Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Appreciating Buscaglia's ironic insight

Only the weak are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong. (Leo Buscaglia)

While there some obvious irony in the statement, let’s examine it more closely.
Whenever we feel the instinct to hurt another, to seek revenge, to malign someone who has hurt us, at that moment, rather than being our strongest and best self, we have descended to our weakest, most neurotic and also most dangerous potential.

The daily news is saturated with acts of revenge, pay-back, critical back-stabbing, all of them stemming from the weakest and the worst aspect of those perpetrating them. Trump has just tweeted that protesters who burn the flag should lose their citizenship. We can expect an endless of similar tweets, sprinkled with the “look how wonderful I am” mandatory tweets from the president elect.

And, our case for the weakness of the man, as the perpetrator of much cruelty, is made.
For the past eight years, Republicans have denigrated and maligned and even obstructed Obama for being weak, spineless, and feckless, riding the wave of false pride, hobbling hubris, self-deception and truth defiance. And a significant segment of the population has bought their candy floss. All the while Republicans were bugling their bravado, Obama was, in pointed counterpoint, withdrawing from the Iraq war of George W. Bush, persisting in withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, negotiating with Iran to hold off their nuclear weapons development intentions, and helping to provide health care for those with “previous health conditions” that had blocked their coverage.

A strong president, as exemplified by Obama, is not only doing his job, with the best interests of the nation clearly on top of his mind, he is also offering a silent yet highly influential role model for the type of “strong” masculinity offered by his opponents.  When strength is defined and immortalized as “cruelty” as it has consistently been by Republicans on the right, our children are misguided, maliciously and with full intent by people who are in full command of their faculties, and therefore must accept responsibility for the long-term damage they have done and will continue to do, following their malignant stereotype.

It was Samantha Bee, on her show, Full Frontal, who called Trump a “vial of weaponized testosterone” as her pointed and pungent way of stick her thumb through the balloon of his pretension. From such a person, and from the cadre of sycophants he will surround himself with at the cabinet table and in the White house (if he even deigns to reside there), we can expect only more cruelty…targeting those he perceives as his “opponents”, while exempting his loyalists.

Refusing to divest himself, fully completely and legally, from all of his business interests, whether or not the law requires such divestment, is just another example of his “cruelty” to the American people, through insult, presumption and an arrogance that shouts, “If you don’t like it, sue me!” from the top of his also pretentious and presumptuous, arrogant and “weak” tower of greed.

Obama’s strength is on full display around the world, in capitals of both friends and enemies, following the “weak” cruelty and violence of his predecessor, another Republican of the born-again persuasion of Christian fundamentalists. As one writer in the latest edition of The Atlantic puts it, Obama is leaving, for the most part, a “clean desk,” for his successor. And that clean desk offers considerable scope, unfortunately for Trump to make an even bigger mess than Dubya. Even Obama’s refusal to wage open warfare on Assad, following the emergence of clear and incontrovertible of Assad’s deployment of chemical weapons on his own people, while considered inexcusable and indefensible by Republican critics, prevented the United States from becoming fully enmeshed in another war in the Middle East. And while Putin rushed into the crack of a vacuum in Damascus, Obama nevertheless demonstrated restraint, as well as hope and diligence in continuing to negotiate a highly complicated peace process in that balkanized country, headed by an unmitigated dictator.

My role model for strength married to kindness, compassion and the hope that invariably accompanies all of those acts, is my father, of whom I have written elsewhere in this space. Refusing to utter a malicious word against another human being, no matter the provocation, and withdrawing rather than engaging in a turbulent and energy-depleting conflict with those whose actions and attitudes were unacceptable to him eventually cost him his half-century-plus career. When he was expected to collect full payment for an invoice to a quarter-century customer who never failed to pay his accounts, on receipt of the goods purchased was the final straw. My father, silently and inconspicuously without telling another soul, walked to the company corporate office, placed his keys to the building and all of its compartments on the counter where customers did their business, put on his coat and walked away after  nearly sixty years of loyal, committed and honourable service. Of course, there was an immediate invitation to join other hardware operations in the town, after such a professional career.

The cruelty of the weak has been on display too often while witnessing the political processes on both Canada and the United States, where transactional relationships based on ‘what have you done for me lately’ incarcerate the participants in leg-irons of voting expectations, funding assistance, network enhancement, and public endorsements which too often slip into the oblivion of lost memory by those no longer interested in the relationship.

When the Governor of North Dakota tells the protesters to leave their encampment blocking the development of another fossil fuel pipeline, we are witnessing another act by another weak person who is either unwilling or unable or both to engage the protesters with a view to honouring their land, their water and their dignity.
And this scenario is only one of hundreds we are going to witness and perhaps even experience over the next decade as the battle to protect our shared environment literally and metaphorically “heats up.” Strength, as embodied in dollars in investment accounts by oil giants, and their investors (of whom Trump is one in North Dakota), can only see a depletion of their investment dollars through the failure to construct more and more pipelines for more and more fossil fuels for more and more contamination of our shared oxygen. This is not strength, and it exerts the only kind of cruel pressure on the short-term protesters and the long-term health and well being of each of us, not to mention the inordinate pressure fossil fuels put on the health care budget.

Even in the announcement of a former orthopedic surgeon as the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, a man determined to tear up the Affordable Care Act with health savings accounts and vouchers both of which we pad the insurance company profits. Eliminating people with pre-existing conditions will only line the pockets of both insurance companies and hospital corporations while eliminating the prospect of universal health care, on a single payer basis. Here again, weakness generates cruelty, when compared with the strength of people like Bernie Sanders whose compassion and kindness is clear in his advocacy for a single payer health care system, along with free college tuition for all deserving and committed students.

No differently in human interactions than in the way government conducts its business, gentleness comes only from the strong. Just today, the Canadian Auditor General issued a scathing report on the modus operandi of several government departments, notably the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. One of the pithy observations in the report recommends that bureaucrats focus on providing effective programs for their clients, rather than waiting for another litigation to force program enhancement. At the root of his critique is an attitude prevalent among governments of all political stripes to  greater or lesser degree: that recipients of government largesse will always and inevitably abuse that largesse and make the bureaucrats embarrassed when the abuse is disclosed by some news report(er). Tight-assed political correctness as a governing principle demonstrates weakness on the part of the government itself and especially on the part of those ministers and bureaucrats executing the program.  This bogus argument that people must be self-reliant and absolutely independent, while currying favour with the right wing conservative ideologues, flies in the face of human lives and their various trajectories, many of which turn “south” through no fault of the victims.

Governments, for example, in their oversight of health care, have to know and take into account the statistical reality that well over 75% of all costs on the system are attributable to those in the last decade of their life. That truth is unlikely to alter with a change in geography or climate, throughout the various regions of Canada. Budgeting for such a “strain” on the system, as a given rather than some exorbitant and inexcusable demographic drain, can only result from a perspective of strength and kindness. It will never flow from a bureaucracy that is so fixated on each of the personal careers in middle and upper management and the reduction in spending on which those career advancements are premised, a premise that from the perspective of the public good and the public interest is short-sighted and weak, and also cruel.

Similarly, middle ranking bureaucrats in the health care system who impose their “accountability” instruments like the old scientific management icons formerly known as “time clocks” in order to have more control, without regard to the various exigencies that confront health care workers at all levels every day, as another way to “save money” (and thereby enhance their professional reputations and likelihood of career advancement) are out of touch with contemporary theories of enlightened management as well as the strength to admit and envision a workplace culture that begins with trust that employees will do more than they are asked, (they always have when they respected and trusted the employer knew them as people and behaved in a respectful and trusting manner toward them!) and will do it with a sincere smile. This show of “strength” is counter-intuitive to human relations, to enlightened management theories and practice and will only increase pressure on the “bottom line” supposedly the holy grail for middle and upper managers.

Gentleness, as a guiding perspective, is neither weak nor ineffectual. Ironically, for those “black-and-white” minds who impose such systems, compassion and gentleness not only demonstrate strength, but also produce more of the kind of healing in patients, and helping in health care workers.

A similar perspective applies to the law enforcement apparatus. Weakness generates cruelty in the law enforcement business, especially when and where prisons are operated as private for-profit businesses. Hard-edged, hard-assed wardens and guards are, acting under orders from above, much more interested in dominating control of their inmates than in rehabilitation, restoration and re-entry back into society. The premise of this culture is overt strength, masking the fear and weakness of the system that the public will enlarge and expand their objection to prisoners’ living in luxury and costing the public purse more than their lives are worth.

Cruelty, in this instance, comprises legitimized revenge and an indication of strength, when the gentle approach of rehabilitation would prove to be both less costly (generating less profit for the corporations that operate the institutions) and stronger in terms of providing the talents, skills and income to families and through income taxes to the state and nation.

Policing itself, is taking notice of the advantages of something they call “community policing” whereby instead of first looking for offenders, including opportunities to lay charges, police are getting to know their communities, building trust among their people and thereby reducing the need for hard power, growing statistics of crime. Once again, gentleness is a sign of strength, whereas cruelty and disempowerment demonstrate weakness, in the form of fear of loss of control.

Even in the ways in which professionals of all types treat their clients: gentleness demonstrates the strength of the practitioner, not weakness, where cruelty exhibits weakness.

If only at the geopolitical level these clear ironies that strength is demonstrated in gentleness and weakness in cruelty could be lessons learned by those practicing diplomacy….if that trajectory could ever become enshrined in at least a few graduate schools of international relations and diplomacy, then perhaps, such a shift in what is considered normal might offer the prospect of arms reduction, the curtailing if not the closing of arms factories, and the sale of such products as symbols of national pride.

Only if and when ordinary people begin to concur with the Buscaglia insight will those agents of political, military, legal, medical, instructional and spiritual influence shift their focus, and turn this deeply ensconced ship of conventional mis-wisdom.

Turning the world on its ear, while readily considered quixotic, is nevertheless a proposition worthy of serious reflection.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Volunteering, a first step toward citizen activism...a growing need

“There is a gap somehow between empathy and activism. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of soul force, something that emanates from a deep truth inside of us and empower us to act. Once you identify your inner genius, will be able to take action, whether it’s writing a check or digging a well.” (Sue Monk Claire, author of The Secret Life of Bees)

Let’s look at both the why of that gap between activism and empathy, and perhaps a few thoughts on closing it. Never in our lifetime has there been a more urgent need for activists, not only in new philanthropic foundations for the developing world, but in the so-called developed world. It is here where having it so good for so long engenders apathy and indifference and expectations unwarranted by the direction and the speed of threatening change….political, environmental, economic, and national security/personal freedom and human rights.

Voting percentages ranging from 35-40% in most “democratic” elections at local provincial and national votes is a black cheque for all politicians to ignore that silent and absent majority knowing they will be unlikely to object to whatever steps those politicians take. “My vote doesn’t count” is a facile and lame excuse for indifference. “It doesn’t matter who wins, they are all corrupt,” is another “automatic negative thought” that exposes a pathetic level of ignorance and powerlessness that can only be confronted through a conscious, pro-active dedicated ambition to learn more, to question more, to engage more fully in the conversations at the water cooler, in the coffee shop, at the local hockey game, or even on those hunting and fishing excursions.

Empathy, the capacity and willingness to identify with the pain of another, however, is seemingly inexhaustible, coming to the fore whenever a tragedy occurs. Empathy also takes so many different forms that it would take a library stack of volumes to name and describe them all. Humans, being hardwired as social creatures, seem to have a permanent soft core of identification with another’s individual pain suffered through a death, an accident, a fire, a life-threatening illness, a divorce or even emotional or physical trauma. Yet somehow, there is no political ideology attached to helping a neighbour, simply an act of kindness. There is also no expectation of the requirement of membership in some political party, including the noxious expectation to raise money, to expose oneself to a political campaign, to associate with others who would never make it onto our personal list of “friends”, nor to submit to a party policy platform. We also conceive, design, execute and deliver our unique empathic response to the suffering person or family.

Foodbanks, various ‘missions’ for the homeless and the destitute, literacy programs for those who cannot read and write….while a step up from a neighbour to a helping hand for those we do not know, are still causes that evoke empathic responses, mostly of a “token” or minimal sort, like dropping off some groceries after a shopping trip, or dropping off some extra’s at Christmas or Thanksgiving. And the demonstrated need for such facilities continues to grow exponentially, given the cutbacks in social programs and the rising numbers of families attempting to survive on more than one minimum-wage jobs.

“Ride for”…..projects, too, to collect funds for research or for a specific project, along with golf tournaments for a ‘cause’ or hockey games for a similar cause, or service club donations/membership, all of them worthy and appropriate, are nevertheless exempt from a deep and profound “soul force” in most cases, that offers a level of commitment and passion (in fact one’s identity) that could qualify as activism.

Activists are so impassioned about either the injustice  they vehemently oppose or (the other side of the same coin) the justice of their actions to reverse an injustice that they demonstrate a level of commitment and dedication to their chosen issue that others would and do consider “intense,” or even exaggerated, or perhaps unbalanced and misguided. Let’s look at the current Standing Rock “activists” who are camping out in North Dakota, protesting the proposed pipeline. While the Army Corps of Engineers have issued a closing order for the encampment, these people are prepared to challenge even that government edict. Could violence erupt if and when the ACE move in? Of course! Would such violence be justified? That depends on your perspective….if you agree with the protesters, then probably. If you are either luke-warm or undecided, or more likely uninformed about the specific details of the reasons behind the protest, then you would likely consider violence to be unjustified.

And here is where the ‘rubber meets the road’ as it were. Activists are prepared to confront the “authorities” if and when their activism is threatened. Sister Helen Prejean, for one, has conducted a protracted and highly visible campaign against capital punishment, through her commitment to men sentenced to the death penalty. Her book “Dead Man Walking” prompted a movie of the same title, and while there are those who disagree with her, and probably have threatened her in a variety of ways, at 76 she remains active, and not only active in this cause, but serving as a model for aspiring activists.

There is a danger that postulating such a role model could prompt others to turn away from considering activism, given the high ideals and expectations of the Sister’s commitment. Visiting prisons, like visiting hospitals, is always going to provoke anxieties about how prisoners got to where they are, and how to help them. Hospital visits, too, evoke feelings of both angst and the promise of some tiny hint of sunlight poking into the corner of a patient’s perhaps lonely existence.

And then, after the conscience and the heart have been wakened and the potential way for each person to begin to consider a pathway into activity of visiting, or perhaps teaching, or perhaps joining an advocacy group has been considered, investigated and reflected upon, one’s own life often takes a turn that requires a new focus of time and energy. Nevertheless, the tiny voice, “I think I can” will not be silenced, if the urging is real and the intuition and feeling about the visions of taking action (don’t we all envision most new steps today?) seem to feel “right. And so, in spite of all the reasons to question taking action, we make a phone call, or well do a google search, or we pick up a book or a pamphlet to add some nurture to what up to now has been a mere flicker in the eye of our imagination.

And then, we pause and withdraw because some seemingly pressing issue takes our attention in another direction again. But that still small voice can still be heard whispering in our inner ear, “I still think I can.”

And the persistence of that little voice, linked to our basic sense of justice and even empathy, especially considering the short and long-term implications of both taking action and of remaining on the sidelines, continues to haunt our walks and our prayers and our imagination.
And then….

Because we have already made a first phone call, that person inexplicably calls, or emails about a meeting, or an event, to which s/he issues an invitation. And now what are we going to do? We have been “outed” from our secret vision of becoming a participant to a challenge to take another active step.

Again we beg for time. And we continue to question if this is something we really do want to commit to. We now see the additional meetings and the additional expectations even though our action will all be voluntary. We know that once ‘engaged’ there will be additional invites and challenges and opportunities and time and energy will be required, and is our life not already busy enough?

And so the gap between empathy and activism remains wide, and our individual opportunity to begin to close it ever so slight is still on hold.

Perhaps it is the search for the “right” cause that keeps us at bay from jumping into action. Another lame excuse: just take a first step of action on behalf of a single cause and you will be amazed at the feelings that arise within. The sense of both excitement and engagement along with the conversations with people you did not know even existed and the new information that justifies the validity of the cause will ennoble you and hook you at least for the moment.

And then….as the cause’s needs become more clear and more desperate, your commitment will only grow and your resistance will dissipate.

And, should you be wondering about what to do….the whole community is a smorgasbord of opportunities just waiting for your unique perspective and your talents and your time and energy.

Environmental protection is under threat now that Trump is going to Washington.

Prisons, especially the private, for-profit need to be opposed in the face of elevated rates of incarceration.

Police departments use citizen volunteers for many roles that would not be covered without their assistance.

Palliative care, for those in the last stages of their life, is a huge and very worthy volunteer opportunity.

Volunteer rescue groups can always use another committed trainee, who can eventually play a full role when people get lost.

Choirs always need musical voices and musical temperaments to round out their various sections.

Church schools, and school athletic teams always need instructors and coaches.

The Blind need to have books read and recorded so they can “read” them orally.

Foodbanks and shelters need human resources desperately, as the need for their services spikes.

Immigrants need volunteers to drive them to doctor appointments, language classes, and social gatherings, not to mention bureaucratic appointments.

And then there are the social service agencies and hospitals all crying out for additional human resource help, from volunteers.

Volunteering can and often is the first step towards full activism fighting for a cause you believe in. And, if it is the more moderate and less risky, then for those who like to enter ‘at the beach’ and not off the high diving board, it can be a way to get started.
And we have not mentioned a political party!

So, let the light of opportunity shine in your mind’s eye for you to seek and to find a new challenge to offer your mind and your spirit to a cause of your choosing. Let the light into the most private and most secret corners of your psyche….and may it lead you to join a corps of dedicated, committed, personable, ambitious and authentic professionals making the world a better place for all of us who, with you, will develop and generate even more light shining into the psychic darkness that surrounds the planet.

Your soul force is waiting for you to take it dancing in a cause with a ‘beat’ that fits you and your life.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Wrestling with ambiguities in gender relations

Two recent pieces, in this space, have been rattling around in my head, provoking some more reflection.

The first focused on “shades of emasculation” and the second, “reflections on male self-sabotage”.

The first image that comes to mind is that these two ‘conditions’ (emasculation and self-sabotage) could be considered opposite ends of a single continuum especially since the self-sabotage that was being considered was the result of “over-reach, or excessive emotion or aggression”. Another picture that emerges is that both ends of  the continuum might be different components of the same, just different, ways to sabotage our relationships. If we believe we are being “trashed” (emasculated) is our perception contributing to that outcome? If we believe we need to be more aggressive, is that starting place tilting the outcome in that direction?

Men are hard wired to ‘fix’ things, and this hard wiring puts men in situations where engines are refusing to operate, or organizational systems  are dysfunctional, or health conditions crying out for amelioration, or leaky faucets, or lawns that need mowing and driveways that need snow shovelling. Doing, action, remediation….these are the guide words for an active male life. And there are centuries of documentation demonstrating considerable success but in envisioning the world from this perspective (male, action-oriented, and “fixing”) putting the object of the fixing “outside” the individual man. Extrinsics, then are at the core of this world view, and the man is the potential agent of the needed change. When we look in the “dictionary” under the word “human doing” the face of an ordinary male jumps out.

Each of these “objects” of the physical, mental and to some extent emotional energy that men deploy in their pursuit of “fixing” whatever is not operating optimally, are outside the individual man, and subject to the preferred intervention of the male engaged. The degree of learning, experience, skill, imagination and basic competency of each individual male “fixer varies significantly, and the results of each individual “fix” vary just as widely.

Learning the various conditions of dysfunctional manifolds, or crank sensors, or massive air flow sensors is much more interesting and captivating for most men, for example, that the intimate and emotional exchanges that cross the conscious and the unconscious minds of the partners in any human relationship. Similarly, the rhyme and rhythm, the harmonies and the figures of speech of a piece of poetry are so uninteresting and boring to most men, when the alternative available for our curiosity and our personal time and attention might be a desired hunting trip, fishing trip, or a work bench design and construction for our garage.

Robert Fritz, a composer and corporate consultant/trainer, has written and taught a way of viewing organizational “stuckness” as oscillation between two mutually exclusive end results. The failure of the organization to achieve a stated end result is ascribed to the existence of a mutually exclusive and contradictory end result. In order to move from oscillation to ‘resolution’ of the tension implicit in the oscillation one has to first perceive of the two conflicting end results, and then to unpack which of these is to be considered as “primary” and the other as “secondary.” Such clarification is then regarded as facilitating a resolution of the time and resource depletion that accompanies the oscillation.

In an action-oriented, empirically measureable, and goal-driven universe, the construct of resolving tensions that compound the pursuit of shared end results makes good sense. No leader wants to participate in organizational muddles that cost money, energy, commitment while engendering confusion and demoralization among the workers in that organization.

In the arena of human relationships between men and women, the Fritz “technologies for creating” might well be considered a working model that is built on a “male” understanding of the universe. That is a universe, like a medical model, that seems to work well for a period and then develop “vagaries” in symptoms that seem to change the “rules” and generate conflicts, including various expressions of falling interest, commitment, wandering attentions, and perhaps even dissolution itself. If both parties can and do agree with a set of mutually acceptable end results for the relationship, perhaps both male and female partners in a relationsip can commit to a process of monitoring the progress of the relationship toward realizing those end results, and to diagnosing the mutually exclusive end result that could be blocking “progress” toward those end results.

As a starting point, however, for many women, however, this “resolving tension” model could well be considered “imposed” by the male partner, and not as representative of the female world view as some other model of resolving the prevailing tensions.

The model is premised on the concept that all ambiguities, contractions and mutually exclusive end results are categorized as secondary to the “primary” end results. And for the purpose of creating a desired cluster of end results, not only in an organization, but also in a family or even in a relationship, the model depends on the full assimilation of its various components and their potential value to “resolve” prevailing tensions in the situation.

It is the issue of deciding which of the end results is more important than others, in an intimate relationship that comes into question when attempting to apply the Fritz model.

For the sake of this piece, let’s work with the proposition that the woman wants to redecorate the home, and the man prefers a vacation, as two of the desired end results for a specific year. Both have value; both require considerable funding; both can make a considerable contribution to the “life” of the relationship. And there is no apparent reason that through a workable compromise, the two end results could not be scheduled to fit the budget, and the schedules of both.

It is in the area of beliefs, attitudes, values (all of them highly complex, and potentially ambiguous) that the model seems wanting. And furthermore, these values are not expressly stated as part of a plan to accomplish a goal or task. They are evolving truths which comprise an integral and essential part of the personhood of every person, and not a “thing to be fixed” or to be “changed” or more dangerously, “removed”.
Neither party’s world view can or should be considered dominant, nor can it easily be categorized as primary or secondary. In fact, the rubbing up against another person’s belief system, value system, attitude cluster, in and of itself, is a worthy experience. And the bumping itself is potentially life-giving for both parties. First, one has to become consciously aware, no matter how troubling that process is, of the various values of another in any intimate partnership. That statement makes the condition of such ‘sharing’ contingent on both parties, the one to share and the other to learn, mutually and reciprocally.

Learning and digesting and coming to terms with the values of another person, in and of itself, is a pathway to enhanced intimacy that too many couples either avoid unconsciously or reject as too problematic. And it is in this part of the potential conversation that the question of the male’s engagement pertains especially.
Demanding such a conversation will clearly sabotage the desired result of even beginning. Walking away from the potential of such a conversation, too, will render its potential mute, as well as the feeling of relevance and need on the part of one of the participants.

And there is a dramatic difference between “housekeeping” details, plans, end results and how to plan and execute the budget, and the meeting and greeting and welcoming the world view of the other. The former is so relatively easy and uncomplicated that it frequently substitutes for deepening the relationship. It is not for the purpose of a rejection of the world view of the other, but rather how each can learn and grow from such an exchange, that such a proposition is offered.

Is the posing of such a complicated end result, the open, disclosive and vulnerable sharing of attitudes, beliefs, fears, dreams and expectations, in all their ambiguities, by each partner in an intimate relationship by itself a proposition unworthy of consideration in the contemporary culture of male-female relationships?
Is the question of male “inclusivity” appropriately considered within the context of such a proposition? Is the potential for male self-sabotage increased by the proposition? Would the female confronted with such a proposition automatically consider it offensive, and determinative of a close to any possibility of a relationship with such a male? Is this another of the many unanswered and complex questions that overhang the issues of gender relationships?

Is the masculine world view, as expressed in such a proposition, so anathema to the authentic world view of women that it belongs only to the male demographic?
So often, men look at the situation facing a group, a family, an organization from a “gestalt” or macro-perspective, and find ourselves engaged in a conversation about the immediate impact of such a ‘ridiculous’ proposition (because it is so impractical, costly, and complicated and wholistic) that we feel redundant, and irrelevant, if not actually irresponsible.

One of the leadership texts entitled, “The Learning Organization,” coming out of M.I.T., recommends to leaders facing an organizational conundrum to ask the question “Why?” a minimum of five times in order to better understand the root of the problem(s). Such a recommendation would be generally considered to have originated in a “male” culture. It refuses to accept the superficial cause-effect equation that both pervades many cultures, and that reduces many complex issues to facile, glib and thereby ineffectual interventions. Similarly, such a premise of asking “why” five times provokes a kind of wholistic view of the situation, one that could demand more time and more imagination and more resources to remove than a simple trial and error approach would entail.

It is the simplistic “trial-and-error” approach that pervades much of contemporary medical practice, much of the “fix-it” trades and most of the hires a household makes to keep the home functioning….fixing the leaky faucet, repairing the leaky roof, even a treatment plan for a torn tendon in a wrist….and too often passes as the “best we can do.”

Maybe, just maybe, this piece is facing a more universal reductionism than the question of male emasculation or self-sabotage. Are we all prepared to participate in a culture in which short-term, simplistic, reductionistic and budget-fitting interventions into our personal, familial, organizational and national/international complexities are the best we can expect of ourselves?

Are we prepared to reduce highly complex issues, including intimate gender relationship issues, to a band-aid solution, without expecting or requiring those in our circles to expand their receptivity to a wider and more diverse world view than the one that commands the conventional respect in our respective associations?
Is there a real potential that our continuum “emasculation….self-sabotage” is itself a kind of simplification of issues so complex and so compelling that our deepest imaginations and most profound creativity are and always will be required to address them respectfully, effectively and also intimately?

 Could men, without worrying about their potential emasculation or aggressive over-compensation actually welcome a more inclusive, more complex and more demanding perspective of the emotional, poetic, spiritual and relational aspects of all issues, including the housekeeping requirements and expectations of minimalism that pervades most of the conversations and the attitudes and the beliefs that attempt to inculcate ambiguous and often incomprehensible realities facing each of us daily?

Friday, November 25, 2016

Reflections on male self-sabotage

"Guys have a level of insecurity and vulnerability that’s exponentially bigger than you think. With the primal urge to be alpha comes extreme heartbreak. The harder we fight, the harder we fall." (John Krasinski, film maker, actor in The Office)

Masks of various kinds camouflage our male vulnerability and our softness:

·      a studied taciturn quality that refuses to engage in intensive conversations especially about how we feel;
·      a deliberate burying of our hands and our minds in our latest fix-it challenge
·      an early and profound resistance to physical touch
·      an even earlier distaste for all girls and anything associated with the feminine
·      an impatience with micromanaging, whether expected of us, or practiced by others
·      resistance to romantic movies, novels, television shows
·      refusal even to consider attending fashion shows
·      resistance to formal attire unless dictated by our accomplishment like a graduation, or a formal passage into another professional realm
·      any admission or acknowledgement of our vulnerability, softness, tendency to cry, or any specific fear

Clear exceptions to these “hard-assed” and “hard-nosed” preferences include:
·      all new dads are literally “putty” in their sons’ and daughters’ hands, and somewhat ironically, softer putty with our daughters;
·      a deep and profound expression of compassion at a tragic event that injures, maims or kills even a single person;
·      a profound and protracted silence and period of solitude when we have been deeply hurt by the death of a family member, a divorce, a firing, a termination even through “downsizing” where no demonstrated “fault” is evident;
·      any evidence of injustice, clearly a wrong judgement of anyone close to us, when while we deeply want to set the world right, we bite our lips, often so hard we make them bleed;
·      the moment when we are rejected especially by someone we believe we have fallen in love with, or even one with whom we have envisaged spending the rest of our life;
·      the moment we see someone in distress….

Over the last couple of decades, we have often heard the phrase “an evolved man” as an expression, often by females, to indicate a man who has begun to emerge from his “hard-assed” cocoon, and has shown signs of his “butterfly” wings. Almost without exception, such a man is more attractive to many women, especially those who have been suffocating in a relationship with the macho stereotype.

And how did that stereotype come about?

It started very early in our lives. Our mothers, for starters spent much less time holding us and looking into our eyes than they spent with their daughters. Our mothers, you see were also conditioned not to raise boys who would be considered “wimps” or more gutterally “fags” …..that would be the most offensive result of a mother’s parenting, at least for much of the last century in North America. Hockey equipment was on the Christmas wish list for many young boys, at least in Canada where hockey is considered the ‘national sport’. Learning to skate, on “hockey skates” was an imperative for all parents to foster, encourage and fund. Piano lessons on the other hand, were for their daughters, as were dance lessons, dolls, make-up, tea parties, and finely embroidered dresses. The roots of these stereotypes spilled over into the family’s choice of movies and television shows.
I recall  months if not years of Friday evenings when I escaped to the grocery store for the week’s supplies, while three daughters and their mother sat glued to the television and the soap, Dallas. I did not approve then and, being outnumbered and preferring not to cause another scene, chose to let the issue go. Was I being impotent, emasculated or merely realistic? My real issue was that one of those daughters was a mere fir or six years old, while her  sisters were pre-teen and adolescent respectively.

“The harder we fight, the harder we fall”.

Fighting, once we have graduated from the school yard, and even the high school gym and football field, takes on a different complexion. Rather than our fists, or our shoulders, or the speed of our feet and the dexterity of our hands, our latter fights are frequently focused on winning a competition for a chosen female partner, winning a competition for a coveted job, winning a competition for class president, or perhaps taking on the local council about some perceived injustice. We are, it seems, more willing and able to take a rational, measured and detached approach in matters that do not impact our personal relationships, matters that we have some training, modelling and experience in pursuing.

It is in the arena of personal relationships, where we believe everything we are, everything we believe, everything we hope and dream for, everything we have ever imagined for our future that is encapsulated in our pursuit of a life partner. This is also the area of our lives in which we have the least formal education and the least full and frank discussion with our fathers, who themselves burdened with having to have made their own mistakes (of which they are not proud). “Every guy has to find his own way and to make his own mistakes” is a mantra that hangs in the unconscious of most North American men. Not interfering in the life choices of another is another prominent, if reprehensible, trait of our “individualistic” culture.

 Even if the culture wishes to think it is offering a blank slate to its young men, there is nothing counter-intuitive, or even contradictory between that goal and the concept of some detailed and interesting biographies of men, to male classes in health and physical education, dedicated specifically to the subject of forming healthy relationships with women. I learned, for example, from my aunts, that their brother, my father, was quite impressed with his future mother-in-law prior to his marriage to my mother. And from their perspective, his was a mis-directed affection and appreciation, because as his life unfolded, he had clearly not married his mother-in-law. On the other hand, our family history abounds with stories about my father’s mother, a kindergarten teacher who, apparently, never discarded her classroom in the rest of her highly controlling attitudes throughout her life.

And herein lies one of the most dangerous patterns in male pursuit of life partners: the unconscious “marrying your mother” phenomenon. After all, mother is the primary model of WOMAN the young boy experiences, and those experiences are deeply imprinted on his mind, his heart and his spirit. Consequently, it is not surprising that, while transitioning into adulthood, without his even being aware of the roots of his picture of the ideal partner, his mother will play a significant, if silent and absent, role in his choices. The other side of this coin is the modelling of his father, for better or worse.

If his father struggled with a dominant and oppressive wife, without either knowing now to confront such behaviour and attitudes, or perhaps making the choice of “peaceful detachment” (to avoid the hated and despised confrontations) which can and often does morph into the even more detested “passive aggressive” approach.

This passive aggressive approach by the father, faced with a dominatrix, conveys several messages. One is a message of peace-keeping as the role and responsibility of the male adult in the home. Another message is that when confronted with turbulent emotions, the male is clearly well advised to calm the waters so that the family can hold together. Another message is the evident disappointment of the wife/mother in her choice of life partner for his “lack of spine” in his withdrawal from all confrontations, challenges and quarrels, as push-back and as further evidence of his “engagement” with the real emotions and expressed principles that operate in his marriage. Missed for its cogency and relevance when going through adolescence is the concept of “projection” by which at least parent unconsciously projects either or both their worst fears and highest dreams on their child. That dynamic, by itself, is so confounding for an adolescent as to be crazy-making. These are just a few of the potential currents that might shape a young male. In all families, there is a cauldron of emotional currents churning depending on the pattern of dominant and recessive adult and the available escape routes for the child, depending also on whether the child is male or female.

And regardless of the choice of issues, the roles of each respective parent and the outcomes of the “power struggles,” we all know that “power” and how it is worked out, shared, compromised, mediated, moderated, and finally executed is at the heart of the family dynamics. And power is often substituted for “respect” and for “equality” and even for “kindness and love”. I feel more loved if my thoughts, feelings, words, attitudes and beliefs are honoured, engaged with, discussed, reflected upon, and embraced, whether or not those expressions of my being are actually ones with which the other can agree. The same is true for most men and women.

And yet, it is the women who have, for most of history, engaged with other women in processes that develop the skills and the openness to exploring such personal (and for males emotional) issues. They have hours of engagement with other women, from very early years, in the very processes on which human lives develop, grow and survive. Men, on the other hand, have spent many more hours on their bikes, hunting or fishing, on the athletic practice fields or gymnasia, physically developing a very different set of “muscles” and life patterns. This fundamental difference is not, however, designed by either gender to “better” the other. It is merely a part of the hard wiring of each. And to demean or to ridicule the early patterns of either gender by the other is one of the cultural mis-steps that ripples through the lives of many male-female relationships. For women to disdain the pursuits and the interests of their male counterparts, (unless and until those interests become obsessions) is just as counter-intuitive as for men to turn their noses up at the invitation to a ‘chick flick” from their female friends, lovers or life partners. Competition on these issues between males and females is so destructive to the  “real politic” of gender relationships.

So, let’s look at the glaring gap in our culture that leaves men gasping for guidance and mentoring and leadership and seasoning that could only come from formal and informal structures that make it comfortable and convenient for young men to have access to the wisdom of men of their father’s and their grandfather’s ages. This is such a glaring and deliberate omission from our cultural, political and social structures as to be an indictment on the culture itself.

We are failing our young men in so many ways and we are paying a very high price for our sins of omission. And we are all implicated in the failure. Just to start with the notion that “men do not need mentoring, coaching, leadership and seasoning from other men” is a denial of reality, in which we are all complicit. And although there have been some penetrating initiatives over the last couple of decades to provide young men with senior mentors, primarily through athletic pursuits, young men still face a dry and vacant desert especially when they attempt to “fight” for more than they can achieve.

How would they ever know they were over-reaching? Let’s not forget the over-arching archetype of the “hero” that still hangs from the clouds, both the one’s hanging in the sky “for the poet’s eye” (thanks to Neil Diamond), and the more recent digital storage bin. History is filled with stories of men who fought for decades, if not their whole lives to nurture, sustain and maintain their marriage, without really knowing either their part in its potential crash, or the skills needed for them to play a constructive role in getting it back on track, once it has slipped off. Therapy, while more available and free of the kind of social embarrassment it once evoked, is only as effective as the participants let it be.

And here is the real “rub”….fighting with everything we have for the most important “project” or relationship of our life, however, raises the potential that such intensity is the seed of its own ironic failure.

It is masculine intensity, for my seven-plus decades, that takes the greatest toll on human relationships….especially in circles of education, theology, social service, community building and political parties…..at least in this country. Told elsewhere in this space is a story I recount probably too often: A supervisor when I was a ministry intern once commented, “You are far too intense for me!” to which I blurted, “I am also too bald so deal with it!”

There is a kind of biochemistry for some men, including this scribe, that bursts through the haze and the fog of social normalcy and decorum when we are inspired, surprised, welcomed and embraced. We have experienced so few such moments that, when one erupts, we simply and unconsciously let “fly” with our emotions. Similarly, when we witness an injustice, even if we are in a “new” situation, we are “undisciplined” enough to express our perceptions, often to the shock and chagrin of those in the room. Unschooled in the easy use of diplomatic discourse, having witnessed it mostly from the television screen, or in lectures at college, and not from our family of origin, we are “rough-hewn like the pine that forms the structure for valued and beautiful furniture. However, unlike the pine, we are not regarded as either valued or beautiful, but rather uncouth, ill-bred and “too intense”.

This kind of “over-shooting” our target, is a kind of hubristic blindness, given our total commitment to the cause and our intimate complicity in the absolute opposite result to our initial intent, purpose and dream. 

There is a kind of kernel of insight here, that pertains to so many situations faced by men: self-acceptance, self-confidence, self-belief and a firmness in our ability to do the thing that needs to be done as it can only be done by us at this moment, would see more strike-outs by baseball pitchers, more goals by rookies in the NHL, more contracts from salesmen, more judicial victories in the courtroom, and fewer lost instruments in the O.R. It is the lack of these traits that invariably pushes men too far, and subverts their authentic and legitimate and worthy ambition. And it happens on every street in every town and city every day….and the more we work to reduce its impact, the more relationships we will preserve and protect.

Could we have learned the language and the timing and the discernment needed to know when and how to use them when the relationships went “south”? We will never know, for our lives.

Nevertheless, we can and do hope that those young boys and young men who follow us will be equipped with the perceptions, attitudes, self-images and the skills to search for and to find, and then to nurture relationships of mutual respect, mutual adoration and mutual vulnerability.

That kind of shared vulnerability holds much promise for a healthy collaborative resolution to most if not all conflicts. And it is qualitatively different from the kind of vulnerability that is exposed when we “fight for all we’re worth” and fall flat on our face, invariably and inevitably.

As Red Green reminds us, “We all in this together, and we’re pulling for you!” (to all the men who participated in their own sabotage!)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Reflections on FRIENDSHIP

In a culture of accomplishments, achievements, and especially of transactions, one of the most expensive prices we all pay is the real and potential loss, by-pass, ignoring, discarding or even rejection of FRIENDSHIP. Many are so fixated on developing our resume, complete with multiple references, while dealing with the daily duties of career, parenting, networking and perhaps even recreation that the time actually required for friendship to develop, unless one is in a restricted space for a long time with others equally confined, is unavailable. Another way of saying this is to say that we make the choices that make friendship unlikely.

Nevertheless, friendship is not only a sine qua non of each of our lives; it is also essential for each other person of our acquaintance. And yet, friendship is not “another business contract”. How often have we heard the phrase, from business and professional careerists, “I have to deal with that person but I do not have to become a friend with that person.”

Friendship expects many of the same responses we initially offer. Of course, checking in to find out how we are (really) doing is a good beginning. And after that…..well what kind of time is available to really explore mutual interests, or even to discover if there are any? And if we find an interest that another explores, how might it be possible to find a connection point to have a real conversation about more that the weather, the Trumpocalypse, the rising or falling price of gas, or the latest sports score?

Canadians are renowned for our determined and deliberate avoidance of topics that might arouse conflict, especially politics or religion. We are so acculturated into a mind-set that anyone who invades our private space by presuming to ask our real opinions about something we have not already “been public” about is considered invasive, presumptuous, aggressive, impolitic, and a “shit disturber”. This dynamic is especially noticeable in a culture born and raised on a diet of parental and pedagogical control. Frightened parents are especially focused on the control of their offspring’s vocabulary as well as their attitudes, not to mention their choices of friends. Those frightened parents are also quite unsettled if their children come home from school with tales about conversations in their class about topics their parents consider “out of bounds”…especially if the conversation in the classroom breaches a parent’s belief system, political ideology or socially compatible attitude.

“Eros has naked bodies; friendship has naked personalities.” (C.S. Lewis)

Here is a perspective that many would believe does not apply to the adolescent classroom. Nevertheless, growing up is a process through which each of us search for and find those attitudes, perspectives and even individuals with whom we seem to feel comfortable and those who make us less than comfortable. Both are potentially part of our pool of friends, depending on how we respond to their words, actions and beliefs. Literature, the compendium of the imaginations of those courageous enough to submit their lives to paper for the centuries, is filled with all of the range of topics, issues, personalities and perspectives we inherit as part of our unique culture. And while exploring the pages of literature we are not only invited to explore our own responses to those topics, personalities and perspectives, especially to compare our views with those of the writer but also compelled to conduct such an intimate exploration.
It is the “naked personalities” that are available through the novels, the plays and the poems that invite us into an albeit somewhat detached and distant “relationship” with those writers. And in that encounter, facilitated by a skillful teacher, adolescents are offered opportunities for both growth and guidance from within their own imaginations. While exploring the characters in the stories, students can speculate, postulate and imagine how they might respond if they were in a similar situation, with similar people.

Befriending authors and/or their characters is another window on friendship, not available on similar terms in real life…Movies too provide similar opportunities, with a much smaller time commitment usually.

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like  art…it has no survival value, rather it is one of those things that give value to survival”……(C.S. Lewis)

Giving value to survival….that is the gift of both the encounter with literature and also with people courageous enough to disclose their vulnerability, in a sacred space of trust, a space in which both parties commit to privacy ad confidentiality.

John Powell, S.J. scholar and double doctorate, once wrote a little book entitled. “Why I don’t tell you who I am” in which he explained that telling another “who I am” is all I have, and if you reject that I have nothing left. Naked personalities, shared in confidence, consequently is a very rare and special experience, one often forfeited by those fearing rejection. Having been on both sides of this equation, the one fearing rejection and also the one who felt like a ghost for never been fully encountered, neither experience is without pain, and a pain that lasts for decades, if not as long as one breathes.

On the other hand, once having fully experienced the kind of friendship of which Lewis would be respectful, a naked sharing of personalities, there is really no other experience so memorable and so rewarding and so life-giving. Sadly, such a relationship is not often available between children and their parents, nor between children and their grandparents. It is not available as a norm between teachers and their students, although that might be more likely, given the intermittent occasions of the encounter. It is clearly not available to most workers with their colleagues, nor with their employers. In the church too, such naked personality sharing is so often encumbered with the encrustation of “perfectionism” being substituted for a legitimate spiritual pilgrimage.

And yet, one’s spiritual life, at least as understood from here, is the most intimate and most vibrant aspect of one’s life: topping one’s intellect, one’s profession, one’s travel, one’s athletic prowess, one’s artistic talents (although one’s imagination is inextricably entwined with one’s spirit). Surely, in order to remain vibrant, one’s spirit has to be engaged in a kind of interactive tension with others, or at least one other, in a mutually committed and mutually “naked” sharing of one’s biography complete with the high’s and low’s, the successes, failures along with the fears, anxieties, aspirations and dreams.

Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat….these are not the instruments, necessarily, of a growing and deepening friendship. They each have limited opportunities to share, and at root area based on a concentration span of perhaps three nanoseconds. “Like” clicked on a photo is like the fickle applause at a rock concert, not the kind of evidence on which a developing friendship depends.

Is there anyone out there who shares a deep scepticism about the kinds of human interactions our culture fosters? Is there anyone else who shares an acknowledged and too often unfed appetite for friendship that gives real value to survival?
Of course there are likely millions who are quietly nurturing friendships which elevate their very survival to one worthy of considerable energy, commitment and passion.

That dynamic is like a beacon in an otherwise dark night of political, economic, academic and religious ambition. Let’s hope and envision the beacon’s light growing brighter, not fading, at a time when “what have you done for me lately?” is the test too many human encounters function upon.