Changes, Shipwrecks, Renewal
Listen to this story:
When the soul left the body,
it was stopped by God
at heaven’s gates:
“You have returned just as you left.
Life is a blessing of opportunity:
where are the bumps and scratches
left by the journey?”
Poem by Rumi; translation by Neil Douglas-Klotz
When you renovate a house, you start with the foundations. There may be damp, rot, subsidence, pollution: you have to sort the groundwork out before you can build on it. It’s the same for yourself: the overhaul has to start with some excavation and remedials, and that’s what this Chapter offers. It may feel like hard going at times, but it’s a necessary prelude to the improvement works later in the book.
When I look back at myself in my forties, I cringe at how uptight and defensive I was. Working like crazy and getting upset by all the challenges didn’t make me happy. The breakup of my marriage destroyed my defences and habits: it forced me to look at the emotional baggage I’d carried for years. All the self-doubt, blaming others, fears, myths: I was way over the weight limit. Getting rid of the baggage has sometimes been painful, I’m still not rid of it all, but I’m far happier than I was before the shipwreck.
This Chapter is a gentle guide through methods that have worked for me and other men. These include learning to grieve your losses, then celebrate and complete the letting-go. There’s a useful road map of change, called the Hero’s Journey. You can learn how to explore the different aspects or voices within you, to understand yourself better, and how to create a support network to make these changes easier. Finally there’s a section on Home: reviewing what you want and where to find it, and a Resources guide.
Most people have more change than they can handle, but there are reasons why the changes for men beyond 50 are extra hard: For many men, the sense of who you are and what you’re worth are based on external measures, like what you do and what you earn. Most men believe they should succeed at work, earn plenty of money, be a good partner and father, keep fit and strong, to rate highly in their own view, and others‘ – men and women.
However all this can change in a man’s fifties and sixties. Often the shifts are imposed and a man has no say or control, which further corrodes his self-esteem. This is a period when redundancy is very possible; when parents get fragile, when kids leave home, and sometimes partners too. Even if you choose to leave a career or a marriage, it’s a deep shock to your identity. And health problems can be another blow to your self-worth and resilience. These are the kind of challenges I call shipwrecks.
Men often rate themselves against other men, and that can be painful in this phase of life. It’s easy to look at men in their thirties and forties, in their prime with work, family and health, enjoying fancier homes and cars than you’ve ever had, and to feel like you’re yesterday’s man. And some men in their fifties, sixties and older seem to be rampantly successful with their work, their younger partners, and their health. How does Salman Rushdie attract these beauties? Where does Clarkson get his energy from? Will Jeremy Paxman ever slow down? Before you get too sad at feeling less than, read on.
The Gift in the Shipwreck
Once or even several times in your maturing years, you may feel that your life is like a shipwreck – the ship of selfhood is pounded into pieces and you are washed up naked on an unknown shore. Well, good for you! To have a fulfilling life you need to re-invent yourself several times over. A few of us can move into radical overhaul by choice, but many of us need a shipwreck every now and then.
How can these shipwrecks help us? They’re the best chance to recognise and break some of the habits or repeating patterns which can run our lives. For example:
- The Original Wound: Many people create a series of experiences through their lives which repeat an original trauma. For example, a man whose mother left home when he was a kid may see his life as a succession of upsets where he is abandoned by a stream of women – especially partners, but maybe a boss, sister, or a friend. This pattern justifies the original wound – my mother left me because all women do leave me. There’s familiar pain in this pattern, which some of us prefer to happiness!
- Escape routes: Men are rarely trained to handle their feelings or seek support. It’s tempting to escape from painful emotions, conflicts and shipwrecks. The classic escape routes are addictions – alcohol, work, sex and many more – or doing something which distracts from the inner pain. A man who is prone to anger, violence, arguments with no substance, is probably trying to escape. And depression is another kind of avoidance.
- Worn–out toolkit : maybe your ship has to hit the rocks before you admit that the compass is buggered and the maps are out of date. Perhaps you got this far without showing your emotions, admitting you’re lost, or asking for help. Time for some new skills!
So the shipwrecks or crises can be seen as a wake-up call: a big enough shock to pull you out of your escape routes or repeating pattern. My observation of men aged 45-70 is that this is a crucial period: either they will face the underlying issues, re-invent themselves and flourish, or they will carry on as before. In which case their health and happiness may well deteriorate.
Before you get too envious of mature men who still seem successful in classic male ways, ask yourself, have they really re-invented themselves, or are they forcing themselves along in patterns which they can’t sustain? And think of other men like this who suddenly failed, got ill, faded to obscurity. Major change may be hard, but the alternative is worse!
Creating a Support Network
The major change processes which are probably part of your years beyond 50 are demanding, both emotionally and physically. To handle them well needs support of various kinds, and even if you’re not under much stress now, it makes sense to strengthen your support network. Here are some suggestions:
- Close friends and buddies: it helps hugely if you have one or two people who can give you insights as well as sympathy when things get tough. Ideally this would be someone who has known you for several years, so they can challenge you on your patterns or habits. This could be a man or a woman: it should not be a partner.
- Professional help: there are many benefits in having some regular support from a counsellor, therapist or other professional – see Resources for more specific suggestions. The depth of insights, the way you can let go fully, the range of new skills and approaches you can learn: these are some of the ways a professional should support you that a friend probably can’t.
- Spiritual practice: if you have a spiritual path, it can be a deep source of strength and insights, especially in periods of major flux. For more on this, see Chapter 7.
- Time in Nature: this could range from walks and rests in a favourite landscape, to a longer retreat or vision quest. There is immense wisdom and nurturance to be found in Nature: again, see Chapter 7.
- Mentor/Elder: I’m using these terms to mean someone who you feel has greater wisdom than you do, who cares about you and respects you, and who could give you periodic insights and support. Most likely this is a man, older than you, but maybe not. It could be a formal, ongoing arrangement, or ad hoc. This kind of relationship can offer you a deeper perspective over longer time periods, or for major issues.
- Men’s group: you can get a lot of understanding, support and fun in a good men’ s group. And it can help you to feel that you’re not a freak or a failure because you’ve got problems. See Chapter 9 for more.
- Medical advisor: Medical problems rarely give us advance notice, so it’s worth setting up this kind of help even when you’re healthy. Take the time to find a GP you can trust, and someone you could turn to for a second opinion.
The Gift in the Shipwreck
Original Wound: Facing and healing the original wound means understanding and clearing major issues from your childhood. This is sometimes called healing the inner child. Good resources for this include:
Homecoming: Reclaiming and Healing your Inner Child, by John Bradshaw. ISBN 0749910542. It is an excellent, compassionate and powerful book with a series of processes you can guide yourself through, and I have used it myself. John also offers CDs, DVDs and more on his website, www.johnbradshaw.com.
Hoffman Process: This is a really powerful, intensive 8-day programme which can help to clear major childhood issues. It has good credentials, capable and careful facilitators with a 1:8 ratio to students, and has been running for over 40 years in the UK and elsewhere. I did the Process several years ago and found it very helpful. See www.hoffmaninstitute.co.uk, or call 01903 889990.
Escape routes/addiction: see Chapter 7 Resources.
Handling and expressing your feelings, and those of others, is important in shipwreck periods: see Chapter 3 Resources for more on this.
Creating a Support Network
?Close friends and buddies: The amount of support you can receive and give could be increased by a method like co-counselling. This is a good training in the basics of counselling (eg hearing and clearing painful feelings), designed so that ordinary people can do it for each other. The men’s group I co-founded in 1992 was mostly men with co-counselling training, and it helps in this context too. Once you do the basic training, you can access local groups, weekend gatherings and other resources.
There are two main organisations, each with a somewhat different approach. I prefer Co-Counselling International, www.co-counselling.org.uk. The other, Re-evaluation Counselling, has a more political edge: see www.rc.org.
?Professional help: This is a huge topic. You may want to ask your own contacts, and do some web searching. Here are some brief pointers:
Counselling: This is typically a less intensive, simpler approach than psychotherapy, maybe easier as a first trial step for one or a few sessions. For a good guide to professionals near you, see www.counselling-directory.org.uk.
Psychotherapy: This is typically a more intense, more structured, longer-term approach, which can help resolve deeper-rooted issues. There are many different types of psychotherapy. One which I like, which includes the spiritual dimension, is at www.ccpe.org.uk. For a much wider range, and scope to search for therapists specialising in men’s issues, try www.bacp.co.uk.
Rebirthing: This is a therapy focussed on breathwork and bodywork, rather than talking. I have found it really helpful over many years. See www.rebirthingbreathwork.co.uk.