.  A young boy (perhaps you, your brother or classmate) for whatever reason is crying and he’s quickly admonished to “Stop with the tears.  Stop with the emotions.  Stop being a mama’s boy.  Stop being a sissy.  Be a man!”

Ehrmann says at a very early age we are taught to separate our heads from our hearts.  That showing emotion is a sign of weakness.  A sign of masculine failure.

He then goes on to point out the three fundamental lies about what it means to “be a man:”

1) That masculinity is associated with athletic ability – At a very early age, boys who are stronger, bigger and have more athletic skill are given more value.  They are even ascribed a little more masculinity, he says.  Erhmann adds that “being a man doesn’t have a single thing to do with athletic ability, size or strength and the capacity to compete and win.”

2) That masculinity and sexual conquests are directly linked – Ehrmann says that some think that “to be a man means you bring a girl alongside yourself and then use her to either gratify some kind of physical insecurity or validate some masculine insecurity.”  Adding that “It certainly doesn’t make you a man.  It makes you user.”

3) That masculinity goes hand in hand with economic success – There are some who think that what it means to be a man is directly tied to someone’s job title, the amount of possessions they have and how much power they accumulate.  “We live in a society where all kinds of men associate self-worth with their net-worth,” he says.

These three lies, Ehrmann points out, are prominent in most every advertisement connected to sports.  They are also the root cause of an ongoing cycle of social problems.

What they result in is a condition called alexithymia — which is the inability to put emotions and feelings into words.  According to the American Psychological Society, 80% of American men suffer from some form of it.

The bottom line here is that if you don’t understand your own feelings and emotions you’ll never understand the emotions of another human being.  Which he says is a precursor to bullying, hazing, dating abuse and gender violence.

Ehrmann says that to a young man there’s nothing more painful than thinking that he doesn’t quite measure up as a man.  And based on the current cultural definition, one can never have a long enough athletic career, sleep with enough women or make enough money to ever feel fulfilled and satisfied.

When this happens men often turn to alcohol, drugs, sex, materialism, pornography and even violence (Boys that can’t cry, shoot bullets, he says.)

So how do you define masculinity?  What does it really mean to be a man?

Part of his job as a pastoral minister is to go to the deathbed of dying people and help them prepare for the next stage of life.

He found that, when the end is near, people use two parameters to measure how successful their life was.

And neither has anything to do with their achievements, awards they’ve won or applause they’ve accumulated.

These two things are the same for women as they are for men.

The first is that life is all about relationships.  It’s about the capacity to love and to be loved.  Ehrmann says that it means “Being able to look somebody in the eye and say ‘I love you” and receiving that love back.”  Or to say it another way “Who did I love and who did I allow to love me?”

The second element of a successful life is having a cause.  To know that you made a difference in this world.  That you left something behind.  A positive imprint.

Ehrmann reminds us that everyone wants to leave some kind of legacy behind.  And legacies are always built around two things: 1) relationships; and 2) commitment to a cause.

And being that a team is nothing more than a set of relationships working towards a cause, he says that team sports is an ideal place to help guide and nurture people.

So what are your action items?

Ehrmann challenges…

  • Every man and every woman to identify their unique cause and how you are going to make a difference in your life.
  • People to redefine what it means to be a coach.
  • You to help “rewire” young men who have their head separated from their heart. Help them connect the two.
  • You to do preventive work such as affirmations and validations that help people tap into all their emotions and humanity.
  • You from this day forward to offer up a clear and compelling definition of what it really means to be a man: Masculinity = relationships plus a commitment to a cause.

Do as many as these five things as you can and your life and the lives of the people around you will be better off for it.

Michael Budensiek