The first time the man who I would eventually ask to be my sponsor said, “I love you” to me I was a bit stunned and I managed to stammer that I loved him too back, even though I wasn’t sure that I wanted to say the words — not because I didn’t love him, but because it felt awkward.
I like to think that I’m a fairly enlightened modern male who is not a rampant homophobe — I have gay friends. I have gay family members. I accept them and love them unquestionably because I understand that homosexuality is not a depravity, disease, or mental illness — it just is. I believe that love is love regardless of gender.
And yet, hearing the words, “I love you” from a man who I’d only known for a few months — let alone parroting them back — felt supremely un-masculine. Vulnerable. And perhaps, I’m ashamed to admit, a bit homophobic.
Our understanding of masculinity finds its roots firmly in the image of the “tough guy” – a heterosexual, lone wolf machismo who fights off an army of “bad guys” on his own. The masculine guy has rugged good looks, maybe a scar or two, and can seduce a beautiful woman simply by looking in her eyes and smiling. It’s a fiction perpetuated by the media.
But we’re not all 007 — most of us are more like Agent 86.
Of course, there were many times when these words were exuberantly shouted in times of drunkenness, but I’m not talking about those insincere, intoxicated ramblings. I’m talking about open and honest communication between two members of humanity marked forever with the XY chromosome set.
I have said these words to other men over the years with no qualms, but always in the context of a very deep and long time connection — I said them to my father nearly every time I spoke with him. I say them to my brother, my son, and my nephew with regularity. There are a handful of men from my college days that will hear these words from me on occasion. But saying them to men who are not family or very old friends felt unnatural.
The Ancient Greeks spoke of four types of love:
- ἀγάπη (agápē) – the love of god for man
- ἔρως (érōs) – sexual love or lust
- στοργή (storgē) – the love of family or parental love
- φιλία (philía) – friendship or affectionate regard between equals
Aristotle spoke at length about philia in Nicomachean Ethics, which is one of the many books that I halfheartedly read in college in pursuit of a minor in Philosophy that I never really earned. I fulfilled the credits for it but never declared the minor — probably because I was too busy having deep philosophical conversations at my favorite bar, Zeno’s which was located “directly above the center of the Earth.” Or maybe they just seemed philosophical because of the portrait of Dionysus (aka Bacchus) that looked down on the seating area from the portrait wall.
One of the greatest gifts of my recovery has been a greater understanding of φιλία (philía) which as given me the ability to tell another man that I love him without getting freaked out by it as well as to hear it from another man.
The words “I love you” are powerful, whether we say them or we hear them. They lift us up, tell us we are accepted, and that we are not alone. In the moments of darkness, these words can be the single candle burning in the night — a beacon of hope.
I recently had a conversation with a brother in recovery and he told me that he loved me — and I knew that these words came from his heart, that they were indeed genuine and true. I knew that I’d made a difference in his life, even if it were just for a moment.
The world would be a better place if we could abandon the ideas of masculinity that are tied up in our 007 selves and embrace our Agent 86 selves more often. As males, we don’t say these words to each other often enough.