Wednesday, April 29, 2020

#77 Men, agents of and pathway to cultural metanoia (Refections on desperation 3)


It will sound somewhat perjorative and even condescending of men to note that when the desperation of another has physical implications, from a flood, a hurricane, a drought, a fire a robbery or even a death in the family, men are not only quick but intense and eager to respond with help. On the other hand, if the desperation, especially of a single other male seems “emotional, psychological, or even something like an identity crisis,” men tend to turn our eyes away and too often walk away.

As a counter to this observation, there are many, valid and validated stories of groups of men, after they were relieved of their jobs in silicon valley, back in the tech crash, continued to shower and dress in professional garb, and then proceed to rented trailers parked in their former employers’ parking lots, without having the gumption to disclose their plight to their spouses. And, tragically, many of these spouses left their marriages, whether from the loss in income and predictability, or more from the failure to disclose the tragedy, seems still a little ambiguous.

Of course, there is the proverbial ‘mid-life crisis’ which has now become so prevalent, and too often the butt of male-authored and delivered jokes, (not dissimilar to the dissing that dominates in adolescence) that runs a little counter to the authentic empathy men find to easy to deploy when an “act of God” strikes a neighbour or a colleague.

Somehow, however, the notion of an emotional disintegration of another man, still to too many men, is considered only as a sign of “desperate” weakness, vulnerability, almost like an illness, disease, (that might be contagious?). If a man shows signs that he is drinking more than usual, there will inevitably be comments (sotto voce) inside the office, and perhaps even someone will broach the question, “Are you Ok?” to which the usual and almost predictable reply will be “Sure, why?” The reputation of alcoholic men (and perhaps women too) is that they are extremely protective of their privacy, and even more highly adept a concealing anything untoward. If a co-worker is already engaged in some preventive program like AA or Alanon, there is a little higher likelihood that any inquiry will be both discreet, and potentially penetrating.

However, there are so many other signs through which a man can and does almost unconsciously disclose deep, turbulent cataracts of psychic and/or emotional pain. I regret having to recall a conversation in the Park Plaza hotel dining room in the early nineties. I was to be interviewed by a CEO of a successful ($2M/annual gross) training company, after one of his most competent and successful representatives had recommended my name. The appointment began between four and five p.m., with the host asking for a drink. Preferring only water, I requested one with lime. The conversation began with the usual anatomical description of the kind of clients his firm was attracting, and the usual polished sheen/script he and his colleagues presented as an corporation introduction. Another drink, accompanied this time with orders for dinner.

And then the script began to unravel, not so much through the slur of the words of this highly intelligent, extremely articulate and obviously travelled corporate salesman. Without notice, he acknowledged that, while his company prepared individual programs for prospective clients, with glossy front pages, binders and copious notes about timing and delivery options, fundamentally every program was identical; they were all “classical conditioning.” Pavlov’s basic discoveries had been moved from the psychology lab to the corporate board room, with the significant change in both stimulus and response. This philosophy graduate, steeped in the intricate, nuanced and rather profound writing of the primary thought leaders of western civilization tragically and desperately found himself facing a potential hire, while openly divulging his own desperate confession for which he could only feel shame, guilt, probably a little patronizing of his clients (some highly placed executives in both government and the private sector) and then he ordered another drink.

Not surprisingly, he did not make any other overtures to employ the innocent with whom he had dined, in an appointment that stretched well into the evening, when at last count, he had consumed a minimum of 8 drinks of hard liquor. Adding to the tragedy, the man who had referred my name to this CEO took his own life, as another undisclosed and undiagnosed alcoholic. Curious about anything his grieving partner might have known about the silence that followed my interview, I asked, “Did your partner ever say anything about why I was not hired?” Her reply  echoes in my head weekly, if not daily, “The only thing I recall is that he told the CEO never to hire you because you would strip the veneer from the mask of the company’s business plan. You would see through the thin veil of deception that enshrouded the company.”

How tragic to discover the depth of desperation hidden under another veil of both secrecy and success! Both men were making stashes of cash, enjoying the ‘good life’ with interesting and highly intelligent and complex clients, who themselves worked in situations requiring both skill and intellect, as well as highly sensitive judgements who were open to learning new skills, and new things about themselves in order to better adapt to the multiple and varied exigencies their job descriptions required.

Not only did I no know about the depth of the pain in the lives of both of these men; I also did nothing to address their plight. Just as I had not recognized my father’s psychic pain, as an adolescent, until he reached his late eighties, and options for change were limited, I did not recognize or inquire about their personal plights.

Sometime later, when I served another corporate, this time in the industrial sector, I learned of the pain (again resulting from a long-standing dependence on alcohol) of a wife and husband, both members of the leadership team of this enterprise (another $2million in annual sales). It was the husband who disclosed his pain on a private Saturday afternoon visit, as I was gathering background to fulfil my contract to “build a leadership team” that was then not operating effectively. Recognizing the with two of five deeply and secretly dependent on alcohol, for at least the past four decades, and that both husband and wife played significant roles in the process and delivery of highly specialized metal products, to the airline industry, there would be little likelihood that an effective “team” could be “built” unless and until both of these managers sought and accepted “treatment” in some form, after a period of rehabilitation.

I made such a recommendation, privately and confidentially over dinner with him and his wife, to the CEO, a man who had purchased the former ‘mom-and-pop” company from the couple, hired them, infused capital into the company and put it on a solid financial footing. Upon reflection, the CEO became inflamed at the potential turbulence of acknowledging the fullness of this discovery, refused to admit the depth of the problem and put a signed cheque in my hand, with the words, “Now get off this property, immediately!”

The depth of the CEO’s desperation could have been intuited, given his own biographical history as an SS officer in the Third Reich, from which both mom-and-pop had also surfaced following WWII, only to land in west Toronto, where they were despised as “DP’s” who could speak no English. It is not only secrecy, but the deep and lasting imprints of trauma that continue to plague the psyches of millions, without the benefit even of social, domestic or familial consciousness and support.

And there is an inextricable bond between any person’s trauma and their penchant for secrecy. Shame, embarrassment, guilt, rejection and abandonment accompany all experiences of trauma, and thousands of females are coming out of the closet of their own traumas, with the support of their sisters who themselves, have also been victims of male abuse. Men may more recently have more options of supportive weekends, in which fractured or non-existent relationships with their fathers, or abusive relationships with their mothers, (especially from those who smothered them with “love”), or even from divorces for which they were accused to being the “single person” responsible for the breakdown of the marriage. Nevertheless, their/our openness to individual men with whom we work, or in whose neighbourhood we live, remains suspect, even clouded, if existent at all. Men at weekends after which we will never see them again, offer a degree of solace and privacy, confidentiality and support, that we might not be willing to access in our own circles.

So, programs could be supplanting authentic relationships, with men whose paths cross our own frequently.

We are still clinging to the model that we are and will be unacceptable, unhireable, unreliable and even toxic if we are “in pain” or seeming ‘strange’ given our shared and narrow view of conventional normalcy. For centuries, gay men were demonic to many men; even today, some still consider gay men to be an anathema to healthy masculinity, a scourge on our gender. And the church, (at least the Christian church) has played a highly instrumental role in seeding, nurturing, and biblically sanctioning this view. Far from a place of comfort and care, empathy and understanding, the Christian church has turned both backs and hearts on the plight of the gender choices/inherencies of millions. And men have been at the core of this “hate”….and let’s not sugar-coat the contempt. It is masculine-based and masculine-engendered.

Whether or not ‘straight’ men who also suffer lapses, breakdowns, eruptions in life-paths and the predictability that accompanies such breaks, evoke images of gayness in other straight men is a subject worthy of further investigation. Nevertheless, regardless of the specific “incident” of behaviour, even a divorce is something for which no man is ultimately prepared, nor is he likely to seek support from another man who has occupied a significant place in his life, prior to the divorce. However, are we subject to the singular option of seeking only professional help, simply because our western masculine culture precludes the kind of empathy, compassion, even forthright honesty we deep need and hopefully also desire and seek, that fits such a potentially traumatic development?

Is this another  of the many examples by which men sabotage ourselves, including our planet, our companies, our families, and our kids and grandkids, by refusing, first to open to our loved ones how depressed we are, including both legitimate and somewhat questionable reasons for our depression (would our partners and kids not be able and willing to put some truth-serum into our morning coffee?). Are we, in the millions, wandering around, alone, isolated in the vacuum of our own highly focused, task-driven, performance of what we absolutely know is our personal, private and moral responsibility to be “invulnerable,”  “successful,” “powerful” and “providing” for our families? Are we sufficiently lacking the metaphor/psychic/cultural spine of bringing our own truth to those who matter in our lives, even if we are not able or willing to share our pain with our bosses? And, as for those EAP programs, mostly purchased by the hiring corporation, as one of two potential solutions to what they consider off-loading complexity and cost…they are almost without exception a bust.

First, there is an implicit conflict of interest, given that they work for the company, and who is really going to trust such an off0-loaded contract any more than we would an Human Resources Department sworn to confidentiality also an instrument of the corporation. Next, they never get to know the person on the other end of the phone/skype/facetime/zoom line or screen. We can agree that psychic band-aids are better for a gaping psychic wound than isolation. However, we can also be aware that some situations in which millions of men find ourselves are neither needing a mental health diagnosis (in a culture addicted to medical diagnoses, doctors, prescriptions and divesting our own power onto another, in an obvious, if undetected and unconscious avoidance of reality and responsibility).

War, and all of the other many examples of how too many men transform whatever it is they/we seek to achieve into another “war” when the two difficulties we are attempt to address are so different and complex, have a capacity to entrap us, individually and collectively into patterns, and even policies, and certainly conventional stereotypical options that repeat our own self-enmeshment in our own conflict metaphors….win/lose, avoid/destroy, dominate/loser, achieve/fail, …
And our masculine-dominated culture, including our political and economic and social and ethical discourse is also saturated with the vocabulary, the attitudes and the proferred and recommended solutions even if and when the situation demands fare more complexity than our military training and background has addressed.

It is not merely our clinging adherence to military memes, like fighting the last war, as well as the prevailing “war/conflict? dichotomy, that too often lends itself to a win-lose zero sum game. It is also our refusal to confront those impaling and life-less scripts and the stereotypes that seek and fail to define our fullness as men that these pieces seek to bring into the daylight of our eyes, our ears, our hearts and our minds.

We all know that we are not living nearly as fully as we know how to live. And we also know that millions of young men need the support and clarity of a vision of experience that shed a little warmth, light and insight into our blind hubristic and our shared and potentially fateful futures.

It is not incidental to note that, ordinary men, without or without formal psychological training, have considerable capacity and depth of understanding to lend a hand to other men in their circles, only to benefit far more, paradoxically, than the very men they seek to support. Just another irony, that beast we detest, given its capacity to complicate things we desperately want to keep simple! (K.I.S.S.--remember that old adage, keep it simply, stupid...we are neither simple nor stupid!)

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