Why Men Need Feminism

photo by Mark Normand

picture by Mark Normand

 

I have been spending time recently with too many men who have been damaged by the expectations placed on men to be “manly”. In some cases, these men are struggling to find new definitions of manliness that allow them to be emotionally alive, but in others, they are struggling to be stronger and tougher than feels natural to them to meet some ideal they have absorbed as a goal.

These men are not comfortable with what is going on and are yearning for a more authentic way of being in the world. The biggest sign of this is that they are opening up and talking about it – in a world that does not encourage men to talk, and especially not about feelings.

Some men don’t even realize that they have been damaged, but demonstrate the damage by acting inauthentically; covering up emotions they fear would make them appear weak. Unfortunately, instead of coming across as tough and manly, these guys just look like assholes. But, they don’t realize that this is what is happening, so they don’t know how to transform from creep to cool.

There is a push back towards gendered expectations in North America. The war on women being fought by the Republican party in the United States is trying to drive women back into the dark ages. And women are fighting back. I see a lot of justifiable anger from mothers of daughters who are being pushed to absorb limiting ideas of what a girl or woman can be. I see less anger about the damage that is being inflicted on their sons.

I have sons and I hate seeing them pushed into roles that do not suit them. Even my most typically boyish son is deeply emotional, but he is absorbing the “guys play with guns and balls and don’t express emotions” expectations of the society around him. My two deeply emotional, sensitive, and creative boys are struggling to find any place for themselves in this world. They do not want to become competitive and tough. They want to stay open to the wonders and beauty in the world.

The most recent research tells us men and women are psychologically more alike than different. A social construction of gender expectations that posits men and women as fundamentally different denies the experience of large numbers of men and women.

Every individual has a particular constellation of psychological traits, traits that are not determined by gender. Only by recognizing people as individuals and treating them as such can people be free to live psychologically healthy lives.

Gender equality and avoidance of gender stereotyping opens up options for men to be true to themselves and their own personalities and desires, just as the fight for gender equality has opened realms to women.

In my years of InterPlaying, I have been privileged to watch many men embracing their whole selves and it is always a powerful transformation to watch. By allowing themselves to be whole, these men I have worked and played with have invariably become stronger, more grounded, and more effective in their lives. And it all starts with stepping out of the straight-jacket of gender expectations and looking at the actual data of their own lived experience to discover who they are.

Speaking Out About Suicide: An Open Letter To Noah

A friend of mine has a suicidal son. He is 12 years old and announced on his Instagram page recently that he planned to kill himself on his 13th birthday, which is less than two weeks away. In addition to getting him admitted to a hospital for treatment, she is reaching out to the world, asking for people to write letters to show Noah that he is not alone and that there is hope for the future. For details on how to participate in the Letters for Noah project, please visit the Letters for Noah website.

For several years, I have been debating how much of my own story of depression and suicide attempts I should share publicly. I am fully aware that the battle against the stigma associated with mental illness is partially fought by people like me standing up and telling our stories, but I also hold fear about whether I will be inviting trouble by talking about it.

Watching my friend go through this, I can no longer stay silent. Too many people I know have wrestled in secret and shame with depression. Too many people I know have lost loved ones to suicide. Too many sensitive kids turn to suicide when the culture at school is more than they can handle.

I have had enough. I am angry as hell that we don’t protect these kids. I am angry that adults don’t ask for help because they are afraid of what people will think. I have had enough.

I have written a letter to Noah, and I hope beyond words that he gets through this, but I want to do more. I need to do more.

And so, for the very first time, I am going to speak publicly about my own suicide attempt. The day I tried to kill myself was the day my life turned around and started to get better, but I couldn’t see that for years afterwards. It was a slow journey back to self-compassion and the ability to find joy in life, but it all started on the day I tried to end it all.

Here is the letter I have written to Noah. If you know anyone who might benefit from reading it, please share it.

Dear Noah,

You don’t know me. I went to school with your mom. She has told me how much you are hurting and that you are feeling like you want to give up on the world and kill yourself.

Please don’t.

I know that you will probably not believe me, but I want you to know that things will get better.

Ask me how I know?

I know because I was where you are now. Not exactly, of course. But ready to give up, ready to give in. Without hope.

I never fit in at school and there was always a crowd of kids to make sure I knew it. For years, I took their abuse and let them wear me down.

When I was 13, I started taking pills in combinations I shouldn’t have because I couldn’t take it any more. I was scared and miserable and I couldn’t imagine a future with any happiness. I would empty my parents’ medicine cabinet and take everything that was in there at once. I got sick, but there was never enough in the cabinet to do any real damage. When I was 14, after a particularly bad day at school, I stopped at the drug store on the way home and bought stuff I knew would kill me and I took it all.

I changed my mind as the drugs started affecting me. It was really scary to feel my body shutting down and I found the courage to tell my dad what I had done. He rushed me to the emergency room, where I nearly died.

I am so glad I didn’t die that day. And I need to tell you why.

You see, it took some time, but your mom and our friends in high school were the beginning of better days for me. Slowly, I met people who accepted me for who I was and that made all the difference.

School sucks because you have to go and be with the other kids just because they are the same age as you are and live where you live. As soon as you get out of school, you get to choose a lot more about your life: where you live, what kind of job you look for, what things you do when you have free time. And, when you start getting to make those choices for yourself, you start finding the places where the people who want to have someone just like you in their lives hang out.

And it makes everything better.

When I was your age, I believed that I would never have a date, that nobody would be my friends, that I would always have to deal with people tormenting me and threatening to beat me up. But none of that came true.

I got married. I have kids. I have friends all over the world who think their lives are better because I am in it.

I want that for you. And the only way for you to have that is for you to get through this crappy time and see yourself through to the better times.

I can’t tell you when it will happen, but I can promise you that it will get better.

I bet you don’t believe me and I get that.

After I didn’t die, I was put into a psychiatric hospital for my own safety. The doctors and my parents wanted me to get help in an environment where they could protect me. I think I felt worse then than I did before I tried to kill myself.

I felt like such a failure, such a disappointment to myself and to my parents. I had failed at killing myself and I couldn’t figure out how to live.

My parents and the doctors were right. I needed help. And they gave it to me. Just like your mom is trying to help you.

I learned that the crap the bullies were saying and doing to me was just wrong. And I learned to trust myself and love my life again. And I found people who love me just the way I am.

And you can too, but only if you don’t give up now.

So, please don’t give up.

Stick it out.

It will get better.

Kate Arms-Roberts

Dare to Be Yourself

This is the beginning of a series examining the power of truth-telling in life and art.

“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”

May Sarton

Do you hide parts of yourself, locking them up inside away from the world?

Do you keep them hidden out of fear, out of a sense that they are nobody’s business but your own, out of shame, or because you don’t even see them?

What would it be like to share them?

I have been explicitly thinking about the things we don’t talk about ever since seeing the title of Azar Nafisi’s second memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories.

There is a power in claiming our experience as true and sharing it. Not only for ourselves, but for each other.

Parker Palmer, in his article Now I Become Myself, excerpted from his book Let Your Life Speak, wrote, “It is a strange gift, this birthright gift of self. Accepting it turns out to be even more demanding than attempting to become someone else.” He goes on to point out that, “In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.”

One of the ways we betray ourselves is by keeping silent about our experiences.

And, one of the ways that we redeem ourselves is by bringing those secrets into the light.

If we dare to be ourselves, we set ourselves up for our own mental health. But more than that, by revealing our weaknesses and our struggles, we allow other people to see our humanity, to be touched by our stories, and to take healing power from our stories.

In this series, I will be reflecting on both the things that I have kept silent about and on the relationship between truth-telling and art. I hope you will join me.

Performance Poetry and the Politics of the Marginalized

WARNING

Unlike most of what I write, this is highly political. If you don’t want to go there, stop reading now.

There is a war on women being waged in the U.S. and women are losing.

If you haven’t been paying attention, politicians are using doctors to abuse women in the name of protecting life. Laws that require unnecessary medical procedures or pyschologically harmful processes and laws that protect doctors who lie to their patients are already are on the books or being debated in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona, Virginia, Tennessee, and more. These are more direct attacks on women than the debate about insurance coverage of contraception because they avoid the issues of separation of church and state.

I have not found a way to express the depths of my outrage.

But, performance poets are doing what I have not managed. The combination of rhetorical skill, poetic attention, and persuasive public speaking is hard to beat. This video of Lauren Zuniga’s To the Oklahoma Lawmakers: a poem crossed my path earlier this week. And, I felt a need to pass it on.

To The Oklahoma Lawmakers

The only possibly positive thing I see coming out of this is a class of women who have complacently assumed that feminism had succeed and was irrelevant are realizing how very wrong they were.

Storytellers Matter to the World

“[T]he fact that every life counts is built into the work we do.”

Roger Rosenblatt, Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing

I spent the morning of September 11th at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region. James Dewar read an excerpt from his poem about the attacks ten years ago, but otherwise the anniversary was not on the agenda.

The featured speaker was Ian Brown, who spoke about writing The Boy in the Moon, his memoir about raising his severely disabled son, Walker. Walker suffers from cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. Among other issues, Walker has extreme developmental delays, compulsions to hit himself, and an inability to speak.

Two ideas in Brown’s talk resonated deeply with me. First, he spoke of how the severity of Walker’s condition forced him to face the reality of the world rather than his hopes for the world; in return, he got ‎”a refuge from the survival of the fittest.” Secondly, he described the job of writers as “to celebrate the individual in the face of doltish generalities.”

Celebrating the individual and providing a refuge from the survival of the fittest for myself and others are two of the needs that drive me to tell stories, whether on stage, on paper, or at InterPlay workshops. Knowing this is crucial to my identity as a creative person.

In the face of traumatic events like the attacks of September 11th and the enormity of the damage that to the national pysche of the United States in the wake of those attacks, the question of whether storytelling is valuable pops up, uninvited and unwanted, but inevitable. And my answer is Yes.

Stories matter. Fictional stories that allow us to imagine alternatives to a world that is otherwise paralyzingly bleak. True stories that allow us to see individuals as whole people with feelings and families rather than as personifications of Otherness. Simple stories that allow us to connect with the lived experience of another human being. Mythic stories that allow us to create a moral compass. They matter. All of them.

Without these stories, we become less vibrant as individuals and we become less able to function in community. Fear and isolation run rampant in North America these days. Compassion, interdependence, and community are in short supply. Stories have the power to open our minds and our hearts, sometimes even against our wills.

To have stories in the world that can work their magic, there must be storytellers.

And so, I raise my proverbial glass to all the storytellers of the world. We are the magic makers, the meaning makers, the humanizers, and the beautifiers, and the world needs us.

Passion and Play: Artist Advocate Arising

For much of my life, my need to tell stories has been filtered through theatrical performance. But fiction was my first love. Like too many sensitive children, I let an English teacher kill my passion for writing with a few flicks of her red pen.

When I finally decided to get over it and write anyway, I addressed the power of her comments creatively. A character with her name was the first victim in the first novel in my ″never going to see the light of day″ pile. Killing her comments off symbolically was a surprisingly powerful act and was the beginning of my adult journey to writing from my own imagination.

In reigniting the passion in this one area of my life, I have triggered other dormant passions to rise up and demand attention. My lifelong interests in justice, art, and play are combining with my compassion and care for human beings and driving me to write non-fiction about issues I care about. And, I am being driven to do more than write, to connect with others and to advocate in many forms for the issues that matter to me.

Watching my bright children make their way through a world where their intellects and sensitivities are not always appreciated has reminded me of the issues that bedevilled my childhood. I have taken up the mantle of advocacy for gifted child and their needs.

I have developed new online connections with InterPlayers and other people who care about play and playfulness. They remind me daily of the power of play. Because of their inspiration, I have returned to the advocacy of play as a crucial element of human growth and development. I am looking to lead InterPlay workshops and am building a website to promote play around the world. More information about the website A More Playful Life will be coming soon. In the meantime, follow A More Playful Life on Twitter for play-related news and inspiration.

In my life, I have trained as a lawyer, a minister, an actor, a director, and a play facilitator. Now, in a stream of energy and power, all this training is coming together and pushing me into three distinct areas: fiction writing, gifted advocacy, and play advocacy.

My fiction writing is my place of personal deep play. The other activities are forms of engagement with the wider world on behalf of myself and others. The heart of them all is the knowledge that through playful engagement with myself, I create energy that I can direct towards transforming the world. My power is where my passion is.

Justice, art, and play are my driving concerns and they are driving me forward with great energy now. I am not sure where the ride will take me, but it promises to be thrilling. I hope you′ll join me.

Can We Not Pause? Reflections on the Shootings in Arizona

Today′s shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson, Arizona is a tragedy. There is no doubt about that. My thoughts of compassion are with all those who have been touched personally by this event. I feel a need to address the public reaction to the news. And, despite the fact that I live in Canada, I am an American and have responded as an American.

There are people who have their hearts breaking today. Some have lost a loved one. Some are waiting with bated breath to hear about the condition of loved ones. And some, presumably, have seen a loved one commit a horrific act. My heart cries out with compassion for all of these people.

I have chosen not to watch or read more than the basic news about the event today because the responses are dishearteningly predictable. The media are trying to tell a story before there is enough information to support more than a brief recitation of facts. Politicians are making public statements of compassion. Pundits are weighing in on possible motivations of the shooter. Accusations of culpability are being thrown around, without regard to merit. People are distancing themselves from rhetoric that appears callous in light of today′s events. A lot of people are busy talking, making judgements, interpreting the circumstances in ways that reflect their prior understanding of the way the world is.

I am not ready to engage with any of that. My heart has been touched and I must grieve.

I grieve for the people who have been touched today’s events. I grieve that the world is one in which people do horrible things to each other, for whatever reason or lack of reason. And I grieve that we cannot simply let our feelings be our feelings. The commentary, the PR spin, and the blame-throwing so soon after the event diminish the experiences of those who weep out of love. It is too early to analyze. This is a time to stand in company with each other. And, as facts are gathered and the circumstances understood, then there should be reflection and analysis.

Like many people, I want never to hear news like this again. Like many, I have ideas about how social institutions might be modified to increase such a likelihood.

But, I fear that without taking the time to experience our emotional responses, we head into a preordained game, where each of us interprets this event as reinforcement of our preconceived ideas. Our psychological defence mechanisms will kick in to prevent us from seeing alternative ideas or facts that suggest our initial views might be narrow or even wrong. In the conversations I witnessed before shutting off my connections, I saw too much of this happening already.

Yes, I have ideas and hopes about political conversations that might emerge eventually, but I don′t want this event to be political before it is witnessed as deep individual experiences. Even if we end up with the same political divides we had this morning, allowing ourselves the time and space to have human emotional reactions and to acknowledge that there is common ground between people at the level of our human physical experiences might allow respect to bubble back into that divide. I fear it is already too late.