Manhood

The feminist revolution is decades old and still evolving.  At each stage, men have struggled to respond.  Some have succeeded in ways that have broadened their sense of manliness to include the expression of feelings and the value of sharing of decisions with women at home and at work.  Many others, however, have responded to women’s demands and entreaties by avoiding or resisting the call for equality, retreating into distance and passivity, or imitating what they understand femininity to be.  None of these latter adaptations has worked very well.

This week, David Brooks wrote an article about Jordan Peterson, whose call to arms for men has attracted over 40 million views on YouTube.  According to Brooks’ friend, Tyler Cowen, “Jordan Peterson is the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now…”  This is a sad commentary on the state of our thinking about manhood in America—though it is probably in keeping with the attraction that Donald Trump holds for so many “disenfranchised” men.

Peterson tells us that young men have been emasculated by the feminist revolution—and specifically by the women in their lives.  They feel “fatherless, solitary, floating in a chaotic moral vacuum, constantly outperformed and humiliated by women, haunted by pain and self-contempt.”  Their failure derives from an expectation of a fair and rational world, which Peterson tells us is an illusion.  Rather, the world is ruled by ruthless competition and the drive for dominance, in which “The strong get the spoils and the week become meek, defeated, unknown, and unloved.”

Men have been deceived by the forces of secularism, relativism and tolerance, which have made them indecisive and soft.  To regain their position, men need: to recognize that life is inevitably about struggle and pain; to stop their whining and their sense of victimization; to reject “perverse desires”  (you know what that means); and to turn, instead, to discipline, courage, and self-sacrifice.  In Peterson’s world, this means giving up weak friends and demanding mothers.  It means surrounding yourself with other warriors or going it alone, as Ayn Rand’s ubermench would do. In short, Peterson calls for a warrior’s code of conduct, which requires a domineering response to brutal conditions.

Peterson’s affirmation of toughness and competition is at odds with other philosophies that begin by acknowledging the primary reality of suffering.  The Buddhist response, for example, is to meet this harsh reality with compassion and connection, rather than trying to overcome and dominate potential threats and rivals.  In my view, the Peterson, or Social Darwinian approach, simply perpetuates the harsh conditions it tries to cope with, whereas Buddhism turns people in an entirely different and more humane direction.

Having explicated Peterson’s perspective, Brooks then offers his own, more modulated and contemporary view:  “I’d say the lives of young men can be improved more through loving attachment than through Peterson’s joyless and graceless calls to self sacrifice.”  Brooks’ response is fine as far as it goes, and I’m sure it’s only part of a more complex idea about how men should respond to the feminist revolution.  What’s wrong about this view, taken by itself—and about virtually all pop psych-derived theories—is that it ignores or downplays the importance of power in all human relationships.  As the Me Too movement has re-emphasized, we ignore power differentials at a terrible cost.

But acknowledging the reality of power does not require the barbarism that follows from Peterson, Social Darwinism, extreme individualism, Trumpian and fascist populism, and all the other theories that celebrate unbridled male dominance.  Just because I’m stronger than you—physically or psychologically—doesn’t mean that I have the right to dominate.  Not in a society with humane values.  And I believe that any theory of human nature—biological, psychological or sociological—has to be put into a moral context.  Namely, that all of us, men, women and children, should treat one another with dignity and respect.

Now my view.  I think it’s indisputable that men feel weakened at home and in the workplace.  They are no longer kings of the castle and, even if that is a good thing, it creates anxiety.  At home, men still largely accept their own, secondary role—The wife’s probably right; She knows the kids better than I do—and have not fully built and embraced a new one.  This is not to say that many, if not most, contemporary marriages are not more equal than those of mine and, to be sure, my parents’ generation.  But the adaptation to the feminist challenge, the full affirmation of a new place is far from complete.

While biological man, like most mammalian species, may be inclined to seek domination, it seems to me that some of the current violence and predatory behavior can be seen as an almost desperate effort to escape the sense of helplessness created by their loss of place and their subsequent confusion.

There are other ways to achieve strength that need to be emphasized.  As a couple therapist and as a leadership coach, I spent a great deal of time teaching men to be assertive.  That is:

  • Knowing what you want and advocating for it
  • Believing that you are strong and willing enough to negotiate and to accept compromises with others.
  • Working with the negotiated solutions until they guide the relationship

Each of these steps can be difficult to learn for men who are more accustomed to seeing what they don’t like and either opposing it or begrudgingly going along.  Figuring out what you want, independent of what others want, is a skill requiring long and repetitive practice. The same is true about articulating what you want simply and directly.  For  example, I’d like to take the kids to the park today; I’d like to go to the movies, to visit Aunt Sally, to buy this house.  Not, I’ll do this or that if it’s ok with you.

In other words, negotiations are best begun with a declarative sentence, a clear preference, and not a request for permission, which immediately puts men in a one-down position, or a demand, which seeks to put them in a one-up position.

This kind of assertiveness—and the acceptance, even appreciation for your partner’s assertiveness—is not easily internalized.  It takes time, effort, failure and recovery, and eagerness to learn and change.  I have seen many men make the transition.  This is hardly the place to go into this learning process in depth but I hope I have identified its core.

There are false pathways, too.  As indicated, primitive reactions and assertions just distort and enrage the couple landscape.  But a disproportionate amount of male, like female, passivity and compliance, won’t do the trick either.  In all the years that I worked with couples, I found few women who enjoyed mostly compliant men, at least not for a long period of time.  It turns them off.  It leaves them without a partner.  Where, they ask, is the real man in the relationship?

Assertiveness represents an intelligent and mature way to address decision making processes.  Among other things, assertiveness requires self awareness.  You have to know what you want before asserting it.  That kind of awareness brings and animated authenticity to the relationship.

Many, maybe most, of the couple therapies that I facilitated began with women asking or demanding change.  Generally, both gentle requests and demands engendered resistance.  Men took oppositional positions.  The dance would begin: women propose and men oppose—or sometimes comply.

Because so much change begins with the woman’s initiative, the most powerful approach is for men to begin.  I’m in agreement with Peterson here.  But I feel very differently about the approach they must take.  Yes, men must take up the struggle themselves, individually and collectively.  But they must do so with respect and in search, not of dominance, but of reciprocity and intimacy.  If we do, we will meet women halfway—and we will genuinely call ourselves men.

 

 

Spaciousness: A Measure of Life’s Vitality

I want to propose a new measure for the vitality of life: the experience of spaciousness.  A spacious world is a free world, full of people and ideas, activities and imagination—all in motion, with enough room to touch one another for a moment, dance away, then touch again.  Each time they touch, a new configuration is formed.

You might think that the world would grow smaller, much smaller, as we age.  After all, there are fewer years ahead.  There’s less to look forward to, fewer fantasies about what we might encounter or achieve.  Yearning and ambition, those great drivers of a expanded world, have mostly fled.  Friends and relatives are slipping away—many of the people we are closest to have retreated into themselves or died.  Since most of us aren’t working, we have lost that large circle of acquaintances who gave an extra spice to our lives and added to the everyday stories that enlarge our sense of self.

The past shrinks as memories grow dimmer—not just the quantity but also their meaning and intensity.  With time and a modicum of maturity, we have learned to calm ourselves, to stop those memories from dominating our present life—the time when a guy jilted us in high school; the year we lost a child; the time a father lashed into us; the humiliations we have all suffered, early and late in life.  Shrinking those memories in order to live a good life in the present has been one of the great accomplishments on the way to maturity and greater wisdom.

As we age, you might think that our worlds are shrinking without recourse but, aside from physical activity, that is not my experience.  My mental and emotional world is still expanding.

Let me offer some random illustrations.  During the last few months, I have been interviewed by my granddaughter, 19, and by a friend’s 14 year old daughter, both seeking an eye witness to the 1960’s and the Civil Rights era and recollections of childhood in the 1940’s.  I’ve been questioned by nonprofit leaders, wanting to know about how I built my organization and how I managed to leave, ready to continue its growth.   Also by journalists asking my thoughts on aging.

There’s nothing grand about the interviews but I love to pontificate and, as I’m discovering, I love to recreate a chock-filled past for almost anyone who is interested.  What has struck me is the expansiveness of the experience.  The more people ask me the more my memories came out, like a flood—no, not a flood—like snowflakes, one after another after another, until they filled and colored whole landscapes.  Once one landscape is completed, I seem to build another.  During these experiences, I can’t tell if I’m recreating or inventing worlds but they feel real and they keep coming.  The more people ask, the more I remember, new and old worlds keep springing to life, and I find myself wishing I’d have interviews every day.

When people are interested in what we think and do, our world expands.  Why not put ourselves in that position as much as possible.  The other day, after a meeting with some young leaders who I mentor, I wondered whether I should make myself more available.  Why should there be a sharp distinction between working and retirement.  Few things make me happier than supporting young people and sharing what I’ve learned.  Just the other day, my daughter quipped that I’d probably be happiest as a village elder, and she’s right.  What a large world that would be, sitting in a rocker and adding to the lives of younger people.

There are many ways that my universe continues to grow.  To state the obvious, my family keeps growing.  There are five grandchildren, two children and two virtually-my-children—my son- and daughter-in-law.  All of their lives are growing exponentially.  I participate in their lives.  I watch them grow.  I learn about their stories and their expanding universes.

My intellectual universe is growing, too.  When I talk with family, friends, and mentees, I find myself citing historical events and precedents, quoting poets and philosophers, inventing broad theories of everything.  This is not an entirely new style for me (an understatement, notes my wife) but it seems to be increasing, as though I am living in an immense world of ideas that no longer feels tethered to particular historical events.  Now they roam freely, attaching as they will to one experience or another, lending greater meaning to the specific and otherwise limited events that they touch.

Young people often chuckle when I begin one of my historical, literary, or philosophical references—here he goes again—but they also seem to like it.  To them, their own ideas and their own experience can sometimes seem compressed and lacking in context.  Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed are not part of their everyday universe.  Nor Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, Marx, and Dewey.  But they are mine.  They were internalized over so many years that they have colonized wide swaths of my interior space and inform everything I think.  Though the young people don’t know it, these ideas are part of their lives, just buried and implicit.  I have fun telling them how that is so.

I’ve written before about the impact of experience on problem solving.  When problems arise, I draw on many earlier efforts to solve similar ones, on successes and failures that inform the present, on templates that I and others have developed.  Get me thinking and talking about a challenge and I feel that I can draw on an almost infinite variety of approaches.  That’s one of the reasons I have such fun when mentoring young leaders.

Surprisingly, then, looking back affords a great sense of spaciousness.  But what about looking forward?  That timeline has surely shortened.  You wouldn’t think that I could have comparable expectations about the future, could you?

Actually, I think that I do.  For instance, I like so much to imagine how things might turn out for my children and grandchildren, my mentees, the organizations I helped to start.  What will Molly and Jake choose for work?  Who will they marry, if they marry.  If so, what will those lucky people be like?  Will Franny and I be alive for Eli, Jack, and Lucy’s bar- and bat-mitzvahs; will we see the arc of their lives as we have, with great good fortune, seen a good deal of our children’s trajectories.  We love to speculate about these things.  And so it is for my mentees and for the organizations that I’ve worked with.

Oddly, speculation about the future is not so different than recreating the past.  Both require imagination, a blending of facts and filler. They are creative acts.  During the act of creation, uncertainties arise.  These, the times before committing to our course, are the most pivotal moments.

I have always liked uncertainties—the way you feel when you get lost and have to find your way home.  That is so much better for me than having a GPS at my side.  I like the freedom that comes with uncertainty.  I like observing how closely my speculations hew to experience.   I like learning about the world through observation and reading and conversation.  Uncertainty and the infinite potential for learning are partly what make the future seem spacious.

Earlier I spoke about the pleasure I take in still being involved in the lives of younger people.  I’d like to conclude this essay, though, with a different, maybe even an opposing thought.  Even as we participate in the lives of others as we age, we also move to the side and become observers.

When we really observe, when we rid ourselves, little by little, of prejudice and prescribed outcomes and investments in particular outcomes, the observed world becomes much more dynamic.   As an observer, we shrink into the background; and the more we shrink, the larger the observed world becomes.  Our selves, our egos, are no longer blocking the view.  As we leave the foreground for the background, our vested interests shrink.  We observe a universe that is startling in its clarity and spaciousness.

 

A New Beginning: Crossing from Aging into Old Age.

I’ve lived with death or the anticipation of death for at least fifty years now.  That was when my father died.  His early departure somehow convinced me that my own would follow by the time I reached fifty.  Bleak as that may sound, I learned to deal with these feelings in ways that have not limited the way I live.  By emphasizing how fragile and uncertain life is, the nearness of death taught me to value and savor life much more.

While on friendly enough terms with death, I’ve kept old age at bay.  The kind of limitations and decrepitude it spoke has remained someone else’s business—until recently.

Recently, a friend, Ronni Bennett, noted a comparable shift of consciousness. “When I started this blog back in 2004, there was literally nothing good being written anywhere in the popular press about growing old.”  Everything people did write “made getting old sound so awful…that I thought then I might as well shoot myself at age 62.”  Instead, Ronni, like almost every other aging blogger and memoirist, wrote about the virtues of aging.  Lately, while struggling with pancreatic cancer, Ronni says that she’s come to believe that she’s “overdone the positive sides of aging or, maybe, underplayed the difficulties…Getting old is hard. Most younger people (including ourselves back then) have no idea what courage it takes to keep going in old age.”

She continues:  “From simple aches and pains with or without a particular cause to the big deal “diseases of age” like cancer, heart disease and others that afflict elders in much greater numbers than young people to counting out medications, following special diets, exercises, etc., it takes a lot of work, a lot of gumption to grow old.”

Most of us who have crossed into the seventies know this list very well but, except among ourselves, limit our complaints. There are many reasons why.  To begin, we know that young people don’t especially want to know.  It bores them. It frightens them.  It represents a kind of burden or potential burden .  Then, again, we, ourselves, don’t want to know.  We don’t want to project a terrible future for ourselves.  We are also afraid of not being taken seriously, of being discarded, which is what happens when we emphasize our diminishment.  Then, too, we have our own deeply internalized injunctions against kvetching and making a burden of ourselves.  Some of us retain certain arrogant ideas about ourselves—others my age are diminished but not me.  I’m stronger than most.  Translated, this means that we believe ourselves to be more virtuous.

I visited Alaska recently and met a women who fashioned herself a tough old bird.  She had read a few of my essays, liked them well enough to talk with me, and wondered if I wanted some feedback.  “Of course,” said I.  A week later, she wrote back a scathing critique of my “whining.”  What’s the solution to the vulnerability I wanted to articulate as prelude to my wondrously positive conclusions?  “Buck up,” she advised.  My new Alaskan friend might be tougher than most, but she represents feelings that many, maybe most of us share: a preference for stoicism.

On January 2, I had shoulder surgery, nothing compared to Ronni’s struggles.  But it is a notoriously painful operation, making it hard to sleep, unable to move freely—the shoulder and arm have to be immobilized for five or six weeks.  The sleeplessness and inaction along with oxicodone and Tylenol dulled my mind, limiting me to reading pulp fiction and staring glumly at TV series.  I have needed help with almost everything, from dressing to making a cup of coffee.  Having built a life around a an overly independent and highly active temperament, the neediness and dependence have been depressing.  Even as I reminded myself that this condition should be brief, I didn’t entirely believe it.

In youth, I’d readily write off such fears as neurotic and momentary.  That was then.  At my age and with the spate of illnesses, injuries, and surgeries I have had during the last few years, these premonitions seemed apt and not so exaggerated.

Of course I still have the freedom to respond to these ‘realizations’ in many different ways.  Stoically, for example, is my default position and I still do it pretty well.  Denial is a second strategy.  But I don’t do denial very well. I’ve always been pretty honest with myself.  If I see a trend—more injuries and illnesses, leading to greater inaction and dependence—I see a trend.  My best temperamental quality, though, is my belief that I will see difficulties through, that I will ultimately learn and profit from them.  If, in old age, I can’t return to athletic form, I can at least grow wiser.

That belief has been the gist of my essays: transforming lemons into lemonade; learning from fears and vulnerabilities; growing deeper through insight into my problems.  I have long seen this kind of learning as the road to wisdom, and wisdom has long been my goal.  So why would I deny or shuck off the very experiences from which I learn the most.

For the simple reason that the promise to cross over from struggle to triumph, to emerge on the other side, seems less of a sure thing when you are older—and older in that new country where you are likely to face more and more powerful challenges with diminishing resources at hand.

Confronted with this very vivid reality, there is a second, strangely attractive path to follow.  Yielding to age, suffering, dependence and all of those terrifying possibilities.  There is something seductive in diminishment.  It’s like the approach of a lover who is both beautiful and ugly.  She’s singing a quiet song, promising comfort: come to me; it’s not so bad.  Be honest.  Just look at yourself.  You can’t deny the decline.  Why fight it?

As with everyone I know, some small part of me has always wanted to give up.  When I’m challenged.  When I’m defeated.  When I’m down.  When I simply don’t want to please all those voices in my that have urged me to keep trying, to succeed, to be strong, to be good.  They have been such powerful  voices that, paradoxically, part of me has also wanted to defy them.  Yielding to the siren song of resignation can seem restful, peaceful. “I’ve done what I’ve done and don’t have to do any more.  At last, I can rest.”

But I’m not ready to rest—not yet; hopefully, not for a long time; and there may be something for me to learn from crossing into a new reality of old age.

Oddly enough, old age feels new, and, in spite of the great metrics of my recent bloodwork, my shoulder surgery, my broken wrist, and my hiatal hernia, seem to have hurried ushered me into old age.  I’ll have to wander in this  new territory, get the lay of the land, figure out how not to dwell in its terrors, and, by keeping an open mind, learn to observe what is deep, beautiful, and lively.  How strange.  To come a new place and, once again, become a learner.