We live in a time when traditional conceptions of masculinity are subject to critique and revision. The legitimacy of the critique only makes the conflict more acute. Here are some examples, based on men I know but presented as composites to preserve confidentiality.
A man is working in a field he enjoys—but his colleagues are in more responsible positions because they have the formal training that he lacks. He could return to school and get the training—but that would mean a more formal and permanent commitment to the field. Does he want to make that commitment? Isn’t there something else out there? Something creative, more satisfying? How can he close himself off from those possibilities? The situation he is in now feels like a dead end. But the next step feels too decisive to bear; it seems to be as much a rejection of possibilities as an acceptance of opportunities.
Another man is unemployed. He is educated, and he has a variety of work experience, but each job was a failure in some way. The crisis now is as much about self-confidence and self-definition as it is about the job market. Because he sees himself as defined by his ability to work and his capacity to provide, he can’t help but take the vicissitudes of the job market as personal defeats.
A man in midlife is by the usual external accounts successful: steady work over a number of years and a happy family life. Yet he carries with him a sense of missed opportunities, of passions never pursued, and he is experiencing an awakening desire for adventure that would have been exciting at 25 or 30 and but now feels like a mere cliché—his midlife crisis.
A man’s marriage is in crisis. Expectations about the relationship, patterns of mistrust, and the inevitable failure of things to work out exactly as expected, have taken their toll on both the man and his partner. Each of them have found that the families in which they grew up were a mixed blessing when it came to establishing a family of their own. But where to next? Can he be a single man again having failed as a partner? Can he be a father on his own?
And so we have the phenomenon that I will call the unlived life. “I have done the wrong things or left the right things undone. There is a way for me to be a man, but it is undefined, unshaped, and so unlived, by me.”
All of these themes are familiar; we can recognize parts of our own lives and those of our friends and clients in each story. The stresses on each of these men’s lives cut across many systems and might be addressed in many ways. Issues of education and the availability of employment, the structure of jobs in our economy, and socialization to gender roles, are all involved and multiple interventions might be relevant.
Most important, I observe that each man experiences these in isolation. I therefore can’t help but imagine a new space — a space for men to safely engage with other men where alternative ideals of masculinity and male adulthood can be considered, and both lived and unlived parts of life can be examined. It would be a place away from the immediate demands of family and work, and outside the conventional gathering rituals of men in our society—bars and sports and the many other settings that vary depending on cultural context.
I am therefore excited to be developing a workshop for men who are seeking just such a space where they can create a more meaningful and certain construct for contemporary adult male identity. Watch for info about it on our website.
I will write more about the men’s work here in the months to come.
By Michael Jones, Ph.D., LSW