My intention this was week was to follow up on last week’s post about emotional labor. But I decided to talk about something more timely.
And that is the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, and specifically, how the shooter’s first target was a girl who he was interested in but rejected him, and, according to her mother, had publicly embarrassed him.
This is not a piece about gun control (though we need much more of it and far fewer guns). Nor is it really a piece about misogyny specifically; in the context of what I’m trying to do with this series, it goes without saying, in the hopes and attempts of being a better man, all misogynistic behavior is disgusting, unacceptable and demeaning.
It should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: crimes targeting women specifically (like the van attacker in Toronto) should be considered a hate crime and that abuse and violence towards women is one of the greatest scourges of our society. Many of the mass killings in America are either directly tied to domestic violence or attacks against women, like the Santa Fe shooting, or have their roots in abuse of women. In mass killings, women are literally on the front lines.
Others have tread that ground. What I want to focus on is what interested me about the Santa Fe killer. If we take his motivation as some sort of revenge for being spurned, then we need to examine how twisted, childish, immature, inhumane and backwards that kind of response is.
And I find through my own experience there is much to be learned from dealing with sadness, pain, and rejection.
This is not a contest. Nor am I looking for any sympathy or comfort from anyone else. (This may be part of the problem; men, when in pain, often turn inwards when instead they should seek comfort and sympathy from others, because it would go a long way towards making them feel better and healing, but I’ll get to that).
I’ve been there. Hell, I am there.
My divorce five years ago was one-sided: I did not want it. It wasn’t my decision to live in separate bedrooms for four months, nor for her to move out, nor for us to finalize it. Sure, in retrospect, I can see how it wasn’t working, and have even come to recognize, as we were then, it was the best thing for us to do. But it took a lot of time to get there. And pain. And therapy, and thinking, and retrospection, and processing. And then some more pain and sadness.
I was a depressed person during that time, a period lasting, really, for nearly two years. I abused alcohol. I hate saying it or putting it that way, but I did. There were moments, days, when I did not think I would ever emerge from that depression. Friends have told me the same thing about their concerns for me then.
And there was anger. I was sharp, raw. On edge. I did not have a lot of patience. I would yell at my dog over her doing stupid things that dogs do. I would yell at other drivers for even the slightest annoyance. I’d swear under my breath at work, at clients, even co-workers, over frustrations that are common in an office environment.
If I messed up a recipe I would slam silverware or pots and pans. I would throw things, at home, in anger. And yell, mostly just “Fuck!” whenever I boiled over.
I would sit at a bar, two or three drinks in, the emotion percolating within me, the frustration simmering, and picture taking my glass and heaving it against the mirrored wall behind the bar. I wanted to break things.
By the way, that last one: I felt that as recently as last weekend. I’m enduring another very difficult break-up, losing love, being separated from the woman I so intently want to be with, a woman with whom I shared dreams for the future. It’s gut-wrenching.
And at times, over the last few weeks, it has been debilitating. It’s reminiscent of what I went through during my divorce, yet it feels fresh, unique, a new pain undiagnosed, newly felt and experienced for the first time. I miss her and I miss us. Every day I feel this. It huts and it’s exhausting.
And I can guarantee that the emotional trauma I’m experiencing, the sense of loss I’m feeling, is far more intense and deep than what the Santa Fe shooter is going through. You don’t see me reaching for a gun. Nor do you see me wanting to take any revenge on my now ex-girlfriend (and it brings a tear to my eye just typing those words).
I would imagine if the Santa Fe killer read that, he’d dispute my comparison. It’s not a competition, but I imagine he would say I don’t know how it feels to be rejected by someone you want, to feel that humiliation, to be consumed by those emotions, which can be all-consuming and flood out reason and logic. That’s probably what he would say, and he would mean it, because that’s, I’m guessing, the way he is experiencing that rejection.
I wish someone could have told him that rejection from those we are interested in, that a refusal from a woman, while painful and embarrassing, and at times humiliating, is normal. And that every woman has the right to make that rejection free of fear of retribution.
Women don’t owe men a damn thing. Not their love, not their bodies, not their respect or friendship. All those things are earned, and recommitted to daily. And they can be retracted. God, that last one is brutal — but it’s the truth..
I will forever miss my former girlfriend’s kiss, her smile, her touch. Maybe one day I’ll fall in love again with another wonderful woman. Maybe not. But it was her right to decide what she wanted. And, as much as it hurts, I have to live with it.
As a man, I have to face reality and deal with it. I have to be honest with myself about my feelings, I have to grapple with getting through a difficult period, I have to remain responsible to my commitments and my values. This is what being a man is, this is what being an adult is. This is what I wish the Santa Fe shooter had been taught.
It’s not easy. It may sound like a cliché, but every day is a struggle. Each day is a climb.
The therapist I went to during and after my divorce often praised me for the way I was handling it. A lot of men, he told me, did not go through the process of grieving and introspection. Instead they filled gaps, either with drugs or alcohol, or with sex, or both, or immediately entered a new relationship without trying to understand what undermined the previous one. They moved on, but they did not grow.
I appreciated the praise, I guess, but it wasn’t much comfort.
My new therapist (I immediately put myself back into therapy after my recent break-up) has also told me that I’m processing the end of this relationship well, that I should not be so hard on myself, that I recognize my faults (and hers), that what I’m going through is natural. He was glad that I was so able to communicate what I was feeling, the entirety of the emotional range: anger, sadness, hurt, depression, longing, a bit of despair. Loneliness. Fear, too.
I appreciated that as well, to a degree, but it doesn’t soothe me.
That said, talking about it does. In my recent therapy sessions, I’ve done 95% of the talking. I’m like a spigot for that near hour. And I have to get it out. My social community is smaller than I’d like it to be, but even beyond that, I’m saying things in therapy that I wouldn’t tell friends. I’m being brutally honest, sharing the hard truths and stories of my last relationship. I need to.
I need to talk. I need someone to hear me. I don’t need them to fix me. I do need them to hear me. I need to hear myself, in fact, say what I’m saying.
At the first session with my new therapist, we went over the rules of disclosure. That he was legally obligated to contact authorities if I expressed any violent desires or inclinations towards myself or others. He asked me point blank if I did. He told me, in situations like mine, that violent fantasies were common, that it was the desire to act out on those fantasies that was the problem.
If violent fantasies are common after break-ups, it’s not surprising, sadly, when an emotionally damaged person acts out like they did in Santa Fe.
It’s not the case, of course, that every man or boy should run into therapy after every trauma or break-up. But there does need to be an outlet. All of us, in times of trauma, experience the emotions I mentioned above. Anger in particular.
Yet I fear men, and boys, are not properly trained or equipped to deal with it. Boys, young men, are told to be strong. To deal with it. But they aren’t told that to deal with it, it’s OK, even necessary, to lean on others. That being a part of a community is what helps us each of navigate the trials and tribulations of life.
That we can’t do it alone.
That crying is OK. That these feelings are natural…and will dissipate. I have a friend in high school who was feeling overwhelmed with things, had someone say something to him he didn’t like, and turned around and punched him.
He got suspended from school. In retrospect, he realized that what he did was wrong; he’s even friends now with the person he hit. But he had to learn this lesson the hard way. Boys and young men need to be taught that anger and rejection are common, but our responses to them cannot include abuse and violence. Sadly, many men don’t know this themselves, much less have the capacity to teach it to others, boys for whom they are often a role model.
When I think of the darkest period of my divorce, I picture myself alone. At a bar. At the bar in a restaurant. At movies, at concerts. In my condo, on the couch. And, I’m sad to say, this has repeated. Last Saturday night I sat by myself at the bar of one of my favorite restaurants. On Sunday night I went to a movie by myself.
It’s difficult. I’ve had moments over the last few weeks when I wondered if I would make it through this. I don’t even know, really, what that means. That perhaps the depression will never lift? That I will constantly be in pain?
That sadness is my forever fate? All of those?
Today is another day, and I am writing this, and I am trying.
So there is a lot here. There is, on the surface, gun control. Access to deadly weapons during a time of extreme trauma is dangerous.
There is also mental health. We all face battles that can seem insurmountable. In the moment, they don’t seem that way: they are that way. As a culture, despite the strides we’ve made, we need to better recognize and treat mental health problems. If you have a flu, you go to the doctor. If you are depressed, you…go to therapy? I don’t know the answer but we need to learn to treat our mental health as precious and valuable and needing of care as our physical health.
And as far as dealing with rejection, and normalizing the autonomy of others, and their bodies, and their choices, especially women — that is the biggest cultural hurdle we face.
Most of us learn as children that we don’t always get what we want. Dealing with that rejection and disappointment, that frustration and sense of loss, and coping with it…that’s what it means to be an adult.
It is a skill learning to deal with that anger, and it needs to be practiced. It’s easy to lash out. Repressing anger within, dealing with a sense of loss or disappointment…and learning to diffuse those feelings — it’s practically the summation of the challenge of living.
Our society teaches us that when we don’t get what we want, we should persevere. In our careers, it’s work harder. In art, it’s don’t stop. On financial matters, it’s keep saving, keep making more. In matters of love, since there are countless cases of wooing and rejection, of trying again and then “winning” someone’s heart, it’s more complicated.
These emotions, on both sides, are complex, and changing, rarely stable, often conflicting, always powerful, frequently difficult to make sense of.
But another important lesson of adulthood, with all due respect to the Lord’s prayer, is learning to accept what we can change or influence and what we can’t.
And when it comes to the treatment of women, we need to be more sensitive to what women are telling us when they vocalize or communicate a lack of interest.
I’d go even further. We need a cultural change in how we deal with rejection from women. Experiencing this kind of rejection is of course difficult. And painful. And scarring. But it happens. It’s part of the human experience, it’s part of the tremendous risk of falling in love, and of pursuing love.
No one can ever tell me that I don’t understand what it means to be rejected or lose love. But I can tell you what I did in response: I listened, I treated women with respect, I was honest, I tried to become a better man. I did not stalk or harass or become violent. There’s never an excuse for that. Ever.
I came across this tweet earlier this week:
This woman got thousands of responses from women who experienced some form of harassment or abuse after rejecting men. And then she got thousands more comments from men berating here for even bringing it up. It’s disgusting and gross and disrespectful, both the response and the initial behavior.
I’ll cover treatment of women online and social media in another piece, as that is its own morass of depravity, but I want to end here on adding my own small voice to this chorus of how socially and morally unacceptable it is to treat women this way.
When #MeToo broke out, it was focused on celebrities, movie stars, politicians, people we know by name. And that gave off a false illusion that the implications of #MeToo didn’t filter down to the rest of us. But this is where it does. Right here.
In being able to handle rejection like an adult, with respect, dignity and peace. And in fostering an environment where women aren’t afraid of how men will respond to their own honesty.
We all have fear of rejection. But only women, for the most part, have that fear compounded by physical and psychological abuse or threats in response to that rejection.
Enough. It’s never acceptable.
You want to be a man? Take rejection like one, and move on. If I can do it, so can you.
A version of this post was previously published on psiloveyou.xyz and is republished here with permission from the author.
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