In 2016, Jason Wilson went viral for making it okay to cry.
The moment unfolds on camera after a young student, Bruce, attempts to break a wooden board as part of his training at Wilson’s Detroit dojo. The young boy’s left fist just doesn’t want to follow though, and we see him wince as it ricochets off the wood, again and again. “When you feel the pain, punch all the way through,” Wilson tells him. “That could be a barrier in life, or anything — punch harder.”
Bruce punches again, and again, yelping out a brave kiai with each strike. But each time, his left hand bounces off the wood. The frustration of the moment is enough to make tears well up in Bruce’s eyes, and his voice cracks from the pain. “That’s what this is about. Let’s get to that,” Wilson says, pausing the test.
Almost immediately, Wilson shifts his tough-love demeanor into calm empathy. “It’s okay to cry. We cry as men,” he says, gazing into his student’s eyes. “Why are you crying though, son?”
Wilson kneels next to the young man and, over the course of just a few minutes, ushers him through several lessons: That it’s natural to feel overwhelmed, even when you know you can accomplish something; why we fear the difficult things that must be done; how each person has unique battles to overcome. At the end of the conversation, Wilson stands back up, grabs the wooden board and holds it firmly in front of Bruce once more.
That moment, shared across social media and on cable TV, helped draw attention and accolades for Wilson’s Detroit program, dubbed The Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy. It’s more than a martial arts course, although learning how to punch, kick and block is a core element of Wilson’s curriculum. Instead, he describes it as a “rite of passage” for boys, designed to help young men (especially Black men, who compose the majority of his class) who feel lost and are struggling at school or home.
Some need structure to help their anger and restlessness, while others crave a male role model in their lives. No matter the reasons, Wilson uses a blend of physical training, religious teaching and emotional reflection to help each young man seek balance and self-belief.
Today, Wilson’s mission extends far beyond the borders of Detroit. He’s been invited to speak at all kinds of events for kids and adults alike, and he uses his platform to criticize the trappings of stereotypical masculinity while championing a fuller picture of what men can be. All of these lessons come to life on Wilson’s YouTube channel, which has become a font of thought-provoking speeches on life, faith and manhood. Wilson is deft at blending the roles of preacher, therapist and father, and he speaks powerfully about his desire to help men understand and love themselves, and extend that same love to one another.
Reflection and learning doesn’t stop with his students — rather, Wilson is candid and earnest about his own growth. He often draws a line from the time when he struggled as a young man with an absentee father, turning to “being a thug” and street violence to fill the space inside. He’s also quick to say when he’s been wrong, and I love the moment in his dojo when he consoles his son after he fails to break a board and remains distraught about letting his father down. “I’m sorry for putting pressure on you. I had no idea,” Wilson says, dropping the tough-love talk in favor of a deep hug.
His short-form affirmations on YouTube, meanwhile, serve as snippets of everyday inspiration to challenge masculine norms and seek stability in our emotional output. Not overreacting to triggers, learning to quell self-criticism, confronting the lingering hurt of old traumas — Wilson unpacks it all, using personal anecdotes, Bible verses and pop-cultural metaphors. All of it is in service of his central tenet: We need to seek “comprehensive manhood,” as he calls it, which is embodied by a man who is courageous when necessary, but compassionate at all times.
“The reason so many of us live unfulfilled lives is because we allow ourselves to be limited by only being ‘masculine.’ We are more than that,” he says in one recent video. “When we allow ourselves to conform to the ‘masculine mandate,’ which is the culture’s order for a man to only be masculine, we will continue to lead in suicide. If we don’t allow ourselves to express ourselves, we truly can never live.”
There is an old-school sensibility in the way Wilson frames conflict and righteousness, especially when he urges young boys to empower “the lion” inside of them to confront sin and evil when necessary. He is equally interested in bringing the fire out of timid boys as much as softening anger in impulsive, aggressive ones. But he always asserts that genuine strength comes from the heart, not insecure fear, and many of Wilson’s lessons emphasize the merits of reflecting, releasing, resetting and resting after conflict.
Wilson keeps blowing up, including being featured on the Breakfast Club radio show in October, and I hope that his reach can expand. In the meantime, his wisdom flows freely on YouTube, giving boys and men a resource to consider whether they, too, are living as comprehensive men.
I think again to that 2016 viral video: After Wilson’s consolation, Bruce has one more chance to pass his test. With the loudest kiai of all, he steps into the punch and snaps the board in half. In the split-second after the break, you see his eyes beam up at Wilson’s face. His teacher is proven right — and it’s a lesson that will last a lifetime.