Monday, May 11, 2020

#84, Men, agents of and pathway to cultural metanoia (reflection, silence, not always ACTION)


I knew a very vibrant, gregarious, affable, and highly enthusiastic gym “head” a few life-times ago who, upon suffering a serious heart attack, immediately after began a rigorously disciplined schedule of a daily three-mile brisk power walk.  Grant’s capacity to relate, to engage, and to embrace each and every human being and every situation in a ‘healthy and supportive manner’ was simply platinum. I have not seen his like before or since.

And although he is now deceased, after several years of disciplined exercise, it is the impact of the dramatic change in habit that draws my focus here. What are the required ingredients of individual, organizational and eventually global change? When, why, how, do we as individuals and as groups make significant shifts, beyond an obvious and minimal tweeking of our processes? Or is it, as the social scientists keep reminding us, change, real lasting change can and will come only after extensive, persistent and highly disciplined pressure?

We have all been taught the various intellectual pillars of thought/belief, including rationalism, Manicheanism,  romanticism, existentialism, pragmatism, modernism and post-modernism into which, or from which we each insert/derive sign-posts for the paths we choose to walk. Intellectual, cognitive nuggets themselves, also ride a current of moral/ethical guideposts, the origins of which emanate from various religious, philosophic and psychological impulses. Thought patterns, moral obligations and experiences flow in the crock-pot of our lives into a personal, social, cultural, identity “stew”…and that stew both nourishes us and, when offered to others, also evokes a “taste-test” response.

As sentient beings, we are sometimes enthralled by, repelled by, or soothed by various kinds of persons, experiences, relationships and challenges. And the compendium of heroes, devils, waltzes and high-impact events is like a gestalt composer scoring our unique melody, rhythm, musical form and song. And, there are different ‘periods’ of our lives, which, upon reflection, we can reflectively classify as our “blue” or “green” or “brown” or “black” period, just as can the art critics evaluate their artist subjects and their work.

Much scholarship seems to focus on the work of an individual, whether scientist, historian, poet or prophet, with the latter two, currently undergoing what can almost be considered an etherizing from the culture. Nevertheless, the poet/prophet takes pics from a different perch: from the perch of distance, some withdrawal, and almost ruthless risk-taking, given that his/her work is not constrained by an academic department, a professional peer-review, a replication in another lab, or a treatise of empirical data that refutes the vision.

No political scientist, for example, would even dare to challenge the premises of Margaret Atwood’s surfacing, or The Hand Maid’s Tale, or The Testaments, all of them based on a penetrating and prophetic vision and voice of a passionate female advocate for a level of decency, decorum, acceptance, respect and even an honouring of the monumental divide between men and women in the capacity to impact the nature of contemporary culture. Both men and women, of all ethnicities, cultures and geographies are indebted to Ms Atwood for her diligence, her courage, her imagination and her unbounded “fire” of both heat and light in our relative darkness. Will the totality of her literary legacy move our glacial culture in a direction that erodes the disparity, discrepancy and disgrace in which women are, even today, far more vulnerable in terms of survival, to the ravages of COVID-19?

On the other hand, Liz Plank writes fervently about the toxic poison of testosterone that plagues North American political culture, and the damage it does to both men and women. Will her voice move the culture, in a collaborative, supportive and even creative melting toward a vision both she and Atwood would enthusiastically endorse? Clearly, there are more voices in the Atwood “choir” than in the “Plank” ensemble, and the voices may not be talking ‘to’ rather than ‘at’ each other, as is so often the case. (Atwood herself once described the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, in their determined bid for provincial/national sovereignty, as a “dialogue of the deaf” with the rest of Canada.)

Threading the needle by attempting to arrange various colours, shapes, shadows, and abstractions on a canvas that might draw a few male eyes, ears, minds, hearts and potentially a river of influence on masculinity, both healthy and sabotaging is, has been and will continue to be the focus and the purpose of these pages. Different from both Atwood’s and Plank’s pages, these pages are both less creative  and less data-based, more overtly subjective, experiential, diary-and-journal-like, and more akin to a litany of letters to a Dad whose person I loved and whose voice I deeply regret not hearing more frequently, more earnestly and more courageously.

Yesterday, my wife and I watched the film, The King’s Speech again, for the “umpteenth” time. “Bertie’s” serious speech impediment serves as a legitimate, tragic and provocative metaphor for the serious speech impediment, not only of my own father, but also, of the millions of men around the world who, by virtue of default have let healthy and resilient and sustainable and spiritual masculinity slip away and be voraciously devoured by needy, greedy, and opportunistic men with whom it is inconceivable for us to identify with, or to support.

Neither a Republican nor a Democrat, a socialist or a capitalist, neither a Christian nor a Muslim, neither an executive nor a pawn, neither a gardener nor an industrialist, neither an investment banker nor a street person, the scribe here is just an ordinary, struggling, often blinded by fear and the repetition of early trauma, searcher, seeker, journeyman explorer. And it is both the inner life I am living and its links to the inner life of the culture (and the planet) to and from which these  scribblings are derived and dedicated.

Paying attention, or showing up, as the 12-step program argues is 90% of life’s requirements and expectations, is nevertheless an eminently worthy maxim. Often, paying attention generates more anxiety than might be warranted, given the early and non-reflective reporting and digesting of information, like the recent military exercises by Russian forces in the Arctic that divides Canadian defence scholars about the seriousness of the threat to both Canada and Denmark. Sometimes, too, paying attention provokes questions for which answers are not available, and may not be for some time. Paying attention, in a masculine perspective, can also be offensive, given the competitive spirit of other men who may not have ‘caught’ some important pieces of information, or trend lines, normally considered outside their range of interest and competence.

As a non-scholar, a non-reporting, independent and unauthorized observer of the “way of the world,” this scribe is essentially free to call it however he sees it. It is not that these observations, conclusions, reflections and ‘pontifications’ are anything more than one man’s ‘take;’ they are not. However, adding this voice is the one thing I can do in my own way to offer whatever I can to what I see as the potential for both the survival and the uplifting of the generations yet unborn.

It is a longer than a digital stock ‘crawl’ perspective, and a broader than headline summation, and a more complicated attempt to connect dots not being seen to be connected that these pages are dedicated.

For example, this morning I listened as Richard Haas, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, former member of both Republican and Democratic administrations, speculate that the COVID-19 impact on international relations would be to “deglobalize” those efforts. Protesting against such a development, Haas strongly offered his antidote, “resiliency” rather than turtling. And while his words are, on television, bereft of the much more complex and nuanced details of contextualizing, including history, developing trends in military, in bio-engineering and in crypto-criminality, there is implicit in his informed, seasoned and mature judgements, a fundamental premise: that humans can, by taking specific actions, impact the  outcomes in whatever field of human endeavour we choose.

What not denying the partial truth of that premise, it is long past time for those who exercise intellectual, and professional and political and economic power, (primarily men) to release our grip on that very premise. There is a difference between statements of ideological/political/historic and even philosophic aspiration and the time line for such cogent and highly informed statements to “land” and to be “digested” and to be “debated” and to be “refined” and even to be “considered” by those in positions of making policy recommendations. Underlying contemporary events, including the coronavirus, AIDS, Ebola, Swine Flu, and the plethora of natural threats, there is also an underlying threat of man’s hubris, blindness, inflexibility, and resistance to larger, deeper and more lasting patterns in which we are all embedded.

Yesterday, in conversation with family, we learned of the heroic, disciplined, loving and compassionate hourly work of an elderly man committed to doing everything he can to sustain and to enhance the life and well-being of his seriously ill spouse of more than six decades. And in our conversation, the words hero, victim, martyr, guilt, and succumb came up, in a gestalt of several archetypes being enacted. Decisions about how to help, however, were few, if any, given the established patterns of engagement between the couple.

In any situation, the question of which archetypes are ‘having’ us, acting through us, giving form, dimension, rhythm, melody and harmony to our individual and our collective lives, is pertinent, relevant and cogent. The specific proposals for “solutions” take a back seat to a shared appreciation of, and identification with the plight of these two. No one consciously aware of the interior drama can help but be impacted by it. Whether it points to a “resistance” to repeating such drama, or a “blocking” the pain out of our consciousness, or a new receptivity to our own mortality, each of us is nevertheless impacted by the story.

And stories, it says here, are not menus for correction. These pages are not and cannot be defined as recipes for correction, neither of men nor of women. Stories, per se, on their own merit, have a way of shedding light, garnering empathy, evoking compassion, sticking a foot in the door of an otherwise locked attitude and offering the hope of options never before encountered.

And, while most men are in the habit, not to mention the belief, that our actions, our words, our beliefs and our ‘contributions to our circle of influence are determinative of the outcomes, there is much to be acknowledged about the seemingly passive, and non-combative and non-participatory line from John Milton, a writer ostensibly dependent on his eyes, his vision, when he wrote, (of course theologically and philosophically) “We also serve who only stand and wait.”

Let’s pause for a moment, and resist dismissing that comment as coming from a Puritan, someone whose theology is today disdained vehemently. Or is it?
How enmeshed are we, (North American men and women, but especially men) in the protestant, puritan ethic of self-denial, self-effacement, self-commitment to diligent and even punishing and penurious labour, even self-sacrifice especially of those who “have not made it” into the higher echelons of power and wealth? How blinding, for example, is our perspective on the immediacy of today’s trauma, and today’s symptoms, not only in the COVID-19 pandemic, but also in the long history of grabbing whatever human and natural resources we can to “provide” for our immediate and all-consuming needs and desires?

It is not only profit versus people, as the placards carried by the protesting meat-packing plant workers shout. It is also what and who we are to each other, including all others, on this side of the globe as well as on the other side of the globe. Surely, we are conscious, if not overwhelmed, by our own complicity in our fate, a fate which was not seeded in some wet market, or some Wuhan lab, but rather seeded in our preposterous and hubristic presumption that we can dominate nature.

Our pretentious posturing about “wealth” and about “most highly educated” and about “visionary” and about “deglobalizing” or “retreating” and our interminable water-cooler babblings about the blatant immoralities and venal ambitions of the trump administration, in which misogyny looks like a pimple when compared with the overall narcissistic, self-serving, self-indulgent dissociation from reality that is literally killing thousands.

We are better than being seduced by hollow aphoristic chants of “great” and “perfect” and “better than everywhere else” and “blaming” everyone else for our epic insubordination and flagrant destruction of the truth and all efforts at human civility, decency and hope.

Saying “No” is a first step, for all men, (many women have already shouted their NO!) to the current malaise in which we are all impaled. However, it is far from the last step. The prophet in each of us (men) needs revisiting, reviving, re-inflaming and re-inserting into the public and personal discourse. It starts at our kitchen table, extends to shouting back at the television screen writing our own letter to the editor, and then engaging in more than water-cooler gossip.

We men do know better, and can do much better. Just look at the courage, the commitment and the passion of King George VI in confronting his own imperiled voice. Where would we be without that individual commitment when the blitz was being dropped from the sky?

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