Tired of the question “are men changing?” So are GMP Associate Editor Mark Greene and CEO Lisa Hickey. Here’s why.
Yesterday, on a conference call with Good Men Project writers and editors, CEO Lisa Hickey raised a question that would seem to constitute a central issue of our age. It’s a question that comes up time and time again in Hickey’s work.
A reporter had asked her just a day or two before, “Are men changing?”
At which point, I would be sorely tempted to ask said reporter, “Are women changing?” As if that question is not equally absurd when asked of either segment of the population. It suggests that men are all members of some kind of monolithic club where we all sit around in smoking jackets, collectively choosing to change or not based on some secret man club handbook of standards and practices. From where I sit, men are anything but singular in their nature. They are as vast and diverse a category of creatures as you could ask for. Much like women, in fact. Accordingly, it should be a given that men are equally as fluid, mercurial and ever changing. Changing all the time. Change-y. You see what I’m getting at? “Are men changing?” is, in fact, a very loaded and leading question.
Hickey wanted to discuss the question on our call because she sees the cultural narratives of men refusing to change as being in direct contradiction to what she sees in all the men in her professional and personal life. Hickey goes on to say, “the reality of individual men that I know DOES NOT correspond to the cultural narratives out there.”
And yet the question persists.
I have been writing for the Good Men Project for while now. Since connecting with this vibrant, funny, aggravating and deeply beautiful community of men and women, I have engaged in more conversations about men and manhood than I have had in the previous five decades of my life. These conversations have echoed back down the long corridors of my own history. My time at the GMP has led me back to myself as a small child, a sometimes frightened and confused boy, a rebellious and celebratory young man, a father, a husband and a lover across the many years I have been alive. You can’t spend time here and not reflect on your life. It’s in the nature of the stories that are told here.
During our conference call, the first frame that arose (and always seems to arise when we talk about men and change) was the impact of corporations and their internal structures as the embodiment of alpha male energy. When we talk about men, we immediately envision great corporate beehives made up of grimly determined males, who are either driving to the top, crushing all beneath them, or slaving away their lives, estranged from their wives and children by the seduction of the fat paycheck. These narratives are presented as clear evidence that men are, in fact, not changing.
And then comes, yapping at the heels of this bleak summation, the ever so popular mass media meme that men STILL don’t help enough with the housework. It’s almost dark comic relief when compared to the bleak vistas of corporate masculinity. It conjures images of America’s women who, having put in their own eighty hour work week, return come home to a 100 million husbands reclining on 100 million couches watching 100 million ESPN broadcasts while their babies wail mournfully in darkened kitchens, the scent of dirty diapers wafting on the air conditioned breeze. It would be funny, if it didn’t reinforce over and over the narrative the men are lazy, self-entitled slobs who are universally insensitive to basic ideals of fairness. And, even more poisonous, that women are too weak and victimized to do anything about it.
Sigh. Happy Father’s Day, by the way.
So. These are the primary entry points to the discussion on men and change? Really? Yet they come up over and over again. Dirty dishes and corporate shark tanks. And for the record, every man I know, (including my 87-year-old father) cleans, washes, launders and cooks on behalf of his family, sharing equally in what continues to be mislabeled as women’s work. And yet, no matter how many of us do it, we remain the anomalies. The exceptions that prove the rule. Couch. ESPN. Baby crying…
My little Father’s Day 2013 gift to men everywhere? I’m calling bullshit on that one. If you ladies are with someone who won’t do their fair share of the housework, demand better. It ain’t the testicles. It’s cultural. And that culture is changing, fast. So stop settling for that kind of behavior. And for the millions of men who are with someone who won’t do their fair share of the housework? Ditto. At some point we all have to demand a baseline of fairness from our partners or find better ones. It’s not enough to keep blaming the culture at large for the often unspoken agreements we have created in our own lives.
But I digress.
I do understand how these ways of thinking get to be the preeminent frame for men and change. I really do. For one thing, binary frames about housework sells newspapers, elevating catty gendered debates that give cable news anchors something to wax inane about. But there is also a deeper and more fundamental agent at work.
All of us, men and women alike, have the capacity to get lost in the quagmire of the damage in our pasts; repeatedly resurrecting the most painful stories or fears that haunt us. What we once suffered can, paradoxically, become the red and dripping meat that sustains us. We plunge into simplistic black and white cultural narratives, seeking the generalizing judgmental memes that echo the damage done to us and we make them our own. In doing so, we reanimate our past abusers back into the world. Reenergizing the frames of victimhood and conflict. Saying, in effect, that these wrongs, large and small, are the central stories of the world.
But they are not the central stories of this wide beautiful world unless we empower them to be.
We all have suffered abuse, bigotry, abandonment and the many evils of the world. Some of us have suffered much more than others. I do not in any way wish to minimize the trauma of others. But the stories we choose to make central in our lives can, and hopefully will, transcend the traumas we have experienced.
The world needs for us to do this.
Our conversations in the GMP community are about the deepest mysteries of being human; of what it means to speak, cry, hope, hate, lust, love, and die. We talk about the way vast human revolutions, playing out century by century and minute by minute have impacted us personally. Tying the theoretical to the relational, to the personal, to the spiritual. I remain deeply optimistic about the power of telling these personal stories, because they are changing the world. Both for those who tell their stories and for those who hear them.
There is a central truth at work here. Unlike the past wrongs done to us which can not be changed, the stories we tell about our lives can change. What we choose to focus on is what we grow in our lives. Said another way, we live the stories we tell. And no matter our circumstances, we retain the power to tell any story in any way we choose, accentuating the markers of joy or reinforcing the symbols of our despair.
I see daily the power of the stories I choose to tell in my own life. When I look down at my own hands, soapy with dishwater or at my fingers intertwined in my son’s exuberant grasp, I feel a perfect note of peace moving through me. I see it in the laughing eyes of my wife. My stories are there.
If I am ever to pray, if that moment will ever arrive in my life, it will likely happen as I hold my dear son or darling wife while they drift off to sleep. It will not be a prayer of worry or need or my hopes for the future. It will not be a prayer of thanks or satisfaction. It will be a prayer of the perfect NOW; where every echo of struggle and despair falls silent in the gentle movement of breath. I am a very lucky man. So lucky that I doubt I will ever fully be able to offer the thanks my life deserves. My words would collapse and fall short. And knowing this is, I think, where the first seeds of wisdom lie. Typically, we can not own the miracles we live. They pass through us. They are the wind that drives us forward. But they remain, essentially, a mystery that we are open to, but can never fully grasp.
But occasionally a miracle will make its nature known to us. For me, telling my stories here at the Good Men Project has helped me better understand my place in the world. And believe me, that is most certainly a miracle. I hope every man and women reading this will consider sharing their stories along side mine. Contact the GMP. We need you to tell your personal stories, because when you share your stories, the world becomes more diverse, colorful and real. The world becomes more human.
But what about our original question? Are men changing?
I believe there is massive evidence that they are, as they move in huge numbers into primary child care, more collaborative relational ways of working and, yes, the wonderful world of cleaning the bathroom. But the bigger question is, as men change, are we updating the stories we carry about men? Or are those stories lagging behind? Stalling change by anchoring our view of men to the past? And if so, what can we do about that?
Lisa Hickey said during our conversation yesterday that the challenge we have with men and change lies with our archaic cultural narratives. A society that circulates limited stories of what men are, will limit men’s choices. She believes that the answer for how to empower men is to share stories of the full range of what men are. It’s about creating a cultural wellspring of stories, options and choices for men. If you want to be a CEO, fine. Go ahead. But if you want to be a stay at home dad, or anything else you can imagine, dream on, because a vast range of options out there are just as valid as focusing on earning money, or accruing status and power.
What’s more, depending on how you define your markers for a rewarding life, you may find you have a better life than the most powerful captain of industry.
The Good Men Project is sharing just these kinds of ideas. Hickey believes that by sharing them, we are already moving closer to a cultural tipping point, whereby the idea of what a man can be becomes more diverse, empowered and authentic.
The crappy mass media narratives about men will continue. They will go on telling our sons, brothers, and fathers that the way to be a man is through your wallet or your fists. Our responsibility is to add other stories and other ideas to the cultural mix. Yes, men can be tough focused warriors. But they can also be gentle and loving and playful and funny and sweet and yes, feminine. They can be healers and caregivers and poets and artists and everything else under the sun. And a big part of this equation is to let little girls know all the things that boys can be. So that when those girls grow up to be women, they do not end up enforcing old ideas, but instead are empowered to seek a partner from the full range of what men are. Because every man is different. Every man is change. Every man has something inside them that deserves to grow and find its place in the world.
By sharing our stories, we help make that possible.
In closing, I just want to say this. Thank you, to all the amazing men and women who make up the Good Men Project. You have helped make my life more deeply felt, rich and rewarding. I owe you, big time.
And I love you, guys.
Father’s Day, 2013
Read more: How the Man Box Can Kill Our Sons Now or Decades from Now
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