Men are the Canaries in the Coal Mine and the Hope for Our Future on Planet Earth

I’ll be 70 years old in December, 2013.  I’ve done a great deal of healing over the years.  I’ve had to deal with my own health issues.  Like my father I’ve suffered from manic-depressive illness (bipolar disorder) where I’m exuberant and high, get lots done, feel like I can juggle 8 balls in the air at the same time, but then want to reach for 9 and 10.  When that happens I get edgy, then angry, then filled with rage, the balls crash around me and I fall into an agitated depression.

To say I wasn’t easy to live with would be a vast understatement.  Which is why my first two marriages failed and I wasn’t able to have a chance at a successful marriage (Carlin and I have now been together for 33 years) until I dealt with my dis-ease.

Kay Redfield Jamison captured the essence of what it was like for me in her book, An Unquiet Mind:  Memoir of Moods and Madness:

“You’re irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding, and no reassurance is ever enough.  You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and ‘you’re not at all like yourself but will be soon,’ but you know you won’t.”

Having worked with more than 30,000 men and their families over the last 40 plus years, I know I’m not alone in my suffering.  Men have unique stresses that we face and must deal with.  As psychologist Herb Goldberg told us in his book, The Hazards of Being Male, “The male has paid a heavy price for his masculine ‘privilege’ and power.  He is out of touch with his emotions and his body. He is playing by the rules of the male game plan and with lemming-like purpose he is destroying himself—emotionally, psychologically, and physically.”

I’m not sure the physical, emotional, and spiritual life of men has improved since Goldberg wrote those words in 1976.  It may even be getting worse.  Yet, I don’t think this is just a personal issue.  When millions of men are breaking down and the suicide rate for males is 3 to 18 times higher than it is for women at the same age, we know we are dealing with problems that are systemic.

Men are the canaries in the coal mine alerting us to the major changes going on in the world today.  Suicide is the ultimate statement of pain and despair and when more and more men are ending their lives, it’s telling us we are not dealing well with the changes going on in the world.  Richard Heinberg , author of Peak Everything:  Waking up to a Century of Declines, speaks to these mega-changes.  “I am not referring to a war or terrorist incident, stock market crash, or global warming,” he says, “but to a more fundamental reality that is driving terrorism, war, economic swings, climate change and more.”  Heinberg concludes that not only are we reaching the end of easily available fossil fuels, “peak oil,” but we are reaching limits on all resources, “peak everything.”

From the time of our hunter-gatherer past, it has been men who left the comfort of the camp and hunted far afield.  They were the ones who noticed changes in the environment, game becoming scarce, water holes drying up.  They are the ones who returned to camp to tell the tribe it was time they must move on.

I believe it is men’s calling at this time in human history to sound the alarm and get us moving.  But this time there’s no place we can run.  We’ve filled up the earth with human beings and have reached the limits of growth.  We can’t continue to use up more and more of the earth’s resources, pollute our air, land, and water, destroy bio-diversity, and heat our planet beyond temperatures that support life as we know it.  We will change our ways or we will die.  Sam Keen, author of many books including, Fire in the Belly:  On Being a Man lays it out for us:

“The radical vision of the future rests on the belief that the logic that determines either our survival or our destruction is simple:

  1. The new human vocation is to heal the Earth.
  2. We can only heal what we love.
  3. We can only love what we know.
  4. We can only know what we touch.”

And here’s the deal, healing the Earth and healing ourselves go hand in hand.  We might also say:

  1. The new human vocation of men is to heal Ourselves.
  2. We can only heal what we love.
  3. We can only love what we know.
  4. We can only know what we touch.

So let’s get more deeply in touch with ourselves and some part of the Earth that we feel called upon to heal.  I look forward to hearing from you.  What needs healing in you?  What part of the Earth’s healing do you feel drawn to engage with?

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  1. Consider that many people are instantly categorized — and often dismissed — for their color, national origin, religious or political beliefs, even sexual orientation. Overriding all of these may be what they do for a living. Imagine the cultural shock for a retired man with no defining career. In our culture he is essentially powerless. Other cultures reportedly respect their elders for their wisdom and counsel. Ours seems to chuckle at their infirmities and deride them.

    Some retirees become more active in volunteer work, which they discover can too often be a hotbed of petty, long-simmering bickering among other volunteers distracted from the purpose of their organization and besotted by the elixir of what is perceived as power for their frequently minuscule imaginations and intellects.

    Can it be that much of a surprise that such men are increasingly seeking the solace of The Long Nap? This may be particularly likely once their loved ones and contemporaries die off or they fall prey to physical challenges that make life difficult to navigate. Look for those suicide numbers to increase. They are already much higher than reported because of the stigma of self-deliverance.

    My antidote is to celebrate every morning I wake up above ground. I plan to live forever. So far, so good.

    • Jay, thanks for your insightful and sensitive comments. I agree that too many of us are “downsized” or “dismissed” in one way or another. Retirement, far from being a time to enjoy the benefits of our labors and to relax ourselves surrounded by friends and family who love us, can become a nightmare for many. As you say, we don’t often value the “out of work” male. Women seem to do a better job staying connected socially and there also seems to be less stigma attached to a woman who is not working as opposed to a man who is “retired.”

      I’m glad you’re staying active and staying connected. Thanks for staying connected here. Hugs from me and Carlin.

  2. Jay Gordon has pointed to a major challenge that some of our male “canaries” – older men facing a retirement often fraught with financial challenges must deal with. They are feeling separated from a society that now favors the latest electronic technology, but ignores those with the wisdom developed in the crucibles of experience. The retirees – and particularly the male retiree – now have also lost their workplace identity.

    Retirement is supposed to be a time to reap the abundance of our lifetime of labor. However, after the obligatory rounds of golf, etc., many men often feel major voids in their life, which they often try to fill will large quantities of alcohol or other palliatives.

    Typically males die from suicide three to four times more often as do females, and not unusually five or more times as often.

    Each of us involved with someone facing such a retirement challenge should take early and continuing action to reach out to them (and particularly male retirees!). Many can benefit from wise counseling.