On being a better man
It’s not about the destination; it’s about where you start from.
A project I’ve been working on for at least a decade is intentionally working toward being a better man, personally. Which is to say, an emotionally adult male, despite being raised in, and living in, a society that rewards men for being abusive, temperamental boys.
It got a lot pointier recently for an awful lot of folks. The message are coming clear and hard from the entire political food chain. It sucks, especially for survivors of abusive behavior that came from people that sound an awful lot like our current leaders. This just makes it all the more important.
A key insight was finally finding a satisfactory answer to a question I had years ago: How is being a ‘good man’ different than being a ‘good person’? The answer lies not in the destination, but in the starting point. Men — boys — are taught a specific way of being, and in doing so, are put at a great disadvantage when they try to become good people.
Listening is the primary skill that boys are taught not to do. In this world, listening is weak. Listening is letting the other person exist. To listen is to be overwritten. So interject as early as possible. Ram your opinion over the others — shout it louder and longer, and it’ll go your way.
So of course I’ve been doing a lot of listening.
The thing about listening is, people can’t see you do it. I mean — the person you’re listening to can see it (especially if you practice active listening, where you act to validate your understanding of what they’ve said).
But third parties don’t see it if they’re not looking for it, or if they’re not trained to notice it. This is one of the reasons I originally liked Twitter, specifically, the ‘retweet’ functionality that emerged organically and eventually got turned into a feature. Retweets let you take something someone else said, and put it in front of your readers, attributed to the other person.
That last bit is key — you are saying “This thought, as said by them, is important enough that you should hear it, too.” It’s the active form of listening, in a way that doesn’t fuck it up like stealing a quote or mangling someone’s meaning. (Of course, RTs quickly became a weapon for attack; people conflated RTs as support or anti-support, rather than signal amplification; everything on Twitter is horrible; etc. But the basic idea, of making listening visible, was a good one.)
I’m going to quote a bunch of people in this post. Because listening is a key way out of this.
A while back, MeFi linked to an article by Bethany Webster, on the “Mother Wound” both causing and being caused by the patriarchy. It is a way of raising boys that reinforces a certain grown-baby-man as the desired outcome.
(For patriarchy newbs, it’s important to remember that people of all genders participate in and tend to reinforce the structure that is ‘the patriarchy’. It’s not a shorthand for “all men are assholes” or “men oppress women”; it’s much more systemic and pernicious than that.)
The quotes below come directly from the article, which struck me as an interesting exploration of the topic.
“On a personal level, the Mother Wound is an internalized set of limiting beliefs and patterns originating from the relationship with one’s mother. The Mother Wound exists on a spectrum, with healthy, supportive mother/child relationships on one end and abusive traumatic mother/child relationships on the other end. Many complex factors go into how one’s Mother Wound manifests and where one falls on that spectrum.
For men, it comes down to the specific dynamics that played out between a boy and his mother, as well as how the father supported or thwarted that primary connection. Because patriarchy — the principle of domination — can be embodied by either a man or a woman, the mother or father may have played the role of patriarchal parent in a boy’s life.”
I’d go so far as to say both parents, as well as outside forces, serve as patriarchal parent. If the actual parents refuse, the government parent (in the form of school) fills the role. And if a child is lucky enough to have neither parents nor school fulfill this role, they’ll learn it the hard way from age-peers and work environments.
“…men are caught between a natural desire for their full humanity (the ability to be emotional, vulnerable and empathic) and their desire to remain privileged and in dominator mode.”
Specifically, because men are taught that all other modes are bad; and because privilege is pretty damn good to have, and hard to give up, it’s challenging to take steps that might rob you of that.
The author also quotes bell hooks, who as always is devastatingly accurate and insightful in a way that makes me wish her stuff was taught in middle school:
“Patriarchy demands of men that they become and remain emotional cripples. Since it is a system that denies men full access to their freedom of will, it is difficult for any man of any class to rebel against patriarchy, to be disloyal to the patriarchal parent, be that parent female or male.”
(Man, I need to read more bell hooks basically every day.)
The Patriarchy is power-based; we know this. What is less obvious, to both men and women I’ve talked with about this, is that men are beaten into submission, beaten into a place in this hierarchy: taught to both be victim and perpetrator. Required to be both.
Don’t want to be bullied? The solution isn’t to resolve the conflict; the solution is to punch the bully in the nose. Now you’re the bully! You won! (This was literally the only advice on bullies I received growing up. It came from many sources, both inside and outside the family.)
Don’t like what someone’s doing? Get them in trouble!
Don’t like what a country is doing? Bomb the snot out of them!
In no cases, listen. In no cases, accommodate, seek to find root causes, change the environment, build community, reinforce healthy society, find double wins, or any of those other things that are available.
The article linked to above avers that men are in this way traumatized — habituated through abuse— to a particular way of being, and taught not only that acting any other way is Bad, but Impossible.
Change, and the transition to manhood
Some years ago I asked for recommendations on how to be, at that time, a 35-year-old man. I got some good suggestions. One that stuck with me was King, Warrior, Magician, Lover (hereafter KWML), a somewhat woo-woo book with a really good dose of important stuff at its core.
KWML asserts that there are four general archetypical pieces of a man’s personality, and that most men enter adulthood with one or more of these pieces in an immature state. It goes through the immature states for each (which generally fall into the “too little” or “too much” categories, with those two situations right next to each other).
And then it talks about what a mature version of these things look like.
This was….really helpful for me. Descriptions of other ways of being. Reasons to question the way I was taught to be. But mostly, I clung to the hope that there is another way to exist, that other men have gotten there, and that I might, too.
KWML also asserts that men are robbed of an important piece of growing up: the ritual, supported, of transition to manhood. In the book, they explain the importance of mentors and peers who help move the boy to be a man. Without this, you are stuck being Arthur without Merlin — which is to say, Wart. (Fight me.)
I also read Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents. The book is somewhat eye-opening for people who find themselves in the titular situation, which describes a lot of people. Adult Children… also raises the same point made above: that men who are seeking to undo the damage inflicted on them by immature parents and a patriarchical society need the company of two camps. The first is the mentors: the ones who have come out the other side. And the second is the peers: other people who are struggling, too, to undo the damage, and agree that the striving is worth it.
Sword from the Stone
In today’s society, so many would-be mentors are twisted — sick perversions of boyhood grown to adult size. And peers are taught to make fun of each other for trying to grow out of this rut. This leaves an individual quite alone, and usually we’re not even lucky enough to have a magician take us under his wing (let alone before he’s killed off at the end of the first act).
Most heroes, and certainly all the sword-based heroes (Arthur, Luke Skywalker, Richard Cypher, etc.), are also missing a mentored transition to man-hood. This thought fascinated me so much I wrote a book about it (not yet published). Sure, they often get a kick in the ass from some Wise Old Elder (Obi-wan, Merlin, etc.), but then they get their father’s penis/sword handed to them, summarily, and they somehow become an adult.
This resonates with a lot of men because, well, that’s what happened to us. We got thrust into a place we weren’t prepared for, and everyone around us acted as if we were a hero (because patriarchy), and after a while we started to believe it, too. (This is especially true for white men, straight white men, rich straight white men…and so on up the privilege tree.)
But for many of us, this granting of adulthood never felt right; something was missing.
Last of the Jedi, Iron Man 3, and Dr. Strange
I think this is why The Last Jedi was so impactful for so many men, whether or not it reached the level of cognition. I don’t mean that they necessarily liked it, or that it’s a good movie — it has deep flaws.
The movie accomplishes at least one important goal: it shows what happens to that incomplete man-child after the big award ceremony, after the medals, after the evil is defeated. Luke is still a twenty-year-old farm-boy from a backworld desert. But now he has a magic sword and responsibility and the fate of the entire world on his shoulders, with emotionally-stunted, traumatized allies, and a sister who comes from such a different world they may as well be strangers.
Luke has a giant-ass screw-up, crumbles, and rage-quits the entire galaxy.
Rage-quitting is a really common pattern for men. The things we used to get rewarded for don’t work any more, and no one’s taught us what actually works — rather, they’ve been rewarded for doing things that take a hundred people to get them to that point, and another hundred to patch up the mess they leave behind afterward. (viz: Rogue One, where we learn about the hundreds and thousands of people who gave their lives and set things up so Luke could shove a missile in a hole. See also my story The Light Of Others, hosted elsewhere.)
But by the end of TLJ, Luke has grown — eventually. It takes a doggedly determined woman and patient Wookie to break him out of his funk, but in the end, he finds a way to act that is consonant with both the ideals he ascribes to and the demands of the situation. The effort, however, kills him: such a person cannot persist as a man, even in the fictional world of Star Wars. Such people can only be ghosts, like Yoda and Obi-wan; our culture simply doesn’t permit a living male hero who is not an abuser of others.
That might be a bit dark. But it also might be a bit true.
Iron Man is a different, interesting arc. In the movies Tony starts the typical American hero — brash, self-assured, possessed of secret knowledge and power that makes him, quantifiably, in every way, better than you. And it kicks all that out from under him, because unlike our leaders, Tony has a conscience, and a heart.
He literally works on his heart for the whole movie, replacing it with a heart of his own invention. And he drags the most important woman in his life through hell to help him replace it.
In retrospect, the symbolism is heavy-handed, but I bet 99% of the audience missed it.
But in the end, Tony can’t sustain it, can’t escape the role he was poured into by his upbringing and subsequent life. Cracks show in Iron Man 2 and Avengers, and by Iron Man 3, he shatters into a mental invalid. It’s not like Luke’s rage-quit; Tony is running for his life.
Superhero movies are useful because the symbolism can be so obvious: Tony literally crashes and burns in his dead-weight suit, the useless armor of self that he puts on to pretend to be a grown-up.
Crash-and-burn is another typical pattern for adult American men. (And may be for other cultures; I only write what I know.) Think of “taking time off for family,” and all its related excuses; or disappearing into a drunken or drug-induced haze; or suicide. These are all versions of this.
We’re seeing a LOT of this pattern right now, because men are taught it’s an acceptable way to escape from the challenge of growing up.
The third example is Dr. Stephen Strange (“Oh, we’re using our made-up names?”). In the comics, I always saw Strange as the epitome of a mature adult — it often seemed to me that other heroes, usually necessarily immature due to the type of archetype they were, came to him and got really decent advice about how to act grown up.
So I was looking forward to his solo movie, and came away very disappointed. It felt like the writers wanted to get there, and failed: they started with the same brash asshole as Tony Stark, and then he takes his licks. But instead of him being properly humbled, and learning a different way to be, Strange finds a way to not only stay the same asshole on the inside but also get his hands back. (Hands are not swords, but a sword is wielded with your hands, and we use them to control our world; it’s a similar symbol of power, if not always virile power.)
I felt like this was a failure of story-telling, but perhaps it’s just that the writers wanted to end up with a different Strange than the one in my head. (It’s possible their version is closer to the comics; I haven’t read Dr. Strange in decades.) But it was just a sad missed opportunity. The Marvel cinematic universe only has one mature leading man — Steve Rogers — and he’s a caricature of a particular kind of maturity, and stunted in other ways. (For one, he’s really bad about including anyone else in his martyrdom. He’s willing to lead, but not to be with people, emotionally.)
Okay, that’s a bit unfair to King T’Challa, who may also be on the path to maturity. Also: there are a bunch of secondary men who are vastly more mature in this regard. Wong springs to mind.
In the latest Avengers movie (aka Thanos and the Half-Dead Universe), I felt like Strange was moving more in the direction of wisdom, but still not there; he ends up self-sacrificing, choosing to trust in his own private judgement of what is best rather than forging an alliance that all agrees. He gets caught up in the petty squabbles, and a little of the “old” Stephen pops out.
Quando Omnis Flunkus Moritati
Ironically, some of the best advice on being a man came to me from the Red Green Show, a show about men (mis)behaving in particularly man-ish ways, but in a supportive environment that recognizes what they’re doing, and gently pokes fun at it, in a way that makes it clear it’s not the only way to be.
The above pseudo-Latin motto of their fictional Possum Lodge (“When all else fails, play dead.”) is effectively the Tony Stark solution in Iron Man 3 — run away, hide, pretend it’s not your fault. Go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for this to all blow over. And it just don’t work.
The conjoining phrase from Red Green’s Lodge is the convocation for this assemblage of peers, known as The Man’s Prayer:
“I’m a man.
But I can change.
If I have to.
This is such a pithy encapsulation of the journey that it’s almost hard to laugh at it these days. Because that’s just it: there are an awful lot of men who understand they need to change — want to change — if they have to — they guess. But we are blocked on next steps: on finding others who wish to strive in the same way they do, and who reject the dark side, the easy “victories” of abuse or self-abuse or retreat or blame.
The other resonant tag-lines are their sendoffs. Episodes end with an admonition to “Keep your stick on the ice,” a male-coded version of “stay prepared”, but one that envisions a passively-engaged participant — quite the opposite of the always-shoving-forward ‘man’ of the patriarchy.
And the other one is in Red’s “Midlife Musings” recurring segment. It ends with the large, friendly letters on the cover slogan of: “Remember — I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.” Because in those segments, he is acting as that adult mentor, even if his advice is often of the Fractured Fairytale variety.
Finding peers, finding mentors
I think my next step is finding patient peers and mentors. Frustratingly, I think this has to come from a restricted set: people who were raised as male in a society similar to my own. There’s too much to explain to almost anyone else; while writers like bell hooks, above, have a very clear idea of the situation, it feels like being talked at, whereas I need to talk with people who are on the same journey.
Because this stuff takes time, it’s hard, and it threatens the self. And you don’t want to end up like Luke, or Tony, or even Stephen, with the lessons glancing off, or causing self-destructive (or other-destructive) behavior.
So, that’s my life’s work sorted for the foreseeable future.