My wife is reading The Lost Art of Listening and because she’s so excited about it and because I love to read, I have been reading it today, too, in fits and starts.
In fits and starts because reading this book hurts. It hurts deeply. Because it brings me face to face with an uncomfortable fact: loneliness. I suspect that there are vast swaths of people, probably more men than women, that deal with this. Loneliness even when surrounded by people. Loneliness with their friends. Loneliness with their partners. Loneliness in life.
A loneliness that stems from the basic fact of never, not since childhood, not in childhood, never having been consistently, or perhaps even inconsistently, heard.
There are times in life when I come face-to-face this fact. Thankfully, not many. Because it makes me feel isolated.
Does anyone really know me? No. Myself, only partially. Is there any knowledge, anywhere, of who I really am? This blog comes closest, and even then, it is incomplete, a series of fragments, fits and starts, and omissions. There is no knowledge of me out there. Nobody and no thing represents or understands me.
In fact, this isolation is why I began blogging. It was someplace to be me, at least a little more than I could be otherwise. To say some things and feel like they weren’t rejected. It’s why I still blog, even though few (if any) people read this.
Here I can and do say things. Uninterrupted. I’d love to say unrejected, but that would be false. Even here, I am heavily filtered and have always been. Because there are things that you just can’t say. I’m not being coy. You can’t. Not without ruining your life, your career, or your relationships.
— § —
This is also why I’ve never written fiction successfully. Fiction requires a certain amount of honesty, a certain amount of opening up. And I am terribly, terribly repressed emotionally. This is where I return to the gendered portion of my comment (which would likely be shouted down by many or even most women, and possibly a lot of men, QED) and say that I suspect that most men are terribly, terribly repressed emotionally.
— § —
This is, too, where I take responsibility for my part in this. When you have a filter, people don’t know you. They can’t know you. When you don’t share, they can’t really hear you.
And as a result, you build a life and a career and a network and a persona that’s false. Each time you repeat the repressed communication, you reinforce the life, career, network, and persona that aren’t yours. And you increase the risk that you will never—not even finally, at the end of it all—be honest.
Because you really might lose everyone and everything in your life and have to start all over if you did.
And that is all assuming that you even know how to be honest. Which you don’t.
The closest I ever got was when I arrived in New York City in 2006. And almost from the moment I arrived, society and the others around me began that project, with which most men, I suspect, are familiar, of putting me back into my box, bit by deceptively oppressive bit—almost without my notice—until I was, once again, as repressed as society and the other people in it want and need me and other men to be.
— § —
As a guy, from a very young age, you’re in training. About what it’s okay to feel and what it’s not okay to feel. About people. About life.
Yes, women are held to all kinds of standards, too. The difference is that society embraces the standards set for men:
– If you can’t serve and protect people (you are a weak man), they should abandon you
– If you can’t earn enough money, your wife should leave you for someone that will
– If you are angry and show it as a man, people should shun you and see you as dangerous
– If you can’t solve problems alone (you’re “just a boy”), people should reject you until you “grow up”
The standards that oppress women are probably at least as if not more numerous. But there is a difference—it is universally agreed that the standards are unfair. And women are allowed to be angry about them, to talk about them, to reveal themselves. They are rewarded for this. They are, in fact, called strong.
“I live every day feeling that I’m ugly and seeing skinny underweight models. My husband doesn’t listen to me. I’m expected to be the perfect mother. It’s all too much! I feel like I’m suffocating! Like I can’t live up! I’m not going to take this anymore! I’m going to quit dieting, leave my husband, and practice free-range parenting from now on! I quit!”
Universal applause. She is strong. You go, girl. She probably still will feel this. But she doesn’t feel alone.
“I feel like my entire life is going to wage-earning. I miss the hobbies I had when I was young. I feel like I want to curl into a ball and cry some days, like I don’t have it in me to go to work, fix things around the house, or be supportive of my wife. Sometimes I have the irresistible urge to get into fistfights. It’s really hard to repress. I feel like I’m suffocating! And I’m lonely! I’m going to quit my job, take up my hobby and hope to turn it into an income someday, find a bunch of friends that want to know me and shoot the breeze and have a drink with me. I’m going to spend time with them, allow myself to feel my anger when I have it, and tell my wife that I often just can’t listen to her because her needs, fears, and her expectations that I resolve both overwhelm me!”
Universal accusation. Girl, you need to leave this little boy. He isn’t a man yet. You deserve a man who will take care of you. This boy needs to grow the f**k up. He might even start to beat you. He probably shouldn’t be on the streets.
Well, you can’t have that. There is nothing worse than hearing those things, particularly when you’re suffering and lonely. So what you do is you pretend. You keep every last weakness, tear, bit of anger, bit of insecurity, and so on to yourself. You go to work. You do your stuff. You keep it all inside. So that you can have people in your life and not be ostracized. You keep them in so that you can be, and can be regarded as, a man. Real mean, grown men, attractive men, do not have, and are not affected by, feelings. Period. If they are? They will go to jail. And their wife will f**k someone else, and ultimately leave to be with that someone else. A real man. A strong man. A man who can handle it and who isn’t dangerously immature.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that the standard that we use is explicitly repression. A man can be called grown when he can successfully repress all of his negative feelings, all of his insecurities, and his needs to share them or to act with respect to them. Men that aren’t sufficiently repressed—aren’t “grown up.” They’re boys, not men. And they are “clingy” and “unattractive” and have “mommy issues” and “expect their wives to mother them” and can’t be “relied” upon. Socially acceptable masculinity is repression. Unrepressed masculinity is either immaturity or deviance.
— § —
Yes, yes, I know. It’s all just eros and civilization all over again, all just bitching about the social contract.
— § —
That doesn’t change the fact that reading this book is like having someone scratching at my deepest still-open wounds.
Because, as a guy, or at the very least as myself, I have spent an entire lifetime desperately hoping that someday, somehow, before I die, someone will just know me. All of me. Just once. The secret hope is that the day will come. When I am very old. Maybe I’m incontinent, in diapers, helpless. There is a secret joy in that, and in looking forward to that. At that moment, perhaps, people in their pity will just know me and accept what I am. It will no longer be my job, my social role to be something, much less to be something repressed, under the socially sanctioned threat of being cut off from all interaction or even imprisoned.
But really, even under those circumstances, I don’t believe it. I have never seen how it can possibly happen. It’s like being born an emu and watching the seagulls overhead. You’re a bird. Why can’t you fly? No matter. You know that you’ll never know what it’s like.
The ground is your lot, forever.
Wonder what it’s like up there.
— § —
Yes, maybe women suffer all of the same things. Maybe they even suffer them tenfold. I can’t know. I’ve never been a woman.
I do know that I blame at least some of my own issues on my failure to come to terms with masculinity and gender.
— § —
Every now and then, people come along and tell me that what I need is God. Because that’s who’s there for men. God is the one that knows you, that can help you to be strong without feeling isolated. It’s not your wife’s job, or any other human being’s job, to know you as a man. As man, it is your job to save them from that difficulty. You exist to create comfort for them, not the other way around, if you’re doing your job correctly. That is the plan. Men were made in the image of God and God’s job is to manage the universe with love, infinite selfless wisdom, and calmness, never being unfair, overwhelmed, or inconsistent. And to make the plan possible, God, in his wisdom, is there for men, to help them to play God, to help us to be the strong, the solid, the heads of households and families and civilizations.
And so on. That’s what they tell me. Like it’s supposed to make me feel better.
For me, that’s not enough. I don’t live in the secret hope that God knows me. And it wouldn’t make me feel better if he existed and did, in most ways.
I want the people that I love to know me. And to love me. Human me. Unwise me. But as a man, I also know that they can only love me if they don’t know me. And any man who is honest knows that he has learned this lesson over and over again throughout life. They can know and love parts of you. But other parts are, quite simply, socially and interpersonally unacceptable for men.
If you expose yourself, the women and children are compelled by biology, and required by social convention, to leave you. This is true both literally and figuratively, at both ends of the equation—literal and figurative male behavior and literal and figurative abandonment.
— § —
Wish I could bring myself to say what I feel more often.
Wish I knew what I felt more often. That it wasn’t buried under decades of socially sanctioned repression, coming out here and there as a twitch or an ache that never gets a second thought.
We guys, we’re tough. We stand alone. We can take it. We do take it. No, don’t worry, we don’t need to talk about it. You can rely on us and on our directed, socially acceptable strength. We don’t have hopes, dreams, or insecurities. We have ambition, vision, and strategies for addressing and eliminating any emerging weaknesses. Don’t . you . worry . And then we die alone, even if in a room full of people.
Many people have said of my grandfather that he was great man because he “Never, ever complained or was a burden to anyone. He was strong and generous until the end, taking care of everyone and never showing even the tiniest hint of his own suffering or needs.”
The underbelly of this, with which I can identify, is that he probably died very, very, very lonely, knowing that he would never be known, appreciating instead the satisfaction of knowing that he had never let anyone down or been a burden to them, as was his job.
The satisfaction of a job well done.
Not quite the same as a life. Or, I guess, for some of us… it is.