There is something amiss with men today, and I’m still trying to figure it out. I’ve been working with men, and the women who love them, for more than 40 years. Actually, I’ve been on a quest to understand what is happening to men since 1948. I was five years old that year and my father was 42. I knew he was unhappy, but I never understood what troubled him. He would disappear for long periods of time and when he was home he seemed irritable and angry much of the time. My mother was perpetually worried—about him, about me, about money, about the state of the world.
I still remember the day my mother told me my father had been hospitalized. She might have been crying, but she covered her emotions and simply told me my father was in a hospital. She never explained exactly why he was there or when he would be coming home. It was years later, when I was already in graduate school, that I found out he had tried to commit suicide. My father was a writer and had boxes of journals with plays, poetry, radio shows, and short stories of all kinds. I had read many of them, but they were hand-written and not easy to decipher. When I came across a big box with personal journals I read them with a mounting excitement and apprehension.
Here is a note from my father’s first journal, written when he was his old self, full of hope and joy for life:
“I feel full of confidence in my writing ability. I know for certain that someone will buy one of my radio shows. I know for certain that I will get a good part in a play. Last night I dreamt about candy. There was more candy than I could eat. Does it mean I’ll be rewarded for all my efforts? Has it anything to do with sex?”
Journal number three was written a year later. The economic depression of the time and the depression going on within his mind had come together. His entries are more terse, staccato, and disheartening. I still get tears when I feel how much was lost in such a short time.
Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers, writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work, Yes, it’s enough to make anyone, blanch, turn pale and sicken.
Faster, faster, faster, I walk. I plug away looking for work, anything to support my family. I try, try, try, try, try. I always try and never stop.
A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education.
I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying. Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.”
Six days after his November 8th entry, my father tried to kill himself. Though he survived physically, emotionally he was never again the same. For nearly 40 years I’ve treated more and more men who are facing similar stresses to those my father experienced. The economic conditions and social dislocations that contributed to his feelings of shame and hopelessness continue to weigh heavily on men today.
The Feminine Mystique: The Problem That Has No Name
I’ve been reading Birth 2012 and Beyond: Humanity’s Great Shift to the Age of Conscious Evolution by Barbara Marx Hubbard. In the book Hubbard, talks about those key figures that had influenced her personal and professional life. The two primal people she mentions, the psychologist Abraham Maslow and feminist author Betty Friedan, also had a profound influence on me.
I was in college when I read The Feminine Mystique. I still have my original copy written in 1963 with a quote of support from anthropologist Ashley Montague, “the wisest, sanest, soundest, most understanding and compassionate treatment of contemporary American woman’s greatest problem.” In her book she talked about the fact that in the years following World War II American women seemed to have it all. She described “the American housewife—freed by science and labor-saving appliances from the drudgery, the angers of childbirth and the illnesses of her grandmother. She was healthy, beautiful, educated, concerned only about her husband, her children, her home. She had true feminine fulfillment.”
Yet, with all that she had—a husband, children, a nice house, T.V. and new “labor-saving devices,” she was becoming increasingly unhappy. In the secret confines of her heart and soul she knew there was more to her life than a husband, house, and children; and she felt ashamed for wanting more when she had so much. “She was so ashamed to admit her dissatisfaction,” said Friedan, “that she never knew how many other women shared it. If she tried to tell her husband, he didn’t understand what she was taking about.” When she’d go to a psychiatrist for help, he didn’t understand either. Until Friedan called it “the feminine mystique,” it was a “problem that has no name.”
Barbara Marx Hubbard remembers her reaction to The Feminine Mystique. “When I read that book, I realized that I was depressed because I had accepted the role of wife and mother as my exclusive identity….Once I read Betty Friedan, I was encouraged by one major thought: I knew I wasn’t alone. And I wasn’t willing to accept this depression as normal for me. The meme of the feminine mystique liberated and encouraged me to keep seeking.” She shared the feelings of so many women of that time. “So much was given to me, yet there was this feeling of depression caused by a loss of identity—a deep longing for something more.”
The Masculine Mystique: Why Men Are Angry and Depressed
It doesn’t take social science research to prove that men are angry and depressed. One measure of this trend is the increase in the rates of homicide and suicide we see in males. According to Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), homicide rates for males are 3 to 4 times higher than they are for females. Among persons aged 20–24, the male homicide rate is 6 times higher than it is for females and it is much worse among minorities than among whites. For those ages 10-19, the homicide rate is 10 times higher for blacks than for whites.
Differences in suicide rates are even more dramatic, according to the CDC. Overall, males kill themselves at rates that are 4 times higher than females. But as with homicide, certain groups are even more vulnerable. The suicide rate for those ages 20-24 is 5.4 times higher for males than for females of the same age. In the older age groups suicide is predominantly a male problem. After retirement, the suicide rate skyrockets for men, but not for women. Between the ages of 65-74 the rate is 6.3 times higher for males. Between the ages of 75-84, the suicide rate is 7 times higher. And for those over 85, it is nearly 18 times higher for men than it is for women.
Why are men so unhappy? The Feminine Mystique told women that they should be satisfied with being wives, mothers, and homemakers. The Masculine Mystique told men that they should be happy to compete with other men to find a woman and then compete with other “breadwinners” to create ever greater material wealth for themselves and their families. We were told that “he who dies with the most toys, wins” and “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Both women and men become depressed trying to fit into roles that no longer work for us.
Men are losing out on three fronts. First, as women become more self-sufficient, men don’t feel they are needed as the sole “breadwinner.” Second, as the economy continues to move from one based on continued material growth to one based on sustainable living, more males are losing their jobs. Third, as stresses from economic and ecological imbalances continue to increase, men are no longer able to succeed in love and work. More women are seeking divorces than ever before and more men are stuck in dead-end jobs working longer and longer hours for less and less pay.
Anti-depressants and psychotherapy aren’t the answer. Both the feminine mystique and the masculine mystique would have us believe that we are depressed because there is something wrong inside us—with our brains, our serotonin levels, or self-esteem. The “experts” tell us that we need to take something or do something to better fit into the world as we know it. Liberation for men and for women requires that we break free of the old constraints and find our true purpose and direction in life. Depression isn’t merely an illness. It is a wake-up call from the soul.
Depression is More About Loss of Love Than Loss of Serotonin
We’ve all seen the pharmaceutical ads for the latest antidepressants. They show two nerve fibers greatly magnified with a few little black dots representing the neurotransmitter, serotonin, in the synapse between the nerves. The ad informs us that too little serotonin causes depression and when we take their anti-depressant we immediately see many more little dots of serotonin flooding the synapse and connecting to the next nerve. But as usual, there is more to the story than the pharmaceutical companies would have us believe.
Andrew Solomon is a well-known writer who has dealt with depression in his own life. Although he acknowledges that anti-depressants can be of help to some people who suffer, he describes the problem in much different terms than the simplified view we see in the ads. In his comprehensive book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, he begins the book this says: “Depression,” says Solomon, “is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair. When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself….In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.”
The Male Vocation of Destiny: How to Love Ourselves, Each Other, and Embrace Our Calling in Life
Many men are ready to shed old roles, but don’t know what it means to be a good man in these changing times. Barbara Marx Hubbard says we must embrace our “vocation of destiny.” I suggest that our work requires that we learn to devote ourselves to three, inter-related, grand, causes.
- We must learn to love and accept ourselves just the way we are.
- We must learn to love our partner (wife, spouse, lover, or “special someone”)
- We must learn to love and embrace our calling in life.
Part of the masculine (and feminine) mystique is that men must be a certain way and women must be different. In fact, it tells us that the very things that men must be women cannot be and vice versa.
For instance, psychologist Ann Neitlich says that men must be and women cannot be: Cool, stoic, economically powerful, physically strong, logical, aggressive, athletic, hairy, muscular, outspoken, rugged, and tough.
She says that men cannot be and women must be: Nurturing, tender, feeling, loving, beautiful, soft, curvy, thin, passive, receptive, nice, sweet, hairless, quiet, giving, and apologetic.
It’s not easy going against the mystique of masculinity, but we must do so if we are going to truly love ourselves. “When I get to heaven,” said the Hasidic rabbi Susya shortly before his death, “they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ but ‘Why were you not Susya? Why did you not become what only you could become?’” The first grand cause is to learn to love ourselves.
When I first heard Ann Neitlich talk about the things that women must be and the things that men cannot be, I wasn’t surprised to hear words like “beautiful, soft, curvy, thin, passive, receptive, and hairless.” But I was surprised to hear words like “tender, feeling, and loving” included. But the more I thought about it, I realized it was true. Even qualities as important and universal as these, we are taught are for women, not for men.
I hate to admit it, but learning to love my wife and even my children at the same level that my wife loves me and our children, has been a real challenge. The second great cause of our lives is to learn to love those we are closest too. If we’re not married or “in relationship,” we all have someone special in our lives that we need to love more fully and unconditionally.
Finally, we have to learn to embrace and love our calling in life. I believe that we each have a calling, something that goes far beyond our job or career, something that we were born to do. It isn’t always easy to find, embrace, and love, but we must do so if we are going to be the men we’ve always wanted to be. Barbara Marx Hubbard says, “So, the question for each of us is, ‘what is my unique way of expressing my essence that is both self-rewarding and of service to others?”
I’ve found that for many of us our calling emerges out of our wound. It was my father’s attempted suicide when I was five that started me on the path of my life’s calling. It wasn’t always obvious to me, but became more and more clear that my calling has to do with awakening the masculine soul and helping men, and the women who love them, to live long and well on this beautiful planet we all share.
As men, we must come home to the essence of who we are in order to love ourselves, our partner, and our calling. We live at an important transition time in human history. An old way of life is coming to an end and a new path is opening before us. David C. Korten, author of The Great Turning calls it the transition from Empire to Earth Community. Psychologist and philosopher Sam Keen puts the challenge we face simply:
“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.”
Are you ready to step up and embrace the challenge to accept and love yourself? Are you ready to reach out to others and love more fully and unconditionally? Are you ready to seek out and embrace your life’s calling? Let me hear from you. We can help each other on our journey. As my friend Joseph Jastrab reminds us, “The world needs a man’s heart.”