Maturing Men: some of the issues
It’s pretty sure that the maturing phase won’t be life as usual for most men. In fact if you were a car, you’d be thinking of trading yourself in by now. This is a time when many marriages rust apart, or have to re-create themselves; when kids leave home; when careers reach sudden ends; when parents become frail; when health becomes a focus of attention, not something you take for granted, and when you have to check if you zipped your flies up.
Manhood in many cultures is defined by three roles: protector, provider, progenitor. In the years beyond 50, these roles are changing, shrinking, even vanishing. This can mean that men’s sense of identity, manhood, self worth is dissolved. It’s tough: men’s egos have a fragile basis at best, now even that’s wrecked. There may be upsides in all this: the marriage or the job no longer suits you, and now you’re free to choose again. But even the changes you create involve losing what’s familiar, piloting yourself through a sense of shipwreck, and making some new choices: see Chapter 2 for more on how to do this. When you’re half-drowned, clinging to a mouldy spar, you may be tempted to sink forever, but there will be a new dawn ahead somewhere.
Having watched many men in their maturing years, I see a basic choice in how they react. Some narrow down, and cling to the familiar: habits, people, work, and so on. Destructive coping methods like drinking, anger, gaming get used more often. This can’t work long-term because time will erode the familiar bits you cling to, and the negative habits will damage your health. The alternative is to widen, experiment, and re-invent yourself. Below you will find more on how to apply this approach, and which chapter covers a specific issue. Sorry if this sounds a bit earnest: it can be a lot of fun.
A New Kind of Adventure
If I had to pick the one quality which would help men most in the maturing years, it would be a sense of adventure. Not the kind of teenage lads’ adventure where you nearly kill yourself. This is about trying something new, being someone new, having the courage to explore the unknown, both in yourself and around you. The sense of adventure means letting go of history, getting off your own case, not blaming or judging yourself for what’s past. You may feel depressed or angry because you screwed up on a marriage, a job, whatever. These feelings won’t help anyone: put them behind you.
One reason I like the image of shipwrecks is that you can see them as a fresh start, or a disaster. When you’re washed up in rags on an unknown shore, you can just leave your history in the ocean. You may have had years of believing you’re a lousy partner, a boring geek, or whatever myth kept you in your rut. It’s not easy to change those habits, but it’s possible: shipwrecks can help, and so can this book. Adventures beyond 50 can fulfil many of the dreams of your youth, and then some.
I’m not denying the seriousness of the crises you may face in these years, but if you have a sense of adventure, at least you can find the gift in the problem. This needs courage, for example staying positive in the face of permanent setbacks as well as short-term ones. Most men who have prostate cancer won’t die of it, but many will lose forever the ability to get erections and make love in the usual way: I know couples who have faced this shipwreck, treated it as an adventure, and have brought a lot more depth and fun into their relationship. You need courage to overcome despair and support your partner if their health declines, or the menopause knocks them sideways. And if you lose your job or retire, it takes courage to live without the sense of worth, of being needed, which even a low-key job can provide.
It’s easy to be scared at this time of life, to see the years ahead as mainly decline and loss – of health, energy levels, friends and so on. There will be losses, but the sense of adventure can help you make the most of all you have now, instead of fretting because it won’t last forever. If you think about men of your age and older, you’ll probably see that the most cheerful and likeable have more problems to cope with than some of the gloomy ones.
One of the keys to adventure is what Buddhists call non-attachment. This means accepting that you can’t control many vital aspects of your life. It also means facing and going through your fear of losing something or someone that matters a lot to you: you can find processes for this in Chapter 2.
Reinventing your Life Purpose
Maybe the idea of life purpose is a new one to you. Lots of men make choices about work and relationship in their twenties and thirties which are not very conscious. In the maturing period you can choose again, and hopefully better: surely all those years under your belt must have some benefit? Believing you can make good choices may go against past form, but with the benefit of this book, it could be possible!
A classic risk of the maturing years and beyond is a sense of pointlessness about your life, a sense that you’re just a Boring Old Fart or Grumpy Old Man. It’s an understandable reaction to the loss of identity and worth described earlier. This is where courage is called for, so that you don’t collapse in the shipwreck, but dig deeper in yourself and take the initiative. It is you who must re-invent your life purpose: other people or random circumstances can’t do it for you.
If you ask a man in his twenties or thirties about his life purpose, he’s likely to talk about success in work, making money, external achievements. But for maturing men, life purpose may be more subtle, inward, unspectacular. For example, it could be:
- Shifting your focus from the pain of past losses, to enjoying and savouring all the joys of the current moment.
- Deepening and widening who you are.
- Having a happy, quiet, single life after a marriage dissolves.
- Finding new work outlets where you take the role of an elder, and help others to fulfil themselves.
- Exploring interests and expressing aspects of yourself which have been ignored till now.
- Fulfilling childhood dreams.
You can explore re-inventing your life purpose in Chapter 8.
Head, Heart – and Soul?
It’s fair to say that many men rely on their brain and body to manage life. Handling emotions is not in the male curriculum, and a lot of addictive and angry behaviour by men arises because of this. The maturing phase needs men to expand the aspects of themselves which they are aware of and express. For many this means learning to be emotionally articulate: in other words say how you feel, hear how she feels, instead of blowing up. For some, it means learning to use the talents of the brain and not be swamped by feelings.
What does it mean to be emotionally articulate? It really is like learning a new language – but one that men may resist because it takes them out of their control zone. The language of the heart includes a lot of sweet feelings such as joy, compassion, tenderness, delight, as well as difficult ones. It takes time, skill, and a safe setting for men to let themselves feel. This is harder than learning Italian! Part of the skill is in expressing emotions so they don’t upset other people, using methods like assertiveness, or Non-Violent Communication.
It’s very different to hear “I feel angry because your comment about my driving made me feel I’m not good enough” than “You can stuff your putdowns about my driving, you bitch. Your driving is rubbish anyway and your cooking, and…” There are many aspects to the emotional life. Part is how you handle your own feelings, and process them. Part is how you express your emotions to others, hear them, and face conflicts. This is important for intimate relationships, and also for friendships, at work and in group settings. You can find more on this in Chapter 3.
More controversial than the heart and emotions is the soul and spirit. For some men, this is meaningless, unprovable. For others, this is what gives them a sense of purpose and stability. I am one of these, and I’d simply urge you to give this consideration. Recall some of the most special times in your life: the birth of a child, the death of a parent, inspiring music or landscapes, Princess Diana’s funeral. I’d say that such experiences connect us with spirit – a dimension where all life is connected, where a higher wisdom or guidance can inspire us. You will find more on this in Chapter 8.
How vintage is your body?
If your body was a car, what make, model and year would it be? Many men treat their body like a brand new Mercedes 4×4 which can go anywhere, and needs little maintenance. For men beyond 50, the cars we remember from childhood are more relevant. The few Morris Minors, Austin Maestros, Ford Corsairs, Hillman Imps, Vauxhall Victors still on the road are vintage now: they need careful handling and frequent checks to escape the scrapheap.
As more of my friends reach the maturing years, I am shocked to see that even men who have lived healthily can be hit by major illness, such as heart attacks or cancer. It doesn’t help to walk in fear of such problems, but this is a time when good health doesn’t happen by chance, and when you need to be prepared if you do get ill. This means thinking about your support networks, both practical (eg medical professionals) and emotional: who would you turn to if you do need help? You will find more about this in Chapters 5 and 9.
Many people believe that body ailments reflect emotional or spiritual issues which have not been faced and cleared, and I share this view. Sorry if this sounds New Agey, but some of this is proven, like the physical damage from stress or depression. Try seeing illness as a message: your body wants to be healthy, so problems are trying to tell you something. This matters even more for men, who may stuff feelings down for years and ignore body ailments, because that’s the alpha male way to do things.
Midlife Crisis? Male Menopause? Real or Fantasy?
Are these concepts real, or just a made-up basis for a juicy plot line in Reggie Perrin, American Beauty, As Good as it Gets, and many more? It’s true that the troubles of this time will feel like a crisis, shipwreck, or even breakdown to many men. They face issues which undermine their sense of self and manhood, and which they are unprepared for. Men are often solitary, habitual, competitive, and struggle to handle emotions: this is a time when they need all the opposite qualities.
Terms like Male Menopause suggest that there are predictable physical reasons for this crisis phase. Is this true? To some extent, yes: the drop in testosterone levels can lead to depression and more. You can explore health issues in Chapter 5. The idea of Male Menopause may help others to understand that this is a period of big change and upheaval for men, but it’s not a predetermined set of symptoms. This book can show you how to prepare for these changes, how to handle them more easily, and how to emerge in better shape than you went in. You don’t have to make a drama out of a crisis!