Life. Then Strategy

The world would be less strange if we stopped making strangers out of men

If fewer men lived in fewer secrets the world would be a better place. Here's a story and some ideas about how to make it happen.

The Secrets In Which Men Live

These are difficult words. They took twenty five years to bludgeon their way to me. Then they spent two months stumbling onto the page like a paralytic with a broken leg. They make no excuses – they are my truth. And, while they reveal harm, they seek to heal. That is the only reason I share them with you as I shared them at TEDx Hackensack. If they resonate, please share them with the men in your life.

(Video is at the bottom of the article)

The secrets in which men live

How well do you really know the men in your life? Over the next few minutes, as their faces reach for you – fathers, grandfathers, brothers, sons, boyfriends, husbands, ex-husbands – ask yourself, how well do I really know the men in my life?

Have you ever caught one of your life’s men crying yet snatched clarity from his tears? Have you ever seen rage grab one of your life’s men only to see it abandon him answer-less and flaccid somewhere in the distance? Has a dark silence ever captivated one of your life’s men when you needed his words, he needed his words, but the silence said everything and it was all the wrong thing?

I believe the world would be less strange if we stopped making strangers out of men. We know most men through their interests and their deeds – their heroics and their villainies – and so we brush shoulders with them as cardboard cutouts. But the secrets men live in hurt people – the men included.

So, I ask you, how well do you really know the men in your life? And if you can help them know themselves better by getting to know them better yourself, will you? Can you wade beyond their interests and their deeds to the rest of them? Will you?

Today I want to share with you secrets in which I grew up. These secrets aren’t abnormal in the happening, just in the telling. I’m ready to shed this second skin if only to encourage more men to tell their stories and so you can point to one of your life’s men and say, “Look, you’re not alone. Now, let me in.”

The empty house, the book and the disappearance

In the 1980s, I always looked forward to early morning television. I’d get up at 5am and delicately select what to watch from five channels, two of which weren’t even yet awake themselves. Inevitably, I’d land on a show like “Lost in Space” that was really good just because it was on. When the ads appeared, I’d click through the channels to see if any others had sprung to life. Sometimes I’d hang out with the ABC’s station-closed test pattern and then jump back for some wild 1960s futurism. It was a busy few hours as the rest of the house slept.

On one such morning when I was eight years old, I made my grand entrance into the living room, I looked across the backyard and I realized the rest of the house wasn’t sleeping at all. The garage was empty and I was by myself. (My dad had left a year or two earlier. I remember grabbing his leg as he calmly told me that he needed to leave. Then, I watched him walk to the same garage, get into his car and drive off.) Realizing the house was empty, I did what any man of the house would do – I sat down and watched television, and then flinched at any noise that indicated the garage door could be opening.

Later that week, a man came to the door and gave me a book. Mum was shocked that someone could hand a child a book about rape like it was a home-delivered pizza. (That book was why the garage was empty earlier in the week.) She was shocked when the psychologist helping her proposed she assist men with sexual problems and become a sexual surrogate. She was shocked when a man raped her at work a few years later and she was shocked when a man date-raped her with drugs a few years ago. But, for a woman who had lost her first fiancé in a car crash and then, in her own car crash, had smashed her face so badly a male judge said she was so ugly that no man would ever marry her, perhaps there was little shocking about any of this.

Mind you, mum was a counselor, so the shocking things men did seemed simultaneously to fascinate and to numb. My sister and I grew up with her horror stories and her books that tried to make sense of the men who lived in them. “The Peter Pan Syndrome” was one of my favorite titles. It sounded like something I wanted to catch until mum pointed out that nearly every man we knew had it. And we knew a lot of men – mum ran a single’s club back when being divorced or being middle-aged and single were essentially taboo. Broken men – and women complaining about them – were a constant, if not physically then in eaves-dropped conversations. Mum also occasionally had boyfriends, most of whom I found pretty odd. But when you repeatedly see the shock at another relationship ending dissolve into a desperate fear of growing old alone, you just stay in your room.

So, I disappeared into an empty house whose walls spoke of breaking men and suffering women. I disappeared into studies – peaking with twelve-hour marathons. I disappeared into sport – when I turned to martial arts, I hit sandbags until I bled. I disappeared into poetry, inking my depressions onto paper. I disappeared into the music of angry men – it led me to create the first full-colour hip hop magazine in Australia. With all my disappearances, sometimes I cut my arms to see if I was still there. My teachers said I disappeared into cynicism and sarcasm. They said I needed to round off my rough edges. But I don’t recall anyone standing next to me with sandpaper.

Ten years after that man handed me that book, and now in my last year of school, my sister was holed up in a nearby house because a pack of kids in the neighborhood wanted to bash her. I grabbed the only memento I had from dad – a blunt Papua New Guinean jungle knife – and took it to the streets pretending I could rescue her when I just wanted to be rescued myself. I broke down in front of my school principal the next day – the few tethers holding my family together were popping off one by one and I had no glue, just a blunt weapon.

Facing it in fits and starts

For most of my life I haven’t known what to do with any of this. I knew how to hide from it – I became a workaholic. I worked in advertising agencies by day and made a music magazine by night. I burned out every single time I published an issue. My childhood 5am television time became my bedtime and my enemy. Slowly, I started to face it – in fits and starts that are a decade old now.

The first step happened with the epiphany that I wasn’t alone. It reached me through a book called “Manhood” by Australian author, Steve Biddulph. For nearly fifteen years, this history and these emotions coated me in guilt. I felt bizarrely responsible for a lot of it – Why couldn’t I have protected my mum and my sister better? And why wasn’t anybody there to help us? I didn’t think anybody wanted to hear it because nobody did want to hear it. This was all the secret stuff of a struggling family. And all families struggle, so all families should be able to deal with it. The book “Manhood” gave me company and taught me that I was not at all alone.

(Your life’s men need to know they aren’t alone in their struggles – in the things that stir them beyond their interests and their deeds. That’s the first step in removing the stranger from them.)

The second step I took was to gently pry into the lives of other men and listen. Rather than talk about obscure samples and influences, I used hip hop to talk to men about their lives. One MC described how he felt about his mother, a former Black Panther, dying from a heroin overdose. Another talked about how his parent’s divorce affected him. He said it was the most psychological interview he’d ever done – but he didn’t refuse a question. In 2009, a few friends and I compiled a book of thirty man stories called “The Perfect Gift for a Man“, where men and women revealed some of the secrets that men live in. The book touched on parental fears, growing up an orphan, dealing with bullying, and self-harm. People listened.

A recent Australian campaign to get men to open up called STFU – Soften The Fck Up – led the creator Ehon to the realization that men will talk – the problem is they don’t think anybody will listen.

(Your life’s men need to know that if you pry you will listen – on their terms.)

And that’s the catch – sometimes a man will tentatively reach out but if his hand gets smacked away, he may never do it again. I took my dad away before my wife and I had our firstborn. It was the first proper one-on-one time we’d had as adults. One of his interests is collecting postcards – he even helps run a postcard club in Sydney – so he really wanted to visit a postcard fair on our trip. And somewhere on that country road, I realized that dad would only communicate with me through his interests and deeds. It hurt – I grew up in these secrets that nobody else wanted to deal with and was finally ready to talk about them. But he’d grown up in World War II in England – the stiff upper lip was a survival skill. I’m coming to accept it.

(Your life’s men may reach out in strange ways – it’s what strangers do in a strange world – so grab their hands when they do.)

To the men, this is difficult stuff.  I made a decision to be in moments that seemed painful because there’s beauty in them. I mean, I have to believe there’s beauty in them otherwise what is so much of my family’s history? One of the most difficult decisions I made to be in the pain became the time I felt the closest to a man – and he couldn’t even talk.

When they put my grandfather into palliative care and knocked him out, I decided to spend as much of his last few days with him as possible. I talked to him – or at him – I wrote for him, I massaged his hands and feet. I cuddled him. Every time he exhaled I inhaled. I imagined myself breathing him into me. When the death rattle kicked in, I counted the pauses between breaths, wishing hours for him. In his final minute – my grandmother had just stepped out of the room – he raised his head, opened his eyes, looked at my aunty and at me and then sunk back into his bed. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. (The full story: Finding beauty in watching a loved one die).

How to help a man help humankind

Secrets like these make strangers out of us – they hurt, and, in turn, make it easier to hurt. However, telling you these secrets is not the hard part. The hard part is doing something about them – something I think about every time I look into the eyes of my wife, my son and my daughter. In trying, I know I’ll fail sometimes. I’m turning a very long corner.

So, as you trawl through the faces of your life’s men, ask yourself again, how well do I really know the men in my life? What if I can help them know themselves better by getting to know them better myself? What if I can break them out of the secrets they live in so the hurt will hurt less?

Let them know they’re not alone. Let them know you’ll listen. And don’t slap away an out-held hand. The world can be less strange – you need only two ears to make it happen. And, if you succeed, then this won’t be the end of men, as some people proclaim. But it will be the end of men as we know them because we don’t know them very well.

The final wish

I dressed up for you today – I don’t often wear shirts with collars and buttons. Having worn it to a few weddings, my kids call this particular shirt my “wedding shirt”. When I wear it, they ask me who’s getting married. The thing is, it’s not my “wedding shirt”. I bought it to wear to my grandfather’s funeral, where I was fortunate enough to read a personal, rambling, slightly coherent poem that I wrote to him during those last four days in hospital. I wrote it to the rhythm of a death rattle and the rain, I cobbled it together from messy pages in a notebook, and I read it through tears and splutters to a church full of eyes hoping me on.

After the funeral, a stoic gentleman from another era grabbed me. He was crying in the way only a funeral can make you – when you cry for all your life’s losses at once before you have to hide your feelings from the sunlight outside. He shook my hand, gathered himself then said, “I wish I could have spoken to my dad like that.”

P.S. What Mahatma Gandhi said.

Thank you to the team at TEDx Hackensack for their support in sharing these words. That day was very important to me. And I hope these words can make a difference to others. Below: the TEDx Hacksensack speakers – Mark Pollard, Donnella Tilery, Staci Block and Bonnie Schwartz.

TEDx Hacksensack speakers - Mark Pollard, Donnella Tilery, Staci Block and Bonnie Schwartz

If you need help with issues like these, please contact Reachout. If you’re in Australia and want to talk to someone, try Lifeline 13 11 14 or Inspire.

Top photo courtesy Adam Foster (Creative Commons).

The video – be kind, please 🙂

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