Males struggle with how, when, why and even whether to “speak up” for themselves, especially in personal relationships. Such a bald statement, without a r basis in experience, both personal and professional, however, rings hollow.
Raised in a family in which the matriarch dominated, I wondered often to my father, and even more secretly to myself, why the “boat” always tilted in her direction. Her judgements, her accusations, her insults, her absolutes were counterpointed by a stuttering, genial, compliant, hard-working and intellectually brilliant hardware store manager. Power, in the form of a loud soprano voice, somewhat trained, as well as incarnated by a short, stout nurse graduate of St. Michael’s Hospital nursing school in 1931, seemed symbolized by excess: volume, energy, generosity, a complete lack of ambiguity, a refusal to compromise, and an even more deeply embedded in a refusal to apologize, or even to recognize the emotional, psychological abuse she was inflicting while paradoxically serving sumptuous, and even elegant cholesterol-filled meals.
In other spaces is retold the story of my father’s acknowledgement to me, “You were raised by Hitler and Chamberlain!” (He claimed responsibility for his iteration of the latter.) The imbalance in that archetypal equation at the fulcrum of the twentieth century has continued to ripple, if not rumbled not only through one home but also shines light on so many other repetitions of the theme, in a biography stretching three-quarters of a century.
Lacking formal education in psychiatry, and drawing a fence around what I feel barely competent to address, I have and continue to attempt to parse the male side of this equation. Observing and listening to my father’s pronounced stutter in our home, and trying to reconcile the almost complete absence of that speech impediment while dealing with co-workers, customers, salesmen, and supervisors has offered a well of potential explanations, none of which qualify as either final or clinical.
Was it fear of his spouse that impeded the flow of air over his larynx, and the resulting stammer only to have his pre-teen son jumping in to “sub” with what I thought might be the missing word? Was I embarrassed or merely supportive of his struggle? Never did I hear a word of reprimand for my interjections from him, only a nod in confirmation of the missing component of his sentence. And imitating father is one of the things young boys do, I followed his pattern, silently walking away after confronting my mother about her smoking habit, only to hear her rebuttal: “If God had not wanted us to smoke, He would not have created tobacco.” My silence rings loud in memory, all these sixty years on.
And then there were the incidents in which my father’s self-repression, and seeming inability to access the appropriate words to counter something she said with which he did not concur, erupted in what would have been a violent strike, except it was blocked by my own spontaneous blow to his ribs, as he reached across the ironing board to strike her. Passive aggression had suddenly let go, like a boat stripped from her mooring in a strong wind.
In a turbulent period in my first marriage, a therapist ‘diagnosed’ the problem as one of ‘communication’ to which I, tragically, and privately responded, “That hardly gets to the root of the problem, and seems to address only the most superficial symptom…that we were, and had been, talking past each other.
A half century later, however, and far too late to redeem that relationship, it ‘dons’ on me that communication was only the ‘name’ given to the dynamic, while underlying that apparently superficial and conventional and even ordinary word there lay multiple layers of temperament, culture, education, family history and world view of my then spouse and me.
And a similar layering of background influences comprised the roots of the persistent, and often violent conflict between my two parents. As an only child living for her first nine years in a boxcar in Brent, on the northern edge of Algonquin Park, while her father served as manager of the Roundhouse operated by the Canadian National Railways, her friends were her springer spaniel and her dolls, along with the occasional summer visitor to their fishing camp. Socializing consisted of bi-monthly rides in a gas car on the rails into North Bay for provisions, accompanied by parents and dog. Having to integrate and collaborate and compete and surrender and compromise with siblings, or even with friends were all ‘foreign’ to her concept of the world and how it worked.
On the other hand, dad was the son of a Baptist clergy whose various postings took him from Alvinston to Burgessville to Thornbury and finally to my home town. The eldest of four, he had only a few years of solitude, accepted responsibility for “older brother” care of his siblings, and observed a ‘religious’ family in which all siblings later reported, “Never did we see or hear a conflict between our parents.” Was passive aggressive behaviour of his father the incubator for his own excessive deference to his spouse? Or was the family of origin experience repeated when, according to hubristic reports from his wife, decades later, she proudly announced after attending a social gathering where alcohol flowed freely, “It is either the booze or our marriage: you can’t have both…so you have to choose!” Did this declaration of a non-negotiable boundary inflict a kind of “chain of command” discipline that generated his sobriety and his stammer?
Naturally, as an adult, deeply deployed in retail in a small town, catering to local and summer tourists from the United States, he was expected to display a discipline of respect, tolerance, and even generosity while negotiating sales often of substantial amounts, given the inventory of building supplies the company carried. Similarly, as a practicing nurse with hospital and home-based patients, care, compassion, attention to detail and a high level of personal and professional discipline governed her routines. Not infrequently she would experience an angry outburst of a doctor whose orders had not been followed to the letter by the nursing staff, an experience that could only have emboldened her own angry and violent outbursts at home if and when her wishes were not fulfilled.
A narrative dotted with multiple chapters of domestic violence, physical and emotional abuse of both spouse and children by our mother, while absent examples of negotiations, compromises, collaborations (except of the physical labour variety in gardening, decorating, and the occasional social event) produces an adult “sausage” bereft of modelling in those highly nuanced, and even more highly valued social skills. Shaped on a desert of conflict, individual silo’s of parents deeply divided even about the value of sports, and a religious practice that oscillated between father’s never uttering a bad word about anyone, and mother’s preference to defame anyone whose lifestyle she abhorred, I have taken decades to ponder my own oscillation* between obsequiousness and defiance and the verdant terrain in between.
Comforted by neither sycophancy nor outright defiance, I have planted seeds of both among various contexts in which I have been engaged. Naturally, too, those under whose charge I served, were unable to predict if and when one or other response might greet their decisions. Free-lance journalism offered a reasonable and even somewhat responsible outlet for the ‘critic’ to find a voice, while assessing the relative merits of municipal policy and practicing politicians, and by consuming considerable energy, also provided a method of avoidance, denial and/or repression of what must have been opportunities to express needs, disagreements, negotiations, and collaborations. As a classroom English instructor, fostering the search for and the discovery of the students’ voices provided multiple opportunities to concentrate on the “other’s” growth and development, without having to focus on my own. So my own authentic appreciation of the opportunity to participate in what was in the decades of the sixties, seventies and eighties, an exciting and energizing profession further consumed much of my energy, while neglecting to develop those skills still absent of personal reflection, personal responsibility, the willingness to listen actively and deeply to the needs, emotions and aspirations of the other, whether a child or spouse.
And after two-plus decades of what now seems obsessive engagement in activity, writing, coaching, interviewing, teaching, I came to a moment when I asked, “The pattern of this hyper-activity seems too driven to be either healthy or sustainable; I need to step away into a different ethos where I will look within to find out what is driving me.”
And stepping away, of course, gave multiple opportunities both to reflect on my own narrative, and to observe the narratives of others, professors, bishops, lay leaders, political aspirants, candidates, and leaders, all from a new perspective.
And the decades of those experiences and reflections have brought me to the place where I now question how my father’s passive-aggressive sycophancy and obsequiousness played a part in my mother’s seemingly compulsive anger, irritability, annoyance, judgement, dissatisfaction and downright abuse of herself and her family. Her self-sabotage abounded repeatedly in her deployment of her excess energy, as well as insight and intellect, and her deep and profound intolerance of laziness, stupidity, carelessness and detachment, not to mention alcohol and non-prescription drugs, and of course, homosexuality.
And then, in the public square, we are all watching a rather dramatic, disorienting and dispiriting display of sycophancy, obsequiousness and downright venal refusal of responsibility in the United States Senate, as the Republican senators “suck-up” to an even more desperate chief executive, as thousands die, directly as the result of their complicity in his nefarious narcissism of the “toddler” as one critic has recently written.
I have witnessed similar sycophancy in too many church and educational hierarchies, especially among those most ambitious to climb the proverbial ladder to “executive and leadership” privilege. And although the sycophancy of women is not under discussion here, it inevitably exists and finds different expression than that of men. However, the issue of male obsequiousness, sycophancy and the inevitable passive-aggressive “collateral damage” it brings with it are traits for which no self-respecting man can be proud, or even content in incarnating.
Telling “truth to power” however, is a phenomenon so reprehensible to the politically correct, the professionally ethical and the excessively ambitious that all organizations suffer from the muzzling of too many good ideas, profound visionary pictures, and dramatic and long-overdue changes in too many public and private organizations.
Ted Lindsay, that formidable Detroit Red Wing left-winger on the opposite wing from the legendary Gordie Howe, took the then unenviable step of proposing a players association for the players on the then six National Hockey League original teams. His own team-mates walked past him disdained his efforts ON THEIR BEHALF, so fearful and contemptuous were they of his speaking out, and fearing reprisals for themselves from the patriarchal owners of the teams. Decades later, of course, he has been ‘reclaimed’ as both honourable and a visionary, if rebellious, voice in the history of the league. And the contemporary agreement between owners and players attests to a degree of equality, a sharing of proceeds and a potential for even greater equality and respect for players of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, including both blacks and indigenous players.
Then Archbishop Ted Scott stood firm in front of the loggers seeking to deplete the forests of British Columbia, as did the Bishop of Durham in Great Britain take up the cause of the coal miners. Archbishop Desmond Tutu took up the cause of reconciliation upon the demise of the apartheid government of South Africa. Bernie Sanders, along with heroes like Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama, have all found and deployed their voice in the service of their peers, ordinary people struggling to find and use their own voices.
My father, and the many self-declared sycophants, were well aware of the conflict between “fitting in” and “being despised”….and the latter simply did not fit the good for business model, nor the good for political establishment acceptance…And the fact is that it is never a choice between “fitting in” or “being despised”…although I have too often veered on the side of the latter. It is really a question of assessing, in detail, and in depth, the context in which one wishes to “speak” including the significance of the cause for which one wishes to advocate. And once that assessment has been conducted, one has to prepare the vernacular, and the supporting resources for the engagement. And, withdrawal from the possibility of being rejected or being opposed, or being alienated only confirms one’s tepid commitment to the cause for which one is willing to advocate.
And while my mother inflicted serious harm in open and direct behaviours, my father’s withdrawal from his confronting what he both knew and rejected as appropriate parenting has imposed an even deeper and more insidious wound on the psyche of his children. Often, our culture focuses far too much energy on the observable evidence, while ignoring the unconscious, hidden and stealthily vaulted woundedness of both young men and women…too often resulting from a refusal to step up to the plate.
And for all those whose lives have been negatively impacted by my own refusal to step up, I am deeply sorry…and I know my father would be also, upon realizing that his silence was not “peace” but “power-monkey”…in the long run….
And Republican Senators may today gloat over their hold onto power; their day of reckoning, however is inevitable, and soon.
*Oscillation is a concept I learned from the originator of Technologies of Creating, Robert Fritz...and have noted its application in both organizational and human dynamics.