I had been wanting to do a speech for a few years but I had always held back because it dealt with suicide and male suppressed emotions, a hard topic. There is still a bit of a taboo around the subject of suicide, no one talks about male suppressed emotions and it is a topic that has great personal relevance for me.
I finally decided to do it because I came to realise that people listen and learn the best when they are feeling pain. That by pussy-footing around these subjects, by not talking about them we are not being forced to confront them and therefore deal with them. When I refer to ‘we’ I mean each of us individually, but also our families, communities and nations.
I am not certain that this culture of always having to feel good, to concentrate only on happiness is doing any of us any good. When someone dies we want to celebrate their life rather than acknowledging the pain and the grief that we are feeling. Losing someone hurts. It hurts so that we can learn to love ourselves and others more intensely. If we celebrate when someone dies, how do we learn the difference between love and grief? We should celebrate someone’s life while they are with us and grieve when they die.
We must be willing to lean into our fear and grief. To think those tough thoughts and to engage in those painful conversations. Feeling discomfort is a sign that you are probably doing the right thing, not just the quick, easy and fun thing. If its uncomfortable, its the right thing to do.
The level of male suicide in this country is an appalling travesty. We can talk all we like about how bad it is and we can talk all we can about depression, but we need to understand what is really behind all of this. An unwillingness to allow discomfort into our own lives. An unwillingness to accept that we all play a part in what is happening all around us.
Researchers, scientists and mental health professionals can give us all of the theory and evidence they like. We can tell men how they ought and ought not behave but until we address the real issues and actually do something about it, as people, families, communities, cultures and nations, nothing is going to change and each year hundreds of New Zealand males will die by suicide.
The plan for me in the foreseeable future, is to continue to read, think and talk more about the dangers of Male Suppressed Emotions. To generate discussion and to change the world one conversation at a time.
I really do hope that I have the courage to see this through. If I happen to offend you along the way, I don’t apologise. This is not about your happiness or sensitivities because none of that is going to help anyway. This is also not about LGBT issues, its not about depression, or sexism, racism or PTSD. Its not about religion, human rights or political correctness. Its not about the latest research and understanding. None of that has offered any solutions (my brother committed suicide nearly 25 years ago and the rates of male suicide in New Zealand have hardly changed since then).
It doesn’t just affect those who have been ‘affected by suicide’. This is about all of us. Its about social and cultural expectations. Its about misconceptions around masculinity. Its about isolation and confusions. Its about those men who never have the courage to commit suicide but are forced to endure a ‘tortured’ life.
Its about, while it is socially acceptable (and often encouraged) to numb our emotions and torments, society still frowns upon those for whom even the numbing doesn’t provide a solution.
I don’t have the answers, I just know that something real needs to be done and that sometimes its going to feel uncomfortable.
“We are suspended, rudderless, between our long history of male privilege and the newer, more diverse masculinities emerging from decades of social and economic upheaval.”
Over the past few weeks I have been talking to a lot of men about men’s issues. About gender relationships, about the need for an acknowledgement of the unique issues that men face as a result of their upbringing and the social expectations placed upon them.
I have had the opportunity to listen to the stories of many men, their struggles their sadness and their fears. Beneath male anger there lies a whole lot of fear and it’s not easy to watch.
It is clear that our masculinity is killing us (suicide, destruction behaviours, ill health) and others, which is why this conversation has to happen. If not for us, then for our sons, daughters and partners
We are all (not just men) responsible for the damaging culture of manhood we live in and we must be willing to play our part in putting things to right. It’s going to be uncomfortable and men don’t deal with discomfort and uncertainty very well. We have been conditioned for generations to simply suppress our emotions and leverage the authority bestowed upon us by patriarchy.
But men don’t find power in patriarchy. Instead we find social and emotional isolation and respond in the ways that we know best: anger, alcohol, drugs, bullying, put-downs, rebellion and self-destruction. Locker-room talk helps us to maintain our dominance and control over women, the last true bastion of traditional masculinity.
When you see all of this, you see into a man’s true fear. You see into an upbringing of being taught to hide vulnerable emotions that imply weakness, like sadness, loneliness, fear and pain.
“We shame and bully our adolescent sons into giving up their loving friendships in order to prove a destructive and isolating set of negatives. … rather than focusing on who they are, they become obsessed with who they are not, they are not girls, little boys nor, in the case of heterosexual boys, are they gay. In response to a cultural context that links intimacy in male friendships with an age, a sex (female), and a sexuality (gay), these boys mature into men who are autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated.”
But none of this is the exclusive domain of men. Many women hold onto the same fears, or face the same struggles, as a result of their own upbringing or because they find themselves in an aggressive relationship with a man that is trapped by his own masculinity.
We can heal, but it’s going to take time, generations. After generations of men being raised to stay disconnected we need to learn to connect with each other in different ways. When we learn to connect and to share our stories we no longer feel alone, sometimes for the first time in our lives, we become family, tribe and community.
We must stop the sexist attitudes, the bullying, the put-downs, brinkmanship, the locker-room talk and be willing to lean into the discomfort of becoming what a man could be, not what a man should be, because that discomfort isn’t going away anytime soon.
I am willing to try. Are you?
Oh, and for any women who have read this far. You need to be a part of this too.
Don’t measure me by the size of my dick
Don’t measure me by the strength of my anger
Don’t measure me by the ferocity of my own destruction
Don’t measure me by the cost or power of the car I drive
The size of my house or the shape of my body
Don’t measure me by the brand of the clothes that I wear
Don’t measure me by the friends I keep
The words I speak or the tears that I cry
Don’t measure me as I am or as I should be
Measure me instead only by what a man could be.
Photo by Lukas Rychvalsky on Pexels.com
Its 5 years (23rd June) since I suffered a heart-attack. Described on my medical records as a ‘significant episode followed by a series of major complications’ over a 4 hour period my heart had to be restarted 3 times. My wife was told that as it was unlikely that I would survive, she had best call in the family.
Even if I did come through they didn’t know what quality of life I would have. My heart had suffered severe damage and my brain deprived of adequate oxygen for a prolonged period of time.
Early attempts to withdraw life support proved unsuccessful but eventually I was stable enough to survive without it.
Yet, that was all the easy part, At least it was for me.
We were warned about the risk of Post Traumatic Stress and depression but not prepared for it. The loneliness, the loss of connection. Doubt, fear. The loss of social standing. Complete helplessness.
The brain responds to your sense of standing within your social hierarchy (your tribe). Mess with a person’s standing within their tribe and they are lost, worthless. It is a threat that has been used throughout history to bring down many powerful leaders. Its why some of history’s great leaders have died alone, ostracised by their followers. Why we fear dying alone and pity people who do.
Our tribe extends beyond just our family. It always has. Our tribe includes everyone that we have connection with each day. Those who provide us with protection, a sense of self-worth or purpose. People in our community and those we work with.
Our societies have changed, we have less to do with our neighbours, even less to do with our extended families, we are less likely to belong to clubs and our social lives are less likely to involve other people at all. Those who we work with have gained a greater relevance in our lives. We can come to feel a lot more connected to our workmates than at any other time in history.
In the weeks after my heart attack I felt a driving need a need to get back to work, to reconnect with my tribe.
When I lost my sense of connection, I lost my standing within my tribe. I lost my team, my position and my autonomy. I had been banished.
It seemed that no one truly understood what I was going through.
You know what? During this time I was being encouraged to emotionally disengage from the workplace. ‘It would be better for my health and my happiness’. Thank goodness that I know when someone is talking shit, that they are making stuff up just to make themselves seem smarter. I now know the exact opposite to be true. Emotional connection leads to a greater sense of community, creativity and innovation which in turn lead to happiness and a sense of fulfilment (that sense that you get at the end of your day that tells you that you have done a great job, that what you did mattered and that you made a change in some else’s life). And then gives you the courage to try again.
Some people when they go through depressive episodes choose to hide away. They stay away from the work place. For me it was important that I didn’t.
At times it has been incredibly lonely and often frightening. I needed the support of those around me, I needed them to understand and I needed their connection. I needed them to allow me to bring my whole self into the workplace. Warts, farts and all.
That’s the point of this story. We can’t always have our family around us. When we would love to be with them we have to come to work instead and that’s way too long a time to have to shut ourselves down. To cope. To hold our feelings, our emotions and our fears inside of us. And its damaging when we try to do that.
That is what tribes are all about. They can’t replace our families but they can be the next best thing.
Having faced up to my own struggles and refused to just turn my back on them, I look around me and see that we are all struggling with something. And I know that what people need is not my scorn or contempt. Not my criticism or selfish anger, blame or shame. They don’t need me to turn away when I see their struggle.
From the top down and the bottom up, we all have a right to feel safe, to be listened to and to know that we matter. The freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them. The right to have our bad days and our sad days. And we have the right to fart in the workplace, if that’s what we need to do.
To my tribe, to everyone that stood beside and behind me over the last 5 years, those who have sat next to me and the customers, thank you from the bottom of my (broken) heart.
For those who haven’t been able to show up for me, there’s still time. Show me the authentic you and I will show up alongside you.
Photo by Elti Meshau on Pexels.com
This is all about those discussions that we wish we could have with our dad or that we wish we had had with him.
Its about the discussions we are still to have with our sons.
Its all about all of those things that we were never told about being a man and many of the things that we were.
Its about the decisions that we make about how we live as men. Its about understanding what it is to be a man and how that is changing.
It may feel uncomfortable to sit in a room with a group of men and talk about feelings and fears but we all have our insecurities, anxieties, and uncertainties that we don’t feel like we are “allowed” to express as men.
We are all obligated to speak freely, to share our knowledge, our thoughts and opinions with the world because it is through conversation and sharing that we learn and can bring about change in the lives of other men: our brothers, mates, sons and grandsons. Men that we love.