With much of the world ground to a collective halt, one of 2020’s double-edged swords is the rare opportunity we have to stop and reflect. For me, this pandemic has meant taking a long, hard look at the toxic stress that has prevented me and so many other black men from living life to the fullest.
As a young man in my early twenties, the notion of the grind was a consistent theme ingrained in everything I did. You know the “grind” -- the mythically necessary, excessive work ethic that defines the value of so many men of color. The idea of working constantly to get ahead without regard to the impact on my body, mind, or productivity was logical to me. It was a badge of honor to go 48 hours without sleeping. The grinding mindset was shared by most of the guys I knew -- a generation of black men who wanted to make it. As a grown man with five children of my own, I’ve come to understand that the perpetual act of grinding speaks primarily to a need to JUST survive. What grinding does not do is develop a model of living that evolves beyond the lowest common denominator of survival to a higher aspiration … to thrive.
Black men are too often trapped in spaces that appear to be cocoons of strength, yet are actually prisons of isolation. We are taught at a young age that acknowledging our emotions is a sign of weakness. Tears and outward expressions of sadness -- and even happiness! -- are to be avoided at all costs. We have learned to depend solely on ourselves and shun the help of others, even people who genuinely have our backs. In the process, we have come to idolize the emotionless black man as a stoic pillar of strength. We are also watching as new names are added to the list of murdered brothers. Ahmaud Aubrey’s murder reminds us that we are targets, physically and institutionally, and we have to protect ourselves. As a result, black men too often deny what we feel. We too often construct identities void of humanity -- the very humanity that the vestiges of white supremacy are hell bent on proving we don't have.
We have an opportunity, especially during this challenging new normal, to rethink our approach to our own humanity and to our work. What a moment to prioritize health and wholeness as a road to living a full life, even as we work hard to achieve our dreams.
To be clear, the grind mentality did not originate just because black men wanted it. What began as a necessary survival tool amid generations of white supremacy and systemic oppression, has evolved into a culture meant to protect black men from the realities of being black in America. For some of us, emotionless existence supports the need to project strength and show other men from any community (sometimes especially our own) that they can’t mess with us. For other black men, emotionlessness fuels the desire to show that “we’re good” amidst all types of financial, employment, and social stresses. The emotionless grind can mean not telling our truth even to our closest friends as our bodies and souls reach their breaking points. No matter what form the grind takes, it is a part of our collective history of needing to survive when thriving was hard to conceive. Most of our grandfathers never believed that expressing emotion was an option. Most of our fathers had to grind in silence. I’ll be damned if I don’t resist the pressure to grind even now, while hiding much of myself in the process. For many of us, all we were told or had modeled to us as valuable, was a manhood defined by “sleep is the cousin of death,” “I’ll rest when I die,” and “real men don’t cry”.
I’ve seen the consequences of working nonstop play out in my own life. I once worked for the NAACP as the National Director of the Youth and College Division. I poured myself into the organization’s mission nonstop. With the exception of the birth of my daughter, I never missed a single day of work. I thought that the relentlessness of the grind defined my success, until I finally took a vacation. During those five unbelievable days I realized the toll that my professional grind had taken on me, physically and emotionally. I was drained and exhausted. I was forced to acknowledge that far from bringing my best self to work, I had been operating at 50 percent at best. I’d been depriving myself of the physical and mental space necessary to replenish the fundamental elements of my humanity. That realization was painful. As I thought about how the quality of my work, reduction of stress, elevation of relationships and potential peace of mind could have increased the impact that my work had on the communities that I cared about. The experience also was liberating. My first wake-up call to the fallacy of the professional grind and value of the melancholic mask I used to hide my whole self. And I keep getting wake up calls.
Don’t get me wrong. When employed correctly, the grind can be a powerful tool. Maybe that second or third job helps to pay for college or buys the first car. The problem is that the grind is unsustainable as a lifestyle. As the literal meaning of the term implies, over time the grind can crush us. Perpetually grinding speaks to our psychosis of self-deprivation and self-destruction in the name of working ourselves to death for insufficient return. It prevents us from tapping into the emotional and social resources that we need to live the most healthy lives possible.
The sad truth is that black men in America have higher mortality rates than any other ethnic or racial group. This sobering statistic begs a number of equally sobering questions. How many of our fathers, brothers, and sons -- even those who we consider classically successful (which means they made money) -- lost themselves to depression, anxiety, and toxic stress in the name of a perpetual grind? How often have we seen the grind elevated into an institution that transformed into working smarter instead of harder? What would happen if we worked to live well and thrive over working to kill ourselves for coins alone?
We have to stop thinking about the grind as the goal. It’s not. We have to give ourselves permission to show up as whole humans, not strong statues. What if, instead of looking at the grind as an inevitable way of life, we shifted into a mindset of grinding as a bridge to building? Even if we accept that code-switching and “wearing the mask,” as Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, are sometimes necessary realities, how do we build communities where showing my whole self is required to be considered real? Seeking to thrive encourages greater comprehensive self-worth, peace, and power. Imagine our communities if we began the hard work of using our God-given talents to build legacies, create wealth (no matter what we value), and address the problems that we were put on this earth to solve?
Accomplishing this requires us to embrace the fullness of our emotions so that we may show up whole, operate with joy, and live with power. To show up in our communities and truly love and care for those around us, we first must love ourselves. And loving ourselves means acknowledging that we feel too. Sadness, anger, fear, depression, anxiety -- these feelings, no matter how unwelcome, are reminders of our humanity. Black men should not be stripped of those emotions. What if we could acknowledge them as strengths to be managed rather than weaknesses that limit us? We will have stronger communities if we can create spaces that allow us to have public conversations where we can explore and understand our emotional fullness. There is power in communities where black men love themselves and each other. Creating and investing in those communities is worth the struggle. There is power in models of manhood that elevate and expand instead of restricting our expressions of emotion.
I want to develop infrastructure -- a community dedicated to advancing brothers' mental wellness. That is why I have partnered with Henry Health to launch Men Thrive. Men Thrive is a digital community designed by black men for black men. It focuses on giving black men the tools they need to thrive rather than simply survive.
Our goal? Encourage black men to show up whole, operate with joy, and live with power. It is crazy that we demand more than the status quo when it comes to making money and gaining access to professional opportunities, but we don't exhibit the same fervor about our mental health and our personal and collective power. We should not be comfortable with black men having the shortest human life spans. We can hold ourselves and each other accountable without fear of judgment. We also can encourage men to live fuller lives because ultimately we want every brother to win.
There are steps that each of us can take to move in that direction:
Be honest with yourself about how and what you’re feeling. Acknowledge your feelings even if you can't name them. It's more powerful than you think. Schedule a Wellness Call with Henry Health to assess your current quality of mental and physical health. We are here to help.
TALK TO YOUR TRIBE Decide what you need from the brothers closest to you and BE that to them. We have men in our lives that would literally die for us who we won't be honest with. Identify a moment you would normally say, “I’M GOOD” when you actually are not and just go in. Tell your man what’s up. I mean the stuff you are light weight embarrassed about feeling. Be honest if you don't even know what to do with what you feel and acknowledge that you’re tired of ignoring it, bottling it in, and feeling the pressure. Then sit back and see what happens. Use your phone or a notebook to write down. Ask yourself: 1. How you felt about even saying it, 2. How your man’s response made you feel, and 3. How you think you can go even deeper with that friend - not only to say more, but to push him to do the same. First steps with the world are everything. Our circles of men will never be transformative until they are transparent.
SEEK CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE ADVICE
Seek information and/or advice from an expert, like a therapist, who has professional and cultural intelligence that relates to your experiences and story. Research shows that treatment outcomes greatly improve when cultural and historical knowledge are included in the approach to care. Henry Health is the leading provider of culturally intentional mental health services. We believe that every person deserves to have their culture honored, especially in therapy.
ENGAGE IN THE PROCESS
Place your focus on showing up whole, operating with joy, and living with power. Aggressively pursue action steps required to achieve a thriving lifestyle.
JOIN OUR COMMUNITY
Join Men Thrive to gain exclusive access to powerful self-mastery tools. Our Thrive Live and Podcast feature the voices of black men engaged in conversations important to us. Our guided meditations are designed specifically for black men and will create an opportunity for daily focus unlike any other platform.
If Men Thrive is not right for you, I still have a request: Begin to challenge the survival psychosis and build to thrive. At the end of the day, we are all in this together. We are our brother’s keeper. Our collective success is intertwined with our collective psychology. Let’s reset the way we think to elevate the way we live and move forward into a future where every brother thrives.
Chief of Culture and Community, Henry Health
Chief Curator, Men Thrive
Jeff Johnson is a social architect and storyteller whose greatest desire is the transformation of communities currently surviving to fully thriving. He’s an honored husband and favored father of five residing in Baltimore, MD.