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… 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!)


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