Friday, November 13, 2020

An empathic petition in support of healthy men

 Ink is being poured into the magazine and newspaper pages (as are electronic digits online) attempting first to discern what happened on November 4 in the election and second, how to move forward in a focused, disciplined and effective manner, not only in the U.S. but throughout the geopolitical arena.

Diagnosis, including and beyond the ‘medical model,’ demands a critical look at the individual political actors, the political culture, and the attitudes, perceptions and beliefs that are apparently ‘driving’ the political ethos. Far from a single presenting ‘issue’ (e.g. the current occupant of the Oval Office), or a single media outlet’s blatant and unapologetic bias (e.g. Fox news or MSNBC), or even a single political party or political ideology (radical right or left, or even centrist), or casting for another silver bullet (e.g. social media” or “Russian interference,”), any attempt at a diagnosis must embrace a critical analysis of how many factors interact in a moment in time. And that moment can only be considered as a moment in a longer historic flow from the past, stretching far into the horizon.

In  an interview reported on his website, The.Ink, Friday, November 13 2020, Anand Giridharadas says this:

…I think if we were to be honest with ourselves, and if many men were to be honest with themselves, they’re in a bad way….For some men that’s (the economy) the big thing in their lives. The desertion of opportunity is an economic fact that quickly becomes a cultural and a gender fact. In many communities, men were raised with an idea of themselves as a provider, as the stable source of income. The world has changed where they’re not the stable provider, or the wife earns more money, or not having a college degree no longer provides the kind of life that it did. The larger dynamics of the erosion of patriarchy, the ascendency of women and the growing (in)equality in this country over the last generation are another tremendous, tremendous source of change….If a society fails to show those men, in this case, who they can be on the other side of change, what is left for them when this mode of being is rightfully taken away—if they can’t be convinced that there’s some other way of being a man, of being a human being, of having dignity on the other side, then in addition to their own failure that they visit upon others, it becomes our collective failure, because they lash out…..Donald Trump…is a weak man’s idea of a strong man. In many ways, he represents an authoritarianism fueled by feelings of emasculation. Weak men look to him to be the husband that, deep down, they fear they can’t be to their wives; the father that they fear they cant be to their children; their lack of vigor in the economy or otherwise. If we don‘t heal men, I think we’re going to have more Trumps in our future.

Thanks to Anand Giridharadas for uttering so eloquently and courageously what some men have been saying for some time. And then, in a albeit imperfect parsing of his words, while there is definitely a tectonic shift in the economic stability, certainty, security and promise of men, it has to be noted, too, that much of that shift in fortunes resulted from other men seizing short-term, personal self-aggrandizement (whether in profit, political standing, or some other equally  ‘instant’ gratification). The shift from a public consciousness dedicated to the building and sustaining of public institutions, libraries, social services, health care facilities, and educational resources to the highly individualistic testosterone-fed addiction to personal success in business needed and attracted the undivided attention of millions of men.

Currently, a documentary film, Assholes A theory from director John Walker, investigates “the breeding grounds of contemporary ‘asshole culture’—and locates signs of civility in an otherwise rude-n-nasty universe. Venturing into predominantly male domain, Walker moves from Ivy League frat clubs to the bratty princedoms of Silicon Valley and bear pits of international finance. (from the Assholes, A Theory website). Robert Sutton, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has authored a book, The Asshole Survival Guide. He defines an asshole this way:

An asshole is someone who leaves us feeling demeaned, de-energized, disrespected, and/or oppressed. In other words, someone who makes you feel like dirt.

Obviously, the current occupant of the Oval Office sparks much of this conversation, and yet, while we need to protect ourselves from persistent “assholes” their very existence speaks loudly about their current place on centre stage of our political culture. And, without devolving into a pity-party for assholes, given that their behaviour is totally and unequivocally intolerable, the primal scream they individually and collectively emit needs some detached, objective and professional analysis.

Those who hurt others are those who are hurting themselves. That is neither original nor really very profound. Yet, for many men, unfortunately, when we are “hurt” we act and speak and pout as if we are angry. Hurting, in a male-dominated culture, is so profoundly and defiantly repressed, given that it signifies weakness, and weakness is also profoundly and defiantly rejected as a possible and reasonable and tolerable experience (including emotions, perceptions, beliefs, and anticipated/projected perceptions of others). For a man to wrap his arms (brain, heart, body) around the bottom line that he is afraid, that he is hurting, that he is lonely, that he is unloved and unwanted, for many if not most, is about the most difficult challenge of his life. And for many, the depth of the pain (hurt, failure, shame, tragedy, bullying, defamation) too often has to be so deep and penetrating that only then is there literally no other option but to surrender to the vulnerability.

A recent episode of The Good Doctor explored the ripples of implications of COVID-19 among the medical staff, detailing a protracted conflict between Dr. Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff) and his partner, Maddie Glassman over the doctor’s effective emasculation at being refused permission to participate in the hospital’s excessive needs. His self-imposed estrangement from his partner, burying himself in computer games, refusing to go on marital walks, and generally behaving in a highly irritating manner, created an domestic/emotional/psychic impasse broken only when he finally acknowledged his own fears, his own feelings of uselessness, and his own new awareness of how much of an “asshole” he was truly being. Naturally, his partner authentically and dramatically expressed her appreciation for his gift of self-disclosure, especially given how hard it was for the character to bring himself to that place.

Like most of us, we can be assholes, but most of us do not seek or wish to inflict pain on any other people. Those whose need to inflict pain are the most “assholes” among us, and we all need to guard against reverting to that kind of behaviour. And, just as many men do not consider themselves conversant, fluent, adept, skilled at identifying emotions, especially those more subtle feelings like being ‘hurt’ or disappointed, or shameful, or embarrassed, (these words and the experiences that generated them originally are indelibly burned into our memories), we slam a door, stomp out of a room, shout obscenities, blame the other, engage in a loon-like escape, or act out in a manner that effectively serves to sabotage us either directly or indirectly.

In the political arena, preserving a pristine public image, while secretly undermining an opponent may not surface for some considerable time. Similarly, in the business, professional world, many can and do ‘get away’ with acts of sabotage, justifying them as the only way to get ahead, or to ‘show that we are not weak’ or to demonstrate our ‘prowess’ and thereby compete for the next promotion. And the first single act of betrayal of another, may remain hidden from public disclosure; it remains to fester within our own psyche, undoubtedly. That ‘festering’ part, however, remains out of sight and out of reach in those moments when our “betrayal” seems the only option available. Pausing to reflect on our motives, and then to pause even longer to consider whether there are any options to our “shitty’ behaviour, in a world so fast-paced, and so based on competition, and on being rewarded for quick-inventive-creative thinking on the spur of the moment is literally and metaphorically prohibited. And this is especially true in the moment of greatest perceived threat, danger, risk, when the adrenalin is running like white water, through our system.

Recent reports of suicide in Canada, indicate that 75% of all suicides are committed by men, many of whom do not have (or do not seek) support (personal, neighbourly, professional) for what might be loneliness, alienation, shyness, employment status (especially if one has recently lost a job), or financial stress, or even repeated attempts to ‘fit’ into a new environment. This fitting in to a new environment is made more tremulous for those who have already experienced one or more situations in which their contribution was not valued, not understood, not wanted because it might ‘show up’ those already ensconced in their roles. And given that men are more likely to talk (not only in talk therapy but also in pubs, coffee shops and in workplaces) as counterpoint to the deployment of our/their hands in some shared project, men in Ireland and New Zealand have devised and exported what they call “Mens’ Sheds” where local men randomly gather in a shed or a garage, or a basement to work on some variety of projects depending on the interests and the skills of participants.

It will take hundreds, if not thousands of Mens Sheds around the globe to begin to make a ripple of an impact on the bruised, wounded, shameful, ostracized, alienated, ageing, solitary, unfriended (and potentially unfriendly) men whose lives have been dealt some kind of psychic blow (perhaps even of their own making). And given a culture in which those who are not or cannot “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” (like the rest of us have already done) there is little appetite, especially among prominent, successful wealthy, well-respected and status-filled men in positions of leadership, executives, politicians, lawyers, doctors, accountants for attitudes that begin to recognize the growing tide of displaced men (and that phrase is evocative of those DP’s who rode the rails in the Great Depression). And without a recognition of the complexity and the confluence of multiple influential factors (some stemming from local conditions, others from conditions generated and the provincial or state level, others of a national or international impact), and the basic yet glaring fact that men have had and are continuing to have a really difficult time in what to many seems like the obvious “getting on with it” there will continue to grow a gap between the male “have’s and the male have-not’s. It is far more likely that our women friends and partners, colleagues and associates are and will be much more empathic in first grasping, and then fully comprehending, and then enacting policies, practices, incentives and supports, training opportunities and re-start incentives. Nevertheless, will men even be willing to consider accessing such new options? Will men consider such social and economic and educational supports another patronizing hand-out to another ‘desperate’ and especially “weak” “failure” of a man?

We are proud, as men, and while we have some reason to be proud of what other  men, including our fathers and grandfathers have accomplished. And pride is far too often a barrier both to our own acknowledgement or both our strengths and our weaknesses and to envisioning and anticipating and then to accepting a supportive hand when it if offered. Just as we cannot permit the “perfect to be the enemy of the good” in our public policy, or corporate governance, or our private, domestic relationships, including the relationship we have with ourselves, we can no longer tolerate our own hubris to suffocate our potential. And how can we possibly come face to face with our potential, if we are blind and deaf to those endearing words of support that have been showered upon us for decades, as we disdained their melody and their caring rhythm.

As pogo reminds, We have met the enemy and he is us!

While originally modified from Commodore Perry’s military quote by cartoonist Walt Kelly in 1970, to celebrate the first Earth Day in 1970, with the message, man, from his treatment of the earth is the planet’s enemy…can justifiably be currently applied to the condition of masculinity in North America, at least. And, it says here that if we are to own the “enemy” within, for the sake of the planet, we will first have to take ownership of the “enemy within” as men.

And we will need all the help we can get, especially from our female partners!

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