Wednesday, March 25, 2020

#62 Men, agents of and pathway to cultural metanoia (speaking our truth)


There are times when an incisive nugget of wisdom goes a long way to helping sort out rejection, alienation and disappointment.

Dr. Seuss: Be who you are and say how you feel because those who mind don’t matter. And those who matter don’t mind. You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose. A person’s a person, no matter how small.

When both political correctness and social and cultural cohesion are both constricting imagination, and elevating “process” to the top of the totem pole in too many conversations, there is a real danger that we will fall on our own swords, victims of our own clinging to something we like to call perfection, really just a kind of snobbery and elitism that one can witness and certainly smell in polite company.

I have read dozens of pages of “do’s and don’t’s” in an offer for a position that simply provoked an immediate rejection of the offer. Those preparing  and offering immediately responded by declaring that they had sent the ‘wrong’ draft of the proposal. It didn’t matter; to associate with, and to comply with and to agree to serve under conditions that first insulted the candidate, second, covered the ass of every person on the ‘board’ of that agency, and third tied anyone compliant enough to sign on into knots simply trying to figure out what one “could” or “could not” do.

Tying up too many of our thoughts, policies, dreams and ambitions into both the language and the attitudes that befit only the lawyers and the accountants is like a grade one teacher telling a fit six-year-old boy to stop running around the playground. We need lawyers and accountants. And we also need to keep them in their place….not at the front of the line in determining cultural norms, not at the front of the line in setting the parameters for our thinking, our discussions, and our planning and leading. Aiding and abetting the “legal/accounting mindset, is the cultural norm of seniority, rendering all ‘new’ ideas, and especially those new people who might dare to utter them, or merely to ask why something is being done this way both irrelevant and worse, dismissive. Gate-keepers, “old boys,” or any of the many other self-appointed custodians of propriety, including the hierarchies in the most insignificant social club to the behemoths are not idols to be worshipped. They are not privy to the best and the brightest ideas, neither of what is to be done, nor of how best it might be done.

And so often, if not in a vast majority of instances, it is the “off-the-wall” comment or question, from the least expected voice that puts things into a perspective previously unconsidered. Colouring inside the lines, is another of the phrases that teachers use to decide whether or not a young boy (and mostly it is the boys who find themselves restrained by those lines) is comporting with the instructions and the desired behaviour. I know that this story has been told before; nevertheless, it bears repeating. A professional psychologist father of a six-year-old asked his son how school went one day, a habit he repeated each and every day. He was especially curious this day because the boy had a star on his art work, very different from any other day. His son’s reply is both memorable and merits billboard signage:

It was fine. The teacher always wants us to colour inside the lines so today, I drew my picture first and then drew the lines.

There is no doubt that such a young boy has already become a worthy, likely somewhat creative, and still curious adult who finds  a way to circumvent the walls that he and all of us find whenever we try to do something, anything, with others.

Just today, in another example of how the world has lost sight of the wisdom in Dr. Seuss’s line above, we learned that South Africa has allotted $3 BILLION to a wall on its border with Zimbabwe, in order to protect itself from COVID-19. There are no recorded cases of COVID-19 in Zimbabwe. And even if there were, those microbes cannot and will not be impeded in their march to infect anyone and everyone within range, by a $300 Billion wall.

Expressions of fear, no matter how legitimate, have to be both uttered and heard. And they also have to be metered by minds, hearts and imaginations that share the fear and seek to address it in compassion, empathy and effective measures based on empirical evidence and the best options available.

Just as the U.S. administration is not merely ruminating, but actually planning to lift the self-isolating measures to mitigate against COVID-19 far too soon, so too is that same administration failing in all of the really significant and legitimate responsibilities it alone holds, in what should be a national effort to minimize the impact of the virus.

And the public performances of people like Drs. Fauci and Berks, while never directly taking aim at the absurdity of the president’s “unhealthy” comments, nevertheless, offer clear and unequivocal guidance and moderation of his comments. Unfortunately, already his misguided “invocation” of a malaria drug, taken in a fatal mistake by a couple in Arizona, has resulted in the death of the husband of that couple and the wife becoming critically ill. Already, the president of the United States, by his irresponsibility, has indirectly generated one documented death, and threatened the life of another. Through his inaction, and his folding his hands of any responsibility, as well as the molasses-like movement of needed ventilators to New York, potentially endangered the lives of hundreds or perhaps even thousands of others.

It is not only by what one says or does, but by what was doesn’t do or doesn’t say that one must be judged. There is literally no bruise or black eye on a man or woman whose spouse has never laid a hand on them, while at the same time, scrupulously remaining withdrawn, hidden, shielded, and cocooned in the relationship. Such “absence” while not legally condemnable, nevertheless  has the impact of eroding the relationship over time. Living with a ghost, as Gordon Lightfoot’s song reminds us, is in a word untenable. And being unable to “see” a ghost in a relationship makes that situation equally unsustainable.

Seeking to emerge from the ghost’s covering sheet, or to try to remove that sheet from another, is a process that only the ghost can achieve. Of course, saying what one truly feels, thinks, believes is risky. It could mean that a dialogue might ensue, in and through which both partners actually get to know each other. It could also risk the foundations of the relationship, built as it might very well be, on phantom images of illusory and ephemeral attractiveness, ambition, responsibility and play-acting. And, in that case, discovering the illusion could well endanger the relationship. Built as it might be on the mirage of duty, for example, and being mired in the details of excessive activity, the underlying “truth” might go undetected for decades, if not a whole lifetime.

That game of appearances, keeping up with the Joneses, or climbing the corporate, academic, medical, legal, accounting, political career ladder, can consume most if not all of one’s energies, in what looks like a highly responsible, and certainly socially respectable manner. Underneath that frenetic pace, however, could lie a frenzy of a very different kind, that kind that, like the white noise or ringing of a tinnitus, refuses to be silent, repeating in its own inimitable pitch, “I am living alone among others. No one knows who I am, or even cares to get to know who I am. And I am going nuts in my own isolation. This is a dessert, parched, dry, and highly demanding, without an ounce of the oasis of being really known.”

Saying such words to oneself, however, is very different from uttering them to another, any other, but especially to THE other with whom one is in relationship. And, thereby, it is almost inescapable that one can become caught between a rock and a hard place: disclosing one’s inner truth and risking total rejection, or repressing one’s truth and risking something a nuanced as “quitting and staying”…going on indefinitely without actually showing up emotionally, or even cognitively.

So, it is not only for young children that Dr. Seuss wrote. His words have an even deeper potential impact on many adults caught in a vortex of duties, responsibilities, expectations, and self-imposed (“perhaps other-implied-and enforced) silences. Most of us are not “stupid” enough to be unaware of the complexities of our situations. We know, for example, if and when a significant other is “showing up” or when s/he is going through the motions of doing all the appropriate things, without fully engaging either in the activities or in the relationships inside the home. And there is also the case when the individual making the loudest noises, doing the most “work” is masking a deep and malevolent contempt for the other partner, without disclosing such contempt, until, for example, after the burial of that other. Silence cannot be assumed to be a sign of absence; absence might just as well be conveyed through whirlwinds of busyness, especially if that busyness is covered in self-declared martyrdom. “No one ever helps around here!” is one of the favourite lines of a ghost lost in his or her own sheet of blindness, especially when all hands are already on deck for whatever chores need to be done.

Most of us have, at one time or another, been in situations when it seemed that a ghost was the other person in the relationship. Also, in some situations, we have become Lightfoot’s ghost, as our only perceived way to endure the ice.

Speaking up, saying what we truly feel, these are not the things that men, especially are either trained or proficient in doing. We are trained, indoctrinated, in the matters of how to fix things, how to accomplish things, how to make things happen, how to score a goal, shoot a basket, catch a ball, chop a tree, carve a piece of wood, change the oil, fix a tire, even wash the dishes. And all of that stuff about how we “feel” has for centuries been allocated, at least in our masculine world, to the mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, grandmothers, wives and girl-friends in our lives. We almost unconsciously exhibit our emotions in how we carry our bodies, how we lift our eyebrows, how we wrinkle our lips, or tilt our heads. Slow movement, while often illustrative of fatigue, can be a sure sign of depression, without our sometimes even being aware of that.
There are men reading this who might take offence at having Dr. Seuss as a healthy reference for an evolved masculinity. There may even be women who are similarly offended. No offence is either contemplated nor projected.

In a sophisticated world of millions of new scientific discoveries, environmental projections, political and cultural winds vectoring around and through each of us, it seems timely to reflect on some of the ways by which we, especially as men, sabotage ourselves, our families, our neighbourhoods, and our world.

This is no time for us to be engaging in either conscious or unconscious sabotage. It is a time, as Governor Andrew Cuomo is demonstrating, for us to tell our full truths, and for us to grow even more fulsome in the telling, in order that our immediate, as well as our medium and long-term exigencies profit from our best minds, our deepest hearts and our most courageous examples.

It is not only through our words, but through our unique observations, perceptions and recommendations that we generate the “gross national products” of our lives….and they can certainly not be reduced to a single number that indicates the health of our economy. Underlying every piece of machinery, every laptop, every Vocera device, every television camera, and every piece of “recovery” legislation, there are voices seeking to be found, heard and respected.

And because we all have a voice, none of us can be silenced, except by our own surrender.

And we must never surrender to a microbe, to a tyrant, or to a ghost, inside us or sitting at the kitchen table.

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