Recently, a member of my extended family died of cancer, leaving behind a wife who thought they’d grow old together, grown children and grandkids, and a whole bunch of others who loved him. Could his death have been prevented? We’ll never know because he refused to see a doctor, even after he got sick.
We all know the stereotype of the lost man who refuses to ask for directions, but a man who refuses to seek medical help when needed is not a stereotype. A recent survey shows twice as many men as women don’t visit their family doctor when needed. Statistically, 80% of all suicides are committed by men. Men over 60 are 40 times more likely to suffer from chronic depression than women, and men over 84 years old are 14 times more likely to commit suicide than women. Men have fewer friends, are less likely to stay in touch with old friends, and are afraid of asking for deeper friendships and support.
We often hear that patriarchal culture is unfair to women, and it is, but men are also victims of patriarchy. Patriarchy is culture telling men that they have to be strong, shut up and do their job, don’t complain. Almost all of us were told at an early age, “men don’t cry, be tough, man up, walk it off, don’t show your feelings, take it like a man.”
How many of us have tried to hold on to the caricatured John Wayne mentality of masculine exceptionalism of stoicism, autonomy, independent self-reliance that is impossible to maintain?
Our sense of identity reeks of the dark shadow of the warrior archetype who is unable to relate, the lone wolf who doesn’t need others, who stands alone against all odds, and in our culture, asking for help is a sign of weakness.
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Help, I Need Somebody…
In 1965, John Lennon pleaded for help in the smash hit “Help” by the Beatles, something a real man is as likely to ask for in real life about as often as he asks for directions. The lone wolf knows inherently that would be a sign of weakness. A few years later, Simon & Garfunkel sang “I am a Rock, I am an island… and a rock feels no pain…and an island never cries…”
Parents, and usually fathers, in their “toughness” handed down by their own fathers, unknowingly pass on the DNA of separation and shame to their trusting sons lest they become mama’s boys, a loser, a “sissy”… We’re still in a culture where one’s manhood is challenged if we show any vulnerability. Although things started to change for women beginning about 50 years ago, you can still hear some masculine voices denigrating women and challenging their womanhood because they pursue degrees, work where only men worked before, and are working outside the home.
But today, purveyors of this kind of thinking are generally relegated to sly whispers and dark alleys as inappropriate. Though not perfect by any means, the emotional landscape has changed for women and evolutionary imperatives of the 21st century—and women—demands that we do the same for men.
In Part 2 of this essay, I’ll address what we can do to change the emotional landscape for men to ensure that we create healthier, happier and more inspiring men for the good of all of us, the men who will follow, and the planet we live on.