While driving around a frosty New Zealand landscape last year, I listened to a podcast interview with Richard Rohr. He said that he fears we are on the verge of a tsunami of baby boomer men who will contemplate suicide as their performance-driven, individualistic lives reach the inevitable powerlessness of old age. It’s a stage of life that developmental psychologist Erickson called the choice between ego integration or despair. It’s a very stark, dualistic choice.
This year has been met with several of my colleagues making that terrible decision for life to end. All were male, and all were in this crucial age approaching retirement. Men are three times as likely as women to act so violently toward the one person they were called to love. The Dalai Lama was asked how he would help someone with self loathing. It took a solid minute for his translator to explain what was meant by self-loathing. It had not occurred to him that such a thing was possible.
I’ve wrestled with whether I should write this blog. Never mention the S word, they say. But avoiding it clearly doesn’t help. I have concluded that I cannot not write. When news of the first death hit me in February, I was filled with a fire in my belly, a white hot determination to not let this happen to men if I can help it. But it is still happening.
This week I read a blog by Michael Frost on this topic, after the suicide of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Frost was reflecting on the observations of author James Dittes that men are fuelled by an unobtainable but irresistible expectation that life will reward with substance. The promotion, the power, the pleasure, the purpose, men build lives around these visible means of support. Dittes said that men need to “retain hope in a world-waiting-to-be-born, while coming to terms with our limited contribution to building such a world.”
This is a very optimistic view of men, that we are vested with untrammelled hope that relentlessly drives us forward but can never be fully realised. I think the problem is far deeper. It seems to me that the hope so many men have affixed to is not for a better world, but an idealised self. This self believes it can be realised through tangible outcomes – visible means of support. We men do it in the name of valour, of being generative, life giving, but often we are really asking “am I enough?”.
Great good is done by men who are really only fleeing their dragons. I find fear and insecurity to be powerful sources of passion for life. And passion is easily confused for love. Men I have envied for their professional acumen, for having it all together, for having it all, men far more gifted than I, these are the same men who have ended it all. Hubris can be a very convincing render.
The trajectory is set very early. When I get my licence, when I get a job, when I get a car, when I get a girlfriend, a degree, a house, a family, when I become boss, when I… Like King Midas in reverse, the golden promises strike the desert of limitation in late mid life, and this desert won’t budge. The man looks over the dunes of 60, 70, 80 and he knows the withering landscape ends in a vulture-ravaged skeleton.
When a real crisis hits, a man can feel its all over. Apparently writer Ernest Hemingway had writer’s block. It was the straw that broke him. All the threads came loose. The inner puppet fell limp.
So I’ve asked myself why I’m still here. I could tell you I love life too much, my family too much, my vocation too much, but all of these are strings that will be cut. Death isn’t any bigger than it was at 20, but it does fill my field of vision a whole lot more. Ten years ago, I felt I had no reason to live and I had no desire to live, and yet I had no intention of ending it. It felt like cowardice, but truth be told, I was far too sane, too connected to my reality. So what was that reality?
Simply, I know I am worthy of love. There’s a boy in me, and he’s got enough wonder and curiosity to propel me into my 90s, if I’m that fortunate. He tells me to love him, and I do. He tells me how worthy of love he is, in so many ways. A night in a strange bed, away from my wife, and I recall his loneliness, and I care for him. I’m about to speak to an audience, and he’s got Christmas pageant excitement. I’m with a client struggling with life, and the boy wants to take him home to mum.
He’s right there with me, tying my shoes, as my grandmother once taught me, he’s fascinated by sugar ants and new moons and the veins on leaves. He doesn’t seem very interested in whether I have enough money for the future, because he knows that’s not the point of life. He doesn’t worry about being sick, because that was always a chance to discover how loved he is. He grabs me by the hand and begs me to come and look at this, whatever this is. He’s endlessly inquisitive. This is a quality boys have, mud pies, redirected streams and frogs. This wildness that is at home in him, and forever safe. The thing I notice most about him is he is always connected. And in that, I am connected to him, and to everything.
Neuroscientists have recently proven the absurdity of the doctrine of total depravity. Six month old babies have a natural aversion to disconnection, aloofness, greed, hostility, emotional pain. They have a natural attraction towards warmth, beauty, connection, kindness, generosity. This is not sugary Pollyanna optimism, this is the foundation of being human. This is the bedrock truth we are being asked to return to, and as T. S. Eliot wrote, know it for the first time.
We start with naive simplicity. It’s there, but it’s all we know, so we don’t realise how wealthy it is. But when we come home to it after a lifelong pilgrimage, it’s now a deep simplicity. Its depths are endless. They are kind and beautiful and yearning and longing, but strangely still beyond language. That’s probably why the inner child loves silence and presence. Poetry helps, and this poem by Leunig sums it up resplendently:
At the top of the tallest building in the world
Sat the saddest man in the world
And inside the man
Was the loneliest heart in the world
And inside the heart
Was the deepest pit in the world
And at the bottom of the pit
Was the blackest mud in the world
And in the mud lay the lightest, loveliest, tenderest,
Most beautiful, happy angel in the universe.
I have no roadmap for this rediscovering, but for contemplation, that quiet noticing that doesn’t judge. And connection. I pursue connection at every turn now. I expect the world to love me, because the boy seems to think that’s how the world is. but I found this out in small circles of men who heard me and honoured what I was going through and accepted me. The men I know who have ended life did not find their way to these circles. Depression told lies that felt terribly true and they never got to test these lies. The boy never got to tell the man what he knows, that the man in all his cleverness had long forgotten.
I know that the connected love of the inner child is available to every man (and woman), no matter what the story. Simplicity is it’s own reward. And that, and really that alone, is a life worth living until we discover it, and then live from it to the very very last breath we are given.
Note: If you or anyone you know is struggling with depression or feels like life is too hard to keep journeying and it is an emergency, please call Lifeline on 13 11 44, Men’s line on 1800 600 636. If despair is slowly eating away at the edges of your life, contact us – 07 3376 1120 or firstname.lastname@example.org and a counsellor will contact you.