Since the notion of male desperation has so many root causes, both personal/psychic/internal and social/cultural/developmental, it might be helpful, in a time when precision of definition and the implications of intervention are considered so significant, to dig deeper into this mine/mind-field.
Males, of a wide range of sensibilities, undergo trauma in a variety of ways, some of them originating in our own mis-steps. We might think we can (and must) accomplish more than is feasible, with or without help. We certainly do undertake tasks, visions, ambitions that seek to emulate those we consider to be role models, with or without a full comprehension of how those role models achieved their success. And, as “herd” animals, we also join groups of males when together adopt often rather lofty ideals, expectations and even requirements and standards for all “members” that ‘test’ our suitability for membership. The existence of power, among those already involved in any organization, even as small as a teen gang, is highly valued by those holding its reins, and they serve as gate-keepers for the preservation of the ideals, and the purity of those ideals, when the prospect of new recruits becomes relevant.
Socialization of young boys and men, like that of canine pets, is considered a highly valued attribute of any academic, athletic and special interest/hobby group. Especially among adolescents, “fitting in” is a prime attribute for anyone seeking acceptance, and consequently, learning if, when, how, and even whether to ‘speak up’ with either criticism or recommendation of the group’s process or plans, is a ‘skill’ akin to and much more complicated than learning how to participate in a complicated zone and/or one-on-one defense in basketball. How one’s home life contributes to the adaptability of any young man is critical: authority-driven, cold, distant and aloof fathers will inevitably shape young men either a strictly obedient and disciplined imitators, or equally likely, others whose inherent ambition is to throw off those shackles of perfectionistic mentorship. Similarly, more laissez-faire parenting from either or both parents, often linked to highly supportive and encouraging and nurturing and flexible, adaptive and discerning pattern of parenting will generate a very different kind of adolescent male. Naturally these two extremes mark only the outer limits of a continuum that offers opportunities along the range, depending also on the specific situation.
Any traumatic experience of loss, divorce, death, loss of job/income, serious illness, when tossed seemingly randomly into the petrie dish of adolescent development will, naturally and necessarily send shock waves into the family and also through the psyche of all adolescents. Depending on the nature of the child and the family, a similar divide might develop of adolescent males who resolve to refrain from any kind of dependence on others ‘rationalizing that it is not safe to do so’ as well as those who seek additional comfort, and are prepared to sacrifice some independence in order to belong, having perceived their loss as a form of abandonment.
Bolby, the British psychiatrist who studied wartime children in England, has written extensively on the basic notion that all children suffer, to some degree or other, a kind of abandonment, alienation, isolation early in life, and he posits that the following decades of life are dedicated to a return ‘home’ for those who experienced separation early. Wartime Britain, however, while highly charged and a relevant base of subjects for study, is not analogous to the development of many children in the post-war, developed world of North America. Nevertheless, there is a range of societal pressures on contemporary North American families, including poverty, segregation, poor education, lack of access to health care, racism and both domestic and community violence all of which leave a deep and often indelible imprint on the psyches of millions of young boys and men.
Early childhood development, then, is clearly one of the impacting factors in whether or not a young boy is negatively impacted, and this period sows seeds of mental, emotional and intellectual impairment that foreshadow future desperation. And those seeds can and will often remain dormant, unconscious for decades, before they surface under another set of circumstances of stress, when the biographical history will seem to gush forth like a previously undiscovered mountain volcano, to the shock and surprise of those now on the scene.
As young people growing up in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s we all knew the names of those men who had fought in and returned from World War I. We also knew that, to a man, not a single one would utter a single word about his experiences ‘on the front’ of battle. We were told, and deeply believed, that their experiences were so painful to recall, and even more painful to display publicly, that they chose silence and their legitimate path to cope. Today, we know that syndrome as PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a body/mind/spirit assault of whatever form of violence in battle, issuing literally thousands of victims from Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan still in need of treatment, some of them still falling through the cracks of both treatment and support.
On a personal note, I studied with and partnered a paper in graduate school with a veteran of the Viet Nam conflict, a Canadian who had served with the American military, who had declared to his family, that they were never to utter the words Viet Nam in their home. He subsequently suffered a heart attack, as a man of only his late forties. Single anecdotes do not a sociological study make! They are, however, indicative of a kind of pattern that can be and has been documented through academic research about men not regarding physical health as important, failing or refusing to seek medical attention, and certainly not psychiatric or psychological support, especially when under serious stress.
Another conversation with a firefighter/rescuer whose volunteer activities included massive auto accidents, significant house fires including loss of life, demonstrates this perspective vividly. When asked if his team had access to counselling support, he indicated an Employee Assistance Program is available; however, he vehemently reminded me that he and no other member of his team would ever let another member know if they even considered seeking such help.
The inference was that such behaviour would be considered shameful in that group.Personal biography, including the ethos of our family of origin, linked to a propensity for ‘belonging’ and fitting in, both colour our male developmental trend lines, often linked strongly to a kind of defiant, go-it-alone, reticent stereotype of a rigid form of masculinity that defies emotional consciousness or at least its open expression.
Let’s not be duped by this frozen mask, however; it, like that very still river that runs very deep, covers in many instances a radar of emotional intelligence, insightfulness, intuition and grounded awareness of others. The perception in others, their teachers, coaches, classmates and members of the opposite gender, of such attributes as natural trustworthiness/or not, their authenticity/integrity or not, their need for control and dominance or not is largely inverse to their volubility. At least in the quarter-century of English classes in which I engaged with adolescent males (and females) I noted a significant disparity between the willingness to communicate about the emotional development of characters in literature and the occasional dropping of the mask, and the uttering of deep and profound insight, in what could only have been a moment of ‘weakness.’ (I’m kidding!)
Adolescent young men showed (and most likely continue to demonstrate) their emotional identification with another (teacher, coach, mentor) through action and not so much through words. There seems to be a deep and historic cultural legacy of the notion, among men, that actions speak louder than words. And actions are the pathway many young men chose to be pursued as monikers of their athletic, manual, problem-solving dexterity, rather than those more ‘feminine’ methods of supportive words, and sophisticated wardrobes. (This wardrobe observation may well be significantly out-dated, given the high degree of conformity among young men, for a collection of pieces of attire that virtually announce a ‘brand’ of compatriots.)
Disdaining, if not full-out dismissal, of the inherent value of words, including their multiple nuanced meanings, both connotative and denotative, as vehicles to be identified with, as well as means by which to become acquainted with another special person, young men frequently fall into a pattern not merely of actions but then of following paths based on and leading to proficiency in technology, industry, engineering, science, accounting law, and occasionally social policy. I once suggested to a finance graduate, corporate owner/operator, the idea of trying to open and read a short novel like The Old Man and the Sea, by Hemingway. Believing that the master craftsman’s intimate, insightful and even unique observations and reflections within what is essentially a modern parable, could and would stir a new perspective on masculinity, for one locked in the vault of his own psyche, I could not have been more delusional; he demurred and then never picked it up.
Desperation can and does take many forms and faces, most of them easily identified, not only as restrictive and repressive of the individuals incarnating it, but also of the people within his circle, whether he is willing to acknowledge it or not…Here is an incomplete list of some of the indicators of desperation:
ü withholding of all minimal attempts at personal disclosure, disdaining of those “artsy-fartsy” people who write, compose music, paint and draw, unless and until their work becomes renowned and potentially valuable in the marketplace,
ü burying ourselves in a mountain of tasks, both of the honey-do kind, and of the self-designed and imposed kind, to demonstrate our capacity to “focus” and to “accomplish” and to “achieve” as measured by any of a myriad of benchmarks, both personal and extrinsic,
ü competing in most if not all of our social, professional activities, as matter of normalcy, as another path to justification of self (to self and/or to others)
ü managing both for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises by their numerical, fiscal, growth numbers, as determinative of success, while
ü excluding the assessment of and pursuit of healthy relationships within and without the organization
ü pitting costs as negatives and revenues as profits when making personal and organizational (as well as familial) decisions
ü dismissing those “outliers” and iconoclasts who challenge ideas and proposals with legitimate questions as troublesome
ü defying whistleblowers whose fresh air threatens the security of masculine power holders
ü lying, denying, covering up and dissembling especially when exposed as fallible
ü scape-goating others to avoid the heat of both responsibility and accountability
Then costs of masculine desperation is obviously not measured in billions of dollars of debt or deficit, because the syndrome itself is never acknowledged by men in power. The cost of masculine desperation is also not measured in numbers of assaults, divorces, murders, suicides, street-dwellers, alcoholics, illicit drug addicts, robberies, arsonists, cyber criminals and political tyrants.
Masculine desperation, nevertheless, is also seen in less “criminal” or less “deviant” expressions, that might include some of these examples:
o trying to compete with a twin, sibling, in order to reduce or eliminate perceived favouritism from parents
o competing for a beautiful young woman with a “status” male athlete, in a culture where beauty and power are insidiously and incestuously linked
o taking others for granted as a path to cover one’s insecurities when in leadership
o fawning over board members, as an executive, in order to accomplish goals that pad a resume, for future advancement
o manipulating staff into undertaking despicable tasks, in order to demonstrate power when under threat of exposure
o changing the subject in a conversation/presentation/briefing that has been exposed a fallacious, ephemeral, solipsistic or deceptive
Desperation, however, rather than a social and a political issue to be surgically removed, or even editorially exposed and then electorally expunged, is a profoundly personal matter that needs, even demands the engagement of those who love and care for and command the respect of the ‘desperate’…Parents can see and feel its evidence deep in the pit of their stomachs and begin the highly valued and respectful process of identifying its symptoms, discussing privately the potential roots and results and then the even more intimate process of true love. Ambition, conforming, achieving and finding acceptance all lie deep inside the psyches of most male adolescents, if they have not been salted or watered down with insults, desperate parenting, and abuse. Like those canines whose existence depends on their full acceptance, and the rewards to show their acceptance and love, most adolescent young men are more than eager, willing and able to both comprehend the difference between ambition and desperation. And when shown its underside, are able and willing to adjust.
A young oriental boy came to me once, a recent immigrant to Canada, in tears with a mark of 58 in an English examination, demanding an upgrade. He was so upset with the mark that he was unable to take his report card home. Although highly intelligent, his language skills were not yet developed to the stage where his writing warranted a higher grade, at least in this one evaluator’s view. When I refused, I later learned that he literally cut the grade out from the report card, prior to showing it to his parents, allegedly noting the paper had been torn accidentally.
A similar desperate piece of behaviour was reported on an incident involving two co-op university students each competing for a internship with a corporate. The desperate one allegedly dumped a pail of water on the other, ruining his “interview suit” in order to top him in the competition. Stories of desperate parents who actually carry out the rigours of their sons’ science experiments, when they are competing in a Science Fair, while not proliferating, nevertheless debase the competition, and the evidence is clear to all insightful observers.
Let’s accept that desperation is not something to which any of us is immune; and then let’s begin to recognize it, acknowledge its implications, and commit to developing our own personal, and appropriate, sensitive and sensible approach to address it…for our own personal and our collective sakes!
And men, especially, can we at least begin to shift our competitive instinct to something more akin to mutual collaboration?