One man at a time

Jimblog1How come all my clients are men? I’m not sure, and that’s OK, it’s not a problem …

I enjoy working with men. But when someone hears this and asks me about what happens in ‘man-to-man’ therapy, I find it hard to say. One reason is this: men are not men. I mean, who exactly are we talking about when we say ‘men’? I’m a man, so don’t call me ‘men’. Am I a definable or categorisable man, a so-called type? Have you ever called someone a ‘typical man’? I suppose we all think we know a few.

I woke up one morning recently and realised I’d been studying men, in one way or another, all my conscious life. Let’s say my father’s physical and emotional distance had something to do with that keen interest. But more significantly I grew up in the ’60s as the roles of women and men were being radically questioned and debunked, and I was confused about what kind of man I would or could become.

Every man studies men, one way or another. With fear and desire, with wonder and bewilderment, men watch each other very closely indeed.

Here’s the thing: I’ve done counselling and therapy with hundreds of men of all ages in the last twenty-five years or so; I’ve read dozens of books about men and masculinities; I’ve been a member of men’s groups and led several groups myself, and I’ve run courses and workshops for and about men; I’ve had journal articles published on ‘The Bloke in Therapy’ and ‘Men at Midlife’ and so on – and the fact is I don’t think there is a big story or a grand narrative to tell about men. There are many kinds of men and there are no kinds of men. And yet all the while we go around telling stories about ‘men’. We try to figure them out.

Men are as queer as anything. Of course they are! We find manifold examples in all cultures in all eras. Men love men in all kinds of ways. Men like to play with gender styles and sexual roles, from boyhood onwards. Portraying manliness is always a kind of experiment because we’re not completely sure what a man is. Games of disguise and revelation that subvert traditions of maleness and femaleness are fascinating to men. And – most importantly – men are as straight as anything too. Absolutely straight, conventional and unquestioning. Of course they are!

We’re full of feeling, us men, even when we’re full of crap, and that’s a hell of a feeling.

I’ve met a lot of men who turn away from exploring what it means to be a man. I get on fine with them in therapy, though I’m baffled by their incuriosity. Ideas about ‘toxic masculinity’, for example, mean almost nothing to them. For this blandly self-assured man, any enquiry into how he derived his performance of masculinity is of little or no interest – which makes even him even more interesting to me.

Perhaps we simply want to be free to be who we are. But what’s the context for that freedom? If the society I live in tolerates only narrow, exclusive definitions of masculinity, then although I’m certain about what is masculine I am restricted as a man. If my society accepts wide, multiple definitions of masculinity, then I’m uncertain about what is masculine and I am liberated as a man.

If there’s one thing I can say about ‘man-to-man’ therapy that could apply to almost all my work with men, it would be about how a man reveals his emotional wounds to another man without being pitied, judged or dishonoured. It’s part of what’s called, simply enough, ‘men’s work’. Not everyone understands the healing effect of this. But if you’ve done it, you get it.

Men’s muscle power, physical skill and hard graft make all our lives possible. At the same time we know all kinds of men feel deep emotional pain. What happens to men’s misery and grief? Many seem to suffer alone in armoured silence. I see this in therapy. Men come in and at some point the way we talk and relate helps them to take off the armour and speak of its terrible origin. I’ve done that in my own therapy of course. When men accept they are grievously wounded, and trust themselves to tell the whole shameful story, then they can embrace that wound and take good care of it, and manfully so. The mythologist Michael Meade says the way to guarantee that a man will continue to wound others is to keep him ignorant of his own wounds. A man who doesn’t know he is wounded can’t see that others are wounded. That’s where so much trouble starts.

 

Jim recommends …

Men and the Water of Life by Michael Meade (1993)

 

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Jim Holloway 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

Much love, your brother …

Portrait_002My younger sibling would be turning 50 this year. I wonder what would have been explored in the last half century had that sibling survived?

I think of what pleasures and pains would have been created if I had always had the youngster beneath me in the family. I wonder how my own life experience would have been altered by being the big brother?

As a four year-old, my rather large bedroom in the eaves of the house I grew up in was ready to be divided for the coming of the newest member of our household. I clearly remember how my parents began to manipulate my thinking in preparation for the commencement of the building works. It was ‘going to be fun’ having a smaller room. I’d ‘get to choose my own bedspread’ – I’d even be allowed one that represented the cockpit of a racing car, if I’d ‘just give up [my] protests, see sense and take a positive view’. Of course, being four, I didn’t really understand what was going on and I certainly didn’t understand why my older sister was getting to keep a room of her own with all of her stuff and things in it. There would be no consequence of reduced space for her. I was very resistant and, although I say it myself, rightly so!

Skip forward a few months and a different message was circulating in my life. Unseen, but not unfelt by me, my mother had lost the baby that was due in the family. Suddenly my peace was being shattered by another direct assault on my space: apparently there was someone already in existence who might be coming to share my room. The audacity! An adopted child – whatever that meant. We were now expecting a cuckoo!

As it happens, the cuckoo-child never arrived. But as time followed on I was next introduced to the idea of emigration to Australia, where we would all ‘get new lives’.

The changes seemed to mount and I really didn’t like all of this unsettled social soup that we were living in. Most noticeably, my mother’s health began to deteriorate – her body quietly rejecting something. Loss in her was transformed into chronic painful illness. By the time a full seven years had passed from the loss of the child we were finally moving – but it wasn’t across the globe. Leading up to this move, the basement of our house, which my ‘aunt’ lived in, was converted into a self-contained flat. A new bathroom was created on the ground floor, and then the three upper floors that had been my family home were split  to form yet more self-contained properties. My ‘aunt’, a casualty of this change, moved out. It was a personal loss.

On the day before the morning I started secondary school we moved to a small house away from my friends. It seemed that for seven years one loss became another. Loss transformed until it couldn’t be clearly seen what was actually missing anymore.

Imaginations and dreams gave way to decomposition as I watched my father retreat into what I would later realise was depression. My once-safe comforting mother had, by then, almost totally dissolved into pain and anger. When both my parents were in their final phases of life I dared to fully and directly bring up the loss of the youngest member of our family – but it was ‘too late’, too hidden, ‘hardly remembered’ they said. My child that had sought the adult answers continued to be denied the required explanations, but therapy helped give the events a narrative by which to understand the family loss, pain, anxiety and depression.

Having permanently returned to my home city this year, the ‘golden’ anniversary of all that loss, I allow myself to wonder what different path there might have been if that younger sibling of mine had made it though. RIP Little One.

Much love,

Your brother

Duncan challenges you to …

… reach out to a sibling whatever your shared history.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

How to spend a penny

On a morning train from Cambridge to London a woman looks up from her paperback offering me a smile as I sit opposite her. I take out my laptop to begin writing a blog about art in the consulting room …

An older couple join us. Before sitting down the man picks up a penny from the floor, places it on the table and declares, ‘Look dear, good fortune; I’ll be lucky all day.’

‘Ooh, don’t spend it all at once!’ is his wife’s scripted reply. They’re sharing their ritualised interaction with the woman and me – drawing us both into a performative intimacy peculiar to passengers sharing confined space on a train journey. We duly return their smiles. It would be ungenerous not joining in with their warm banal exchange. They have, after all, tried to establish civility between strangers pushed together around a small table.

Back to my blog, and I’m struggling with my thoughts about the intangible heart of the piece. My eyes dart back to the penny. A playful voice in my head says, ‘Pick it up; put it in your pocket.’ A flash of excitement – thoughts rush in and the moment is gone. The voice rebukes, ‘Why didn’t you pick it up?’ The subversiveness of the creative act would now feel contrived; this is a familiar double-bind. Second thoughts come wanting to know why and what I’d be doing, their intrusiveness inhibiting any spontaneity.

The man is now engrossed in his crossword, his wife and the lone woman are reading paperbacks. The now-neglected penny has been spent as a cheap catalyst for social bonding. And yet it’s somehow become a talisman for my stuckness and creativity. I can tell I’m not yet done with it.

A few minutes from King’s Cross the man looks up from his paper and says to his wife, ‘I’m stuck, I can’t finish it.’

‘That’s not like you.’ His wife’s tone is consoling. ‘Maybe it’s a particularly difficult one today?’

Immediately a voice from a dark corner of my mind blurts out, ‘Perhaps it’s early-onset!’

I scan the husband and wife, ‘Phew, I didn’t say that out loud.’ A rush of energy rises up into my chest; the unspoken thought has mobilised me and my eyes dart back to the coin. I see my hand reach out, pick up the penny and pop it into my pocket, ‘Wow! Look what I’ve found; now that’s a sign of good luck!’ I sense three pairs of eyes fixing on me.

The lone traveller shoots daggers at me, her silent expression speaks volumes. Her cold gaze reassures me of my transgression. She is perhaps outraged by my behaviour, her discomfort conceivably much to do with her apparent inability to speak. She’s unwittingly let herself become a passive bystander, but to what? What has she just witnessed?

The couple look perplexed and smile nervously to one another. Then looking at the man I add, ‘So that’s you and me – we’re both lucky today.’ This seems to ease the couple’s tension. They let out a stilted laugh, and still the lone woman remains stony faced. I’ll not speak to her – I don’t want to rob her of her experience.

‘Do you want the penny back?’ My question takes me by surprise; I’m aware the man still hasn’t made eye contact with me. I hope my question doesn’t dissipate the charge around the table.

‘No it’s okay,’ he utters, directing his words to the table where the penny had been.

‘I won’t give it back anyway!’ With this comment I feel playful and ridiculous. It reassures me I’m not trying to repair something. To do so would belittle us both, and it would detract from the charge. It struck me that I hadn’t actually offered to give his coin back; rather I wanted to gauge the impact it’d had on him. It’s as though my mind hadn’t yet caught up with the act. The energy I felt was like a wave that swept before me, or perhaps I was swept away with it.

Although arguably I’d just robbed a senior citizen on a train in broad daylight, all of us were the richer for it. With a penny that hadn’t belonged to me a multiplication miracle had occurred, ‘loaves and fishes’; a single coin had multiplied in value and was shared among everyone.

For the rest of the journey the couple reminisced about decimalisation. I tuned out of their conversation and wondered what sort of currency the penny had turned into? It’d done more than just break the constraints of a contrived social interaction. It was the simple alchemy of play that had transformed scripted civility into something else entirely, and had, for a brief moment, made a penny priceless.

 

Glenn recommends …

… (not) knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.