Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Things Fall Apart (some thoughts on men and masculinity)

This might sound weird, but I spend a lot of time thinking, talking, and writing about masculinity and what it means to "be a man." I've been fascinated with this concept since I was young. It's probably why I love uber-masculine shows like "Sons of Anarchy" - because I am so attracted to the high drama of emotionally conflicted, tough-but-tender men, and I'm fascinated by the concept of brotherhood and male camaraderie. To be honest, I'm a little jealous of it. I love my lady friends, of course, but I've always found it somewhat easier to relate to and build friendships with men. 

This translates to my professional life, where I find that my best work is often with men in their mid-lives who, through whatever varying means, (often: extramarital affairs) find themselves deeply dissatisfied with the way they are living. It's usually because they are attempting to live up to some skewed cultural expectation of "manhood" but feeling secretly certain they're failing miserably. Often, the men I see have realized that they want a deep and meaningful human connection but that they lack the tools to build one. And they are certain they are alone in this, while everyone else is doing just fine. Of course, this is false. Of course, many men struggle with connection and authenticity and vulnerability; they just don't talk to other men (or anyone) about it. So what I often end up doing is helping them learn to identify their emotional responses, channel them more effectively, communicate their needs, and ultimately to live authentically rather than waste away in the version of themselves they've cultivated through fear and shame. Because the truth is- generally speaking- men contain the very same emotional capacity as women. We just don't offer men the same maneuverability in terms of how to access and express that capacity. 

It is my opinion that although it's a cultural phenomenon, we women are partly responsible for the mixed messages we provide in terms of what we want and expect and will tolerate from the men in our lives. We want men to be tough but tender, to cry and emote, but not too much, to provide for us but not dominate us, to be aggressive in some ways but not in others. It's really no wonder men often have no idea what is expected, what they are feeling, or how to appropriately express it. Many men walk through the world in desperate fear of being exposed, despite the fact that exposure and vulnerability are the only passages by which to achieve deep intimacy and connection that we all (to varying degrees) crave and thrive in. 

I finished reading the 1959 novel "Things Fall Apart" for the first time today and have been thinking about it all day, so these concepts are on my mind. The most relevant passage from that book that has stuck with me is this: 

“Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness.

It was deeper and more intimate that the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw.

Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself.” 

― Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart