Friday, December 5, 2008

H. Les Brown - The Masculine Mystique - Field of Lost Dreams

A very nice little essay from H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC, posted at Brown provides a quick overview of how we are shaped by genetics, family, and education to become the people - the men - we are today.

But then Brown's main point is that midlife is the time that many men begin to question their identity, but not their notions of masculinity -- because society makes it hard to question our masculinity without shaming us in some way.

This need not be so. If we choose good, supportive, growing friends, we are free to challenge any concepts about our roles and identity and will be supported in doing so. Further, we need not wait until midlife to ask these questions, although living a conventional life (marriage, career, children) makes it harder to get outside the roles we adopt (or are shoved into).

Anyway, here is the essay - as always, your thoughts are appreciated.

The Masculine Mystique - Field of Lost Dreams

by H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC

Each of us begins his or her life at the center of a perfect 3-pronged conspiracy. Born into an established environment, you immediately commence your cultural formation. After the initial explosion of neural and synaptic formations, for the first three years of your life, your environment plays a 'use-it-or-lose-it' game with your neural pathways: those that meet little external challenge tend simply to fade away, leaving those pathways most in demand to serve your life-long needs. In the game of your life, genetics determine the rules, and only the most essential players make the final cut.

The second element in the conspiracy that unwittingly determines your future was provided you by your family of origin. Only at midlife can you really appreciate how uncommon the 'common sense' approach that they took to raising you really had been. Every glance, every word and gesture, every fragment of information that they provided you came packaged within a set of cultural biases of which they had little or no conscious awareness. Through their eyes, you gained your own appreciation of the world into which you were born. Through their example, you learned how to interface with that world.

Finally, the last element that set your worldview in concrete arrived under the guise of your formal education. There, as you assimilated the knowledge that was made available to you, you also absorbed the presuppositions and the value systems in which this knowledge was embedded. Presented with an outlook that sold itself as 'objective facts', you learned to distrust your intuition, to discard socially discordant values, to accept the assumptions of the crowd over the evidence of your own perceptions and observations. You learned to replace your own hopes and dreams with more socially-acceptable goals. Together, these three influences (like the sheep in George Orwell's Animal Farm) taught you to bleat, "Objective good; subjective bad."

Everybody — regardless of who you are — wends his or her way through life toward the midlife transition carrying this cultural baggage. Some of it gets dropped off during adolescence when rebellion against authority provides the cover you need to challenge social values for the first time. However, you didn't know what you didn't know, and, no matter how rebellious and 'counter-culture' you may have been then, the deeper layers of self-distrust most likely survived intact. In fact, it often happens that, during adolescence, your deeper fears about challenging social expectations become so threatening to you that you may transform them into ideologies that you're willing even to fight and die for.

Incidentally, here's were the 'misfits' among us — those whose life experience and worldview contrast starkly with the cultural 'party line' — actually have an advantage. While most people are happily rationalizing their way into acculturation, these souls are unable to perform the 'doublethink' necessary to accommodate cultural requirements. Their subjective experience refuses to be extinguished by contrary acculturation. They stubbornly refuse to be mastered by a world that insists that the elephant grazing in their living room is only a stain on the carpet. For many reasons, their refusal to abandon their personal experience in favor of what they 'ought' to feel can be extremely challenging to cultural purists. After all, these people challenge the very values and assumptions upon which that culture is based. Psychologically unstable and unprincipled people aside, wise cultures see these individuals and minorities as spiritual visionaries; ignorant cultures only see them as 'perverts.'

Midlife offers you the opportunity to rediscover and, once again, embrace your uniqueness. While you've been spending your life striving to identify yourself with your cultural and social role, midlife whispers in your ear that it may no longer be necessary. While your cultural assumptions provide a healthy and necessary framework — like a hothouse — where you can grow roots, strong branches, bloom and bear fruit, after a time, they can also constrict and strangle your progress. At some point, the stakes and wires that helped the sapling grow straight have to be pulled away before they cut into the trunk of the tree. At midlife, you've grown big enough and strong enough to change your mind. Neither your culture nor the 'objective' world owns you nor do they provide you with your destiny. As a mature person, passing through the midlife transition, you can separate yourself from your various roles (mother, father, son, daughter, provider, nurturer, protector, defender, etc.) and begin to explore the person who lies underneath all that.

For men, here's the point where too often a stake is driven through the heart of an evolving maturity. Masculinity is more than secondary sexual characteristics. Masculinity itself is a role . . . much more than femininity is. The triple-threat that men have lived under (in most cultures) for untold ages has convinced men that to challenge the masculine role (as defined by environment, family, and society) means that you're not a 'real man' and, therefore, you have no objective worth. If a man can't challenge his most fundamental role ('masculinity') and redefine it in terms of his own hopes and dreams, he'll never successfully be able to challenge any of the roles that are dependent on that one, especially the roles of protector and provider. So long as this masculine role — this masculine mystique — remains unquestioned and unchallenged, not only will the deepest longings of his heart and the primordial dreams that spring from them remain unfulfilled, ultimately, so will the pursuit of his life's destiny.

The shame that results from a man's challenging his understanding of masculinity (or from having it questioned by people in his social environment) tears painfully at a man's self-image and self-respect. It can be so painful that when it becomes unrelenting it can sometimes even drive men to suicide (and men are much more successful at suicide than women are, because their weapons of choice are so much more effective). As painful as this male self-doubt directed toward the 'masculine mystique' may be, it remains a temporary pain that vanishes once you're courageous enough to confront it head-on. If you manage your midlife transition well, you'll discover that you're not your roles, nor do your roles define you. On the contrary: those men who fail this ultimate test of manhood by retreating into a culturally-defined 'masculinity' find themselves living with a much more intense and protracted pain: the ultimate realization of dreams and longings unfulfilled, a unique and precious destiny denied, and a life devoid of meaning beyond its surface conformity. An unchallenged 'masculinity' is the potter's field where the unfulfilled dreams of a lifetime are interred.

Author's Bio

H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC grew up in an entrepreneurial family and has been an entrepreneur for most of his life. He is the author of The Frazzled Entrepreneur's Guide to Having It All. Les is a certified Franklin Covey coach and a certified Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Effectiveness coach. He has Masters Degrees in philosophy and theology from the University of Ottawa. His experience includes ten years in the ministry and over fifteen years in corporate management. His expertise as an innovator and change strategist has enabled him to develop a program that allows his clients to effect deep and lasting change in their personal and professional lives.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting---I feel like someone's been watching my life! Fortunately, I had the "opportunity" to wind up as a sort of misfit and so I began to question the groupthink early on. It's still insidious, however, and must be challenged on a regular basis if we are to live anything like an authentic life. Thanks for the affirmation.