Frederick Marx has identified a type of man he’s been seeing around a lot.
[Generalizing alert! I will now be generalizing about men and women. Please note that I am in no way saying all men or all women are like this. If these distinctions don’t fit for you, dear reader, great.]
As I travel around I hear younger women talk about a certain type of man they keep running into – the sensitive but angry man.
This is not surprising to me. Our culture, which has inherited so much of the gender reforms of the feminist movement over the last 40 years, has taught men it’s OK to be sensitive. (For some men the lesson received has been a less welcoming “You have to be sensitive.” More on that subject another time.) Making cultural room for men to be sensitive is a welcome change. So boys increasingly in our society grow up taught that it’s OK to express feelings.
But what feelings are they being taught are OK to release? Sadness? Yes. Joy? Yes. But fear? I’m not so sure. Shame? I doubt it. And anger? Rarely or not at all. By and large, boys aren’t being taught when and where it’s OK to express anger at all.
It’s ironic really. For years men being angry was considered by the dominant culture as perfectly natural. And our culture as a whole still makes large allowances for men being angry, even rageful or tyrannical. You need look no further than many of the recent obituaries for Steve Jobs.
By most accounts the guy was barely tolerable to be around. He would burst into fits of rage at the slightest provocation, whether a design issue with an Apple product or bad business news. The people who worked with him basically learned never to challenge him. The tone of many articles and interviews with those who worked with him is always nervously apologetic when it comes to the issues of his rage and tyranny. You can almost hear the nervous laughter coming through the quotes on the page.
Of course all was forgiven because he was a genius who created and saved Apple and revolutionized consumer technology. But forgiven by whom? The popular culture, certainly. Still, it’s hard not to imagine his co-workers breathing sighs of relief now that he’s gone. And what about his family? What was life like for them? Who knows. But I can only imagine how difficult he must’ve been to live with. There are many more like him who still get away with being angry, rageful, and abusive.
So who is the sensitive but angry man? Certainly not Steve Jobs. You might call him “old school just plain angry.” Here’s the sensitive but angry man prototype I’ve cobbled together from interview and observation: He’s under 30, reasonably well educated, usually white, reasonably politically and socially astute; there’s a good chance he’s either unemployed or underemployed; he may still be living at home with his parents or living with 4-5 other young people in a group home; though he may not be a video game geek he’s certainly familiar with them and everything else that’s culturally in fashion mobile phone-, internet-, and computer-wise. He probably doesn’t own a car, especially if he lives in an urban area. He probably doesn’t smoke but does do recreational drugs and alcohol. He’s probably thin though prone to junk-food binges even though he’s reasonably aware of healthy food. Most likely he’s straight but gay, lesbian, bi, transsexual issues don’t bother him in the least.
So what does he have to be angry about? Plenty. The fact that the economy doesn’t know he exists and his future career prospects look dim. The fact that he’s up to his eyeballs in debt from egregious student loans with few prospects for repayment.
The fact that military service may be his only hope for a job, committing him to endangering his and others’ lives while patrolling American oil and business interests in the middle East and elsewhere. The fact that he won’t have health insurance unless ObamaCare gets implemented. The fact that the environment is collapsing under civilization’s carbon addiction and the ability to secure clean and cheap water, healthy food, safe shelter, inexpensive and reliable transport, and regular, affordable electricity is going to get harder and harder. The fact that politicians seem unconcerned about all these issues and that mighty corporate interests control most of what passes for legislation in the U.S.
That certainly makes me angry! But those are just the social realities. Once you layer in all the personal issues – how Dad and Mom and sister and brother and friend and teacher and classmate and teammate have each wounded him in their own ways during his formative years – he can become nitro in a bottle.
Add to that the feminist era remonstration from all quarters to “be nice.” (See “No More Mr. Nice Guy.”) Add to that the disallowance of any opportunity to express anger, much less rage, when he was young, by parents too caught in the web of their own narcissism.
My wife and I witnessed an instance of this at the Farmers Market on Sunday. A three-year-old was toddling along after his parents. “Wait for me!” he said. His mother’s reply? “Since you weren’t nice to me I’m not going to be nice to you.” Excuse me, exactly who is the three year old here? How much room was this mother making for that child’s prior anger? Zero. Instead, he was being shamed out of it, taught that if he’s going to receive his mother’s love he better not get angry.
How many boys are taught this today? My guess is most of them. And it’s been that way for at least 30 years.
I carry a fair share of anger but I’m not 30. What makes me different from the sensitive but angry male is I’ve already had a long and successful career; I’ve long finished my formal education; I’ve been able to support myself through my work for 35 years; I’ve never had to do military service; I get health insurance through my wife’s secure job; I’ve never had to take on significant debt or been seduced into it by unscrupulous lenders (Okay, less one investment house bought at the height of the housing market in 2006); I won’t live long enough to see the worst of the catastrophic changes that are coming due to environmental and economic collapse.
But that’s not all. I have another significant advantage over those angry young men. I’ve been taught how to utilize and channel that anger in healthy and productive ways. Certainly making films, writing articles, and giving talks are positive outlets for that anger. But I have much more than that available to me. I have the support of loving men who can hold that anger when it arises and create mechanisms for its safe discharge. Sometimes that can look like screaming at a wall and hitting pillows. Sometimes it can look like taking to the woods to release energy yelling and pounding dirt. Sometimes it can look like men creating a gauntlet for me to bull my way through. I’ve also been known to enjoy rounds with a punching bag. There’s always some safe and productive way for me to release anger even if I don’t quite know what it looks like beforehand.
If it’s properly contained it won’t leak out sideways and slug someone else with its suddenness. Or turn into a shouting match with a spouse or co-worker. Properly explored and diffused there’s always gifts to be gleaned on the other side of that anger. It can look like a renewed commitment to set fierce boundaries for myself or loved ones. It can look like there’s no longer a need to protect a broken heart and I can let the floodgates go. It can look like discovering what I’m deeply passionate about and willing to commit my life to.
When I work with young people in my DocuMentoring Studio that’s exactly where I begin – with anger. Like most young people today, nobody, during the course of their 12 years of public schooling, has directed them to identify and utilize their own unique passions. So when I ask them on the first day “What is it you’re passionate about?” they often look at me with blank stares. How sad is that! So I quickly shift to question #2 “What is it that makes you angry?” That they can relate to! Then the juices start to flow. “My parents don’t understand me at all.” “I’m sick of seeing school budget cuts.” “Peer pressure really weighs me down.” Once I’ve gotten them to identify what pisses them off it’s relatively easy to narrow them down to smaller, more specific issues. (I also direct them to people and non-profits doing service work on those same issues in their own neighborhoods.) Eventually that anger becomes the passionate through-line for their short documentary film.
A synonym for passion is deep caring. What underlies anger is almost always deep caring. When you’re angry that your sister has been beaten or raped what are you really doing? You’re loving her deeply enough to be outraged that she’s been violated. When you’re angry that your business partner has absconded with the company money what are you really doing? You’re caring deeply enough about your own and your company’s well-being to be furious at how you’ve been hurt and betrayed. When you’re angry that the bank is foreclosing on your neighbors what are you really doing? You’re wanting so much for people to be treated fairly and decently that you’re irate because they’re thrown out on the street for not paying an overpriced mortgage. If you didn’t care so much about a given issue then you certainly wouldn’t get angry about it, ever.
Do you know some of these sensitive but angry men? Are you one of them? If so, what can you do? Up until 1 or 200 years ago fathers commonly taught their sons about safe anger containment and release. Today? Therapy and counseling can be helpful of course. There are also lots of good anger management workshops.
Since my experience shows me that it’s men who best teach men how to safely work with anger, and to do so without being ashamed, I also suggest a good men’s workshop. There are many.
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