Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Neutered Uselessness

And now a word from the remaindered men:
A friend of mine, Henry, 50, who divorced seven years ago, considers himself part of a group he refers to as “remaindered men”. “It is the sense that we colluded in the process of making ourselves surplus to requirement,” he explains. “We married capable women who took over every aspect of life. They ran the household, the children, the social life. For a while it seems a good meal ticket to be on, but in the end the horrible logic of the process results in us being without any kind of a role at all and not much self-confidence to find another one within the existing framework.

“We are caught between the old model of being the breadwinner and the new model of being the co-washer-upper and feeder, and the truth is we never really mastered either of these roles – old or new – and this has led to a profound sense of crisis in men. Unless you really are able to look back at what happened, you can’t move on.

“The immediate reaction to divorce is to sink into a slump of despair, but then you turn into a teenager again – it’s the false paradise of endless encounters with new women. Men lost their way when they stopped going out and killing the food or bringing in the bacon. I feel my generation of men inhabit a place that I call neutered uselessness. We are reactive rather than proactive. Many of us have lost our self-confidence and self-respect, and become insular and inward-looking.”
I am ambivalent about this. On the one hand, sure, I get why a divorced 50-year-old man might feel useless and fall into a crisis. I have written a lot here about the declining status of adult men, the problems many people in our society have finding workable identities, and the spreading sense that most of us are economically surplus.

On the other, do we really need to get into this competitive suffering crap? White men have problems, but it is simply not true that they are worse than the problems of other people. This same article includes the infamous whine, "The problems of men rarely get our attention." Pay attention to me! I'm suffering too!

We have a habit of mind that I might call crisis sociology. When faced with a serious personal problem we like to explain it in sociological terms: it isn't just me, it's the crisis faced by all 50-year-old men/60-year-old women/23-year-olds without careers/drunken sailors/unappreciated billionaires/whatever. And in some sense this is true; many 23-year-olds have no idea how to navigate their way into adulthood and suffer for it. But let me tell you, once you solve all the problems of being 23 you will not be free of problems; you will only acquire the problems of being 30. And then of being 40, and then of being 50. . . . And if you didn't have the problems that come from being blandly suburban white, or black, or an immigrant, or coming from a broken home, you would have some other set of problems.

I suppose one benefit to this way of thinking is that it provides a natural peer group to connect with about your particular problems, and connecting with other people is one of the best things in life no matter how you do it.  And maybe thinking this way makes some people hopeful: if I just deal with this and this, then everything will be fine! I prefer to think that problems are just part of life; overcoming problems, I would say, is a pretty good first-order approximation of what life is.

But life is also a cascade of wonders, and one of these is the resilience of the human spirit; look into yourself, and you may find something more powerful than the problems of your generation.

6 comments:

G. Verloren said...

The problem is that many people aren't trained to evaluate and amend their beliefs and values. They are born into a particular school of thought, and so long as it mostly works, they never think to question it.

Then, when their expectations of the world stop working, they're at a loss for what to do. They can't form new expectations because they don't know how to. They've never had a reason to think about what they ought to believe or place value in.

On a certain level, I pity these divorcees. They were born into a world and a culture with vastly different expectations of the world. They were raised to believe all sorts of idiotic and irrational things, and they devoted their lives to pursuing values they'd never had a reason to question. Then the world changed, and the promises their families and society made to them became impossible to keep. Of course they feel betrayed and confused. In a sense, they've been lied to their whole lives.

But at the same time, I really do think their plight only exists because of their inflexibility. While I pity the fact they were never taught how to properly adapt to the full scope of reality beyond their narrow expecatations, it's not as if they can't still learn to do so with a mere modicum of investment.

Theirs is essentially the plight of Prince Siddhartha, leaving the palace and encountering the suffering of the world for the first time.

David said...

I admit the men you're talking about come across as tiresome whiners, but what about "The Sad Decline of the American Working Man"?

The article you link to is, in any case, a little weird. The author purrs over a fellow--"young, super-fit and handsome"--who sounds to me like a rerun of Gordon Liddy:

“I see myself as a traditional man really,” he says. “I am focused on what I want. I lay down the rules but they are thoughtful ones. I love and support my partner and her daughter, whom I consider as my own [she's his stepdaughter], and I think our family functions very well because of this. I am very clear in my expectations but I am very warm.”

pootrsox said...

What fascinated me about the excerpt (but not enough to read the entire article) was the man's description of the sense of futility engendered in him by his wife's "style" of marriage.

And it struck me that he described precisely what my ex-husband must have felt.

Which is especially amusing b/c he was such a mama's boy in so many ways, and his mother controlled his father to a far greater degree than I ever "controlled" him.

Perhaps he also resented his father being "pussy-whipped" and did not want to be in the same role in his/our marriage?

He chose for his second wife a woman from Latin America, who learned far better than I ever did the way to let a man *think* he makes the decisions while actually being far more controlling than I ever was :) I wish them joy of each other. I am very happy neither I nor our daughter will have to care for him in his dotage.

I think G. Verloren is correct about these folks being unable to see much less move beyond one set of role definitions.

David said...

The irony is that the author, as I read her, is actually writing from deep within a rather old-fashioned understanding of manhood--perhaps without knowing it. "My friend Tom, a counsellor" dismisses the men concerned as "emotionally or spiritually or physically lazy"--an odd stance for a therapist to take, but anyway. Her main sources, other than Henry, are "Sebastian Morley, a former commander in the SAS" (!) who runs "a weight-loss and fitness boot camp based in Scotland" and "his right-hand man, Dale House, a former marine," who's the one who lays down the law in his house but is thoughtful and warm about it. Morley and House refuse to have males at their camp because, they say, women know how to bounce back and get with the program (one suspects there is more to the dynamic than this; I bet even remaindered men would bounce back and get with a program directed by, say, an ex-swimsuit model and her right-hand woman, the aerobics instructor).

The whole article seems like a particularly bad example of a lazy journalist talking to four of their friends and then making a trend out of it (mixing in a good dose of their own preferences along the way).

John said...

I hate to dismiss people's because everybody does have them; young black people without jobs probably laugh at the supposed problems of 50-year-old divorced men, but it is the 50-year-olds who are committing suicide.

I just hate whining.

David said...

Well, yes, Henry and his ilk sound pretty annoying. But I still can't get over "I am very clear in my expectations but I am very warm.”

Maybe I should announce that at the beginning of every semester.

Or Henry could use it in his next personals ad. "I like puppies, nice people, and long walks on the beach. I am very clear in my expectations but I am very warm.”