American Man

“Ain’t got nobody; that I can depend on”. – Santana – No One To Depend On

In the wake of Robin Williams demise a scene from Oliver Stone’s film Platoon came to mind. Charley Sheen’s character Chris, fresh from the world and struggling mightily to hack his way through the dense jungle of Vietnam with a machete, unaccustomed to the heat and stress, passes out. Willem Defoe’s character Sargent Elias revives him and advises with the line; “you’re humping too much gear troop”. Those words and their meaning show a metaphor for the life of American men; more so for men than women, since we are protectors; down to our ID. While women have no less than a half-dozen friends to phone and commiserate with when they are having a bad day; all my brothers and the angst shared, hurting real bad inside from existential loneliness specific to men, cover it up.

So brothers; be careful how much emotional baggage you upload; we don’t download it; we hold it in. At some point we reach our limit. Once we hump too much angst our falling out can easily find us sitting next to Robin Williams with a pen knife in our hands and a belt around our neck; or, like Phillip Seymour Hoffman; a needle in our arm; and who after all wants that? 

Some say we are selfish and think of ourselves first; never realizing that by using our inbred survival apparatus, keeping ourselves safe first; we stay strong in order to protect the pack. Like Sheen’s Chris, by carrying too much emotional baggage and falling out, we can no longer be of help to anyone else in the clan, and another warrior must stay behind to tend to us; further weakening the tribe. Like the surgeon too emotionally involved begins to succumb to his compassion and sees the humanity of the body under the sheet instead of the disease ravaging it; he soon falls apart.

Dogs and Lion go off alone when hurt to either heal and return to the pack or pride in their role of protector, provider and pro-creator. Dogs, so not to burden the master, die nobly; silent and alone; as does the Lion, who, once mortally wounded, draws a circle around himself with his own blood to attract the hyenas that will pick up the scent, come a cruising and tear him apart; an act of samurai seppuku, suicide; just like Robin Williams.

Men are forced out of the pride like young Lions as soon a their nut sacks drop to face the world alone. For men, masculine maturity is a lonely thing to own; for men maturity and despair go together. The isolation of masculinity is merged with much iconography, the cowboy, the astronaut, the gangster; almost ever hero in the past fifty years has been a figure of loneliness. Current pop culture is even more extreme; it celebrates not only the lonely man; it despises men in groups. Like every Judd Aptow film, men in group friendships are depicted as idiots. While American men struggle to overcome the mental cholesterol buildup of the psychic toxins of divorce; women simply switch the channel to Oprah. Men hold back releasing and sharing their pain; we are taught to hold our angst stoically, to keep it close, to keep us sharp; where we gotta be.

Niobe Way, professor of applied psychology at New York University and the author of 2011’s Deep Secrets; Boys, Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, has peered into the chasm under boys and young men and found emptiness to be at the heart of what is called the “boy crisis”. “We have all these boys with so much to give, so much love, so much for them to offer the world” she says. Becoming a man means leaving behind your family and your friends and striking out on your own, and therefore growing up means shedding connections. For Way, the transition from boyhood into manhood is a transition into isolation.

This critical disconnection has costs. Way’s research shows that the male suicide rates correlate precisely with the loss of friendships. At age nine the suicide rates are the same for boys and girls. Between ten and fourteen, boys are twice as likely to kill themselves. Between fifteen and nineteen they are four times as likely. From twenty to twenty-four; five times. Masculine maturity is a lonely thing to process; and this isolation runs contrary to male biology. Men, every bit as much as women, require connection for basic happiness. “men come into the world with this empathetic, rational need and they are treated as if they don’t have it”. Way says. In periods of vulnerability the male suicide rate spikes. During the most recent recession the suicide rate for men grew at four times the rate for women. Divorced men kill themselves nearly 2.5 times as often as married men while there is no difference in the rates between divorced and married women.

The contempt for male friendship is a cultural failure on an epic scale. Without friendship life simply isn’t worth much. Friendship is essential not just for a personal sense of well-being but also for society in general. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle prized it more than justice. “When men are friends, they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality”.

For all the loss we’ve suffered from the absence of folk heroes from Belushi to Ledger to Hoffman and now Williams, just maybe, if boys who become men were not conditioned to exemplify the god damn Marlboro man, and not mocked for our friendships, and thus had friendships to turn to like women do; well you know the rest.

So, next time you think to criticize men for being selfish and putting themselves first; remember we have to keep ourselves emotionally safe; if we hump too much emotional gear we’ll fall out and be unable to protect the tribe. We’re not being cold, aloof, narcissistic or afraid of intimacy, nor do we lack empathy and compassion for your miseries and needs; we’re not being selfish. We put ourselves first and support our male protective shell as survival apparatus because men carry that aforementioned burden, that, and we know; we’re all we’ve got.

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About circusinpurgatory
Nick Masesso Jr’s fictionalized short stories, poetry and prose have been published in the Starry Night Review, Elegant Thorn Review, Language and Culture.net and Vagabond Press; the Battered Suitcase. His latest book “Armor of Innocence” and first book “Walking the Midway in Purgatory, a Journal” are available on-line and through bookstores.

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