One of many things that became apparent amidst the start of the pandemic in early 2020 was how we were about to deep dive even further into a collective state of uncertainty. At that point it already felt like the social contract upon which we thought society firmly stood was deteriorating under our feet. We suddenly found ourselves collectively adrift in the depths of a tumultuous and cataclysmic sea of uncertainty. The pandemic left many of us on a search for a solid ground of certainty as we were suddenly all cast into the same stormy waters. For many men and young men that search became a heightened and desperate one.
Of course we were all thrown into the same waters but from various states of financial, emotional, or physical well being. We found ourselves riding the rolling waves of a volatile sea of quarantine in either modest or sturdy sea vessels, last minute life vests, scrambling onto rafts, or flailing in the water.
People of all ages and genders scanned the horizon for someone or something that would provide answers, stability, and assurance – a passing ship to rescue us from the middle of this storm of intense emotions. Some young people of all genders, specifically many young men, retreated back to what felt like promising and sturdy ground: outdated and regressive ideas of gender roles.
Swimming back towards land that never was solid ground will not help us survive these stormy waters.
Too many young men and men today are emotionally sinking or drowning in these waves of uncertainty, and will latch onto anyone promising them shelter, a lifeline, a way through the storm: power, identity, belonging, and status. Since many young men, boys and men have had the development of our emotional literacy disrupted at a certain point – with societal ideas of what is accepted as ‘manly’ – many are left lacking the emotional ‘muscle’ needed to swim such stormy waters. It leaves them easier targets for male supremacist con-artists selling a dry-ground mirage of solutions and answers. These turbulent waters are full of online talking heads and ‘gurus’ selling men and young men defective lifejackets and promises of success upon their manly shores.
Instead of actually saving or helping guys and young guys, they just leave dudes even more stranded, making things worse for you and everyone else.
They pretend to be safely afloat themselves: claiming they have the one true way forward, when they too are flailing underneath the surface, struggling to appear like they figured it out. When we come across a grifter like this in the online or in-person waters, we need to swim hard in the opposite direction.
In responding to my initial thoughts on Twitter about this current state of things, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg said:
There is no one true way forward for everyone, but it starts with finding our way back to ourselves. Building bridges to a dry ground. starts with building bridges within us. Bridging the divides within ourselves. How we react and adapt is key. A way forward looks different for each of us, but there are helpful tools, techniques and tips to support us to not just stay afloat but find our way towards actual land.
The key is to develop the emotional agility to handle the ups and downs of these times. That emotional muscle can only come with hard work, with repetition, and help from others.
All of us retain the capacity to change, even to change in fundamental ways, as long as we live. -Karen Horney
As Men we are actors: programmed from an early age to pretend, project, perform. Perform that we are the solution, and not the problem. Pretend we have it together when we do not. Project that we are successful, all while these unattainable ideas of being a man leave us failing and falling short. So when real problems surface in the water or drop us into ferocious emotional waves, having a six-pack, a fancy car, or a nice suit isn’t going to truly help us, or those around us in today’s age. I’ve talked about how surfacing hard truths can feel like sudden obstacles in the water, and that we can learn to consider the moment as an opportunity to reset and head in a better direction.
In her book ‘Emotional Agility’ Susan David says: “Emotional agility is the absence of pretense and performance; it gives your actions greater power, because they emanate from your core values and core strength, something solid and genuine and real.
When we make choices based on what we know to be true for ourselves, rather than being led by others telling us what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong, important or cool, we have the power to face almost any circumstance in a constructive way. Rather than being caught up in pretending or social comparison, we can stride forward with confidence.”
In talking about navigating today’s stormy waters, it feels like a good time for revisiting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
For starters, Maslow’s pyramid may have been inspired by the Siksika (Blackfoot) way of life. Rebecca Moore of Deepen took some of Brené Brown’s ideas and created a pyramid regarding psychological safety:
Rebecca also explains – in her wonderful illustration of Scott Barry Kaufman’s thoughts in ‘Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization’ – that Maslow never actually created a pyramid. Kaufman offered a new way to envision the hierarchy of needs: more like a sailboat.
“The boat itself protects us from seas that are rarely as calm as we’d like. Each plank of the boat offers security from the waves. Without it, we’d surely spend all our energy trying to stay above water. While even one plank is better than nothing, the bigger the boat, the more waves you can endure.
Likewise in life, while safety is an essential foundation for feeling secure, adding on strong connections with others and feelings of respect and worthiness will further allow you to weather the storms.” – Scott Barry Kaufman
Let’s gather some tools like these to help us steady ourselves as well as support other men and boys in the turbulent waves of today, so we can all change direction towards actual ground. We have to accept there never truly was solid bedrock or foundation underneath us when it comes to our ideas of manhood. They were always more harmful than helpful. Instead of frantically searching for what never existed, we have to build the solid ground we seek, we have to cultivate it.
In Transcend, Kaufman says: “Transcendence, which rests on a secure foundation of both security and growth, is a perspective in which we can view our whole being from a higher vantage point with acceptance, wisdom, and a sense of connectedness with the rest of humanity.”
So let’s be a lighthouse for one another so we can find our own way forward, together.
About jeff perera
Jeff Perera has spoken to tens of thousands of people of all genders across North America about our ideas of Manhood, and how we as men can Be the Lesson in Action.