Monday, March 16, 2020

#58 Men, agents of and pathway to cultural metanoia (Reflections on loneliness and alienation)


Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone; solitude expresses the glory of being alone. (Paul Tillich)

Like others, feeling lonely, especially in youth, seems unbearable, given the apparent excitement that accompanies the phone call asking if you want to “hang out” or the knock on the door wondering if you can ‘come out to play’ or, today,  the text asking, ‘how’re u doing?’ The natural and necessary process of learning to relate, to explore relationships is the sine qua non of adolescence. All of that stuff of doing those assignments, signing up for the various teams and clubs, the training for the various competitions, and even signing up for a curricular schedule…all of it touches upon and brings flesh, breath and interactive engagements into full bloom. We note the nuanced expressions on the faces of our siblings, our parents, teachers, coaches and officials whenever we are engaged with any of them. We do not necessarily ‘discuss’ our reactions to each of those raised eye brows, wrinkled noses, barked insults, or even those occasional cheers for something we said or did. Nevertheless, we store each and every one of them in the software of our memory, building a bank of memories that shape us, guide us, and even teach us about how and when and by whom we were bruised, teased, ridiculed, embarrassed and especially rejected.

Each of us has a permanent “film” that is readily recalled if and when another ‘strike’ is swung that seems to be “against” us, however we perceive opposition. It could simply be a parent saying “No” to a simple request. It could be a warning shot of intimidation from a jealous classmate. It could be a look of disdain and anger or contempt at a shared joke that fell flat on its face. It could be merely a  tease about our name, our body shape, our activity/identity profile (nerds for techies; artsy-fartsy for artists, musicians, actors, dancers; egg-heads for scholarship; and something racial for ethic differences, the epithets abound here!)

Bullying, separation, segregation, isolation, whether in person or more recently digitally, expresses how others seek the illusion of power, when authentic expressions of support and appreciation seem unduly “adult” and “stiff” and totally outside the boundaries of “the insiders”. Adolescent, especially masculine, bonding depends on dissing and being ready to diss back, as a way of using irony and satire to show “respect”. Not being “inside the circle” where such dissing/bonding is the norm, is a sure sign of exclusion, felt by every single adolescent in every culture, who is different. And different is defined uniquely by the range and the depth of “the imagination of each neighbourhood culture.

Theoretically, the argument goes that each of these “barbs” toughens the skin of the recipient, thereby justifying its deep embeddedness in our social and cultural attitudes and behaviours. Other times, dissing goes too far, alienating its object, and reinforcing the separation of “the other” (as each group defines him or her) from the group. Occasionally, (thankfully) bullying, dissing, and character assassination sends the target over the edge, and then all hell erupts, as it should.

The goal of developing “healthy” independent, self-respecting young adults, on its surface, merits consideration, so long as along with this goal is an accompanying and requisite grace, slack, openness, and tolerance of differences that do not harm injure or impede the growth of the outsider. In adolescence, however, that “grace” is often undeveloped, missing, or even disdained itself as being too “feminine” or “weak” or “sickly” or even “immature.”

Reading Max Domi’s biography, recently, reminded me of the lengths to which an adolescent, plagued by both type 1 diabetes and also celiac disease, will go to “fit in” to the culture of minor hockey, junior hockey, and finally the NHL. Hiding juice from his team-mates, until they learned the full story, for example, is only a minor example of his secrecy in managing both his condition and his social/team standing. It is not that those who do not face similar conditions would not, or could not understand. And remarkable feature of his story is that many friends, team-mates, coaches, trainers, and later executives and managers, along with parents and surrogate parents, proved to be the supportive network that enabled his early, intermediate and professional success. Even his dog Orion can detect the changes in his body’s insulin levels, and trigger Max’s need for self-treatment. No weakling, no outsider and no more-valued team-mate is this current Montreal Canadien. Yet, it was never smooth, easy nor predictable for the young son of former Toronto Maple Leaf, Tie Domi.

Nevertheless, organizations like professional athletic teams, corporations, schools, and government departments and social service agencies, hospitals, colleges, seek individuals who have developed a capacity known as “team-players” with the capacity to initiate, to demonstrate self-discipline, and to work “inside” the culture of the organization. Fitting in has become so significant to the “brand” of an organization that recently an athletic coach who tweeted comments about the manner in which another university had dealt with their athletic coach’s case was fired for expressing those comments.

Compliance with the protocols, including the public expressions of opinions, comes with a price, both for each individual holding and expressing opinions deemed inadmissible by the organization, and ultimately for the strength and credibility of the organization. Belonging to and serving at the pleasure of the organization has taken on a whole new meaning in the last few decades. The individual opinions of an individual apparently belong on the editorial pages of the local newspaper, a platform reserved in many communities for those considered especially “grumpy” and “fossilized” or “activist” and “ideologues” or “politically ambitious”. In many communities, the local paper has merely faded into oblivion,  been sold to a mega-corporation, or morphed into a facebook page of venom by a sore loser politician.

Individualism, as a benchmark of a culture, has shifted both to the right and to the left, in a pattern similar to our political culture: on the right, it is highly conformist to an authoritarian, traditionalist, conservative viewpoint, often also highly populist, or it is deeply committed to a radical, left-leaning, transformational and sometimes even apocalyptic perspective.

A few editorial writers try to observe and preserve a balance in their viewpoint pieces, for example, endorsing professional and healthy government interventions to restrict the spread of COVID-19, while also endorsing significant government spending to support the potential and real victims of the disease.

It is the disease itself that elevates the dichotomy of both our “extreme inter-dependence” as well as our extreme isolation, and potential loneliness, alienation and anxiety.

Each of us, in our unique moments of loss, failure, rejection, firing, divorce, alienation and despair know intimately of the pain of such moments, the lingering fears of those moments of despair returning, or being evoked by additional similar moments. Each of us also knows of the names and the faces and the voices of those on whose shoulders we have walked in order to be still putting one foot in front of the other. We are each conscious of the gifts and the risks of both extremes. And we also know that, in that consciousness, we seek to live, to create, to help, to support and to take care of ourselves.

Bruce Springsteen, in a book published in 2013, Springsteen on Springsteen, “speaks of a troubled adolescence, describing himself as a ‘dreamer,’ ‘one of the town freaks’, and a ‘misfit who was pretty ostracized by my hometown’. He says he was a ‘sensitive kid’ who had the ‘devastating experience of not being accepted by my father’. He said of his father, ‘he was a pretty good pool player and not much else’.” (From The Telegraph, August 24, 2015) Having listened to critics who trashed his music, and others who thought he was the ‘second coming of Christ’, (CBC, “q” yesterday), Springsteen carries on doing what he does, as a role model for each of us, especially when our shared future’s horizon is so clouded.

There is a significant “rub” when one hears what can only be interpreted as rejection, especially while attempting to support the transformation of a culture of self-sabotage, and the strength, commitment and energy to continue to “spit against the wind” as the title of the novel about Tomas Paine has it.

And the wind of the prevailing establishment culture will always prevail against the isolated voices of those committed to ‘spitting’ against that force. And the voices of those committed to ‘spitting’ need the support of others who, themselves, are also committed to ‘spitting’ against the prevailing and dangerous, self-sabotaging cultural winds.

Some of those unique, isolated, and even alienated voices write novels like The Handmaid’s Tale and Testaments and win literary prizes, thereby becoming not merely highly valued and accepted by a sizeable segment of contemporary culture. Some others, like Malcolm Gladwell, write about how more is gained, socially and personally by trusting others than by “fearing strangers”. In many small groups, however, the prevailing attitude to the newcomer, especially if that newcomer is not visibly different, not from a different ethnicity or race (being deferential to other races in small communities is virtually mandated), is resistant, often fearful and certainly restrained. This is especially so if the newcomer has a few small yet useful notions that might merit consideration, and even puts them out rather energetically.

We all remember Bobby Kenendy’s evoking of Bernard Shaw’s quote in his presidential campaign:

Some men see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.

It is that concept that both injects new ink into the blotter of the local community, and also threatens to estrange its spokesperson from the opportunity to participate.
Men, especially those deeply embedded in what can only be called the establishment of any community, corporation, church, service club or athletic team or even sport, are deeply loyal to the traditions of that entity. Loyalty to those traditions offers comfort, acceptance, solidarity, and the opportunity to engage with others in common efforts. Men who are not easily and comfortably fitted to the depth and degree of loyalty to how things are done here, and who, like Mesrs. Shaw and Kennedy, ‘dream’ and ask ‘why not’ are frequently passed over, left out and designated as trouble-makers.

It is the motives of such men (and women), especially, that are least known and least investigated. Such investigation, of course, takes time, patience, curiosity and a degree of tolerance for the unknown that is least tolerated and baked into the ‘cakes’ of group culture. Given that young men are so well indoctrinated into a masculinity of ironic ‘dissing’ at a very early age, and that competition is so deeply embedded in a capitalist, corporatist and “insider/outsider” culture that relies on gate-keeping enforcers, it is little wonder that Bernie Sanders will be a footnote to the history of the Democratic Party and a footnote to the presidential campaign history of the United States.
·        His refusal to take our membership in any political party, illustrating a lengthy vision of political disinterested disaffection and lack loyalty to both political parties in the U.S. and....

·        His refusal to adopt the prevailing campaign financing practices, as well as his outright disavowal of the rule of the oligarchy,
·        His open advocacy of health care for all as a human right,
·        His open advocacy of free college tuition for all eligible candidates
·        His open advocacy for serious cuts to Pentagon budgets and the American penchant for war and
·        His outright call for a political revolution on behalf of the 99%

All of these positions point to his ultimate rejection by the mainstream American voter, especially given the obvious cover reason that “defeating trump” is the national scream of a majority of Americans.

Whether there is room in the Biden mind and organization for the millions of young people who support Sanders, and a demonstrable integration of the Sanders positions into a new, evolved Democratic party platform remains to be seen. What is not in question is that the Republican opponent will besmirch all Democrats with name-calling like “communists” and “socialists” and “immigrant-apologists” and “anarchists.”

Can the American people come together in a conclusive and final ostracizing of the ultimate “alien” who currently occupies the Oval Office? If so, we could witness one time when a common perception by the middle could, as the exception, prove the rule that the outsider is indeed valuable and needed.

As one septuagenarian, I thoroughly appreciate the glory of solitude, and the conviction in my own ‘dream’ of asking ‘why not’ in the face of fossilized and unquestioned and dysfunctional traditions.

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