THE IDEA OF SENDING MEN ON A COLLECTIVE TIME OUT has been whirling in my mind with insistent frequency, echoing louder upon hearing another story of a man-child acting up, particularly one holding a position of power.
To those who decry patriarchy, here’s a better term to describe the current state of affairs: puerarchy — the rule of boys. Of course there are exceptions, but they seem few and far between and powerless to dethrone the chest-thumping bullies and highchair tyrants.
In an orchestra, the oboe is the instrument to which other instruments are tuned. As far as I can see, there’s hardly an oboe in sight.
The greatest underdeveloped nation lies within the psyches of men, wrote Sam Keen in ‘Fire in the Belly.’ So maybe it’s time for women to send us on a collective time out so we can mine our dense psyches and only allowed back once we develop emotional intelligence.
This idea is not new. Greek playwright Aristophanes proposed such a radical solution in 411 BCE in the comedy “Lysistrata,” an account of one woman’s extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands as a means of forcing the men to negotiate a peace. They play ends with the signing of a peace treaty amid plenty of painful erections.
In my country we have a saying, that a female pubic hair can pull more weight than a pair of oxen. Those who believe men have all the power should revisit the stories of Helen of Troy, Bathsheba, Delilah, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Monica Lewinsky.
The Mars idea first popped in my head the day terrorists attacked Saudi oil refineries. That same day, a handful of brave young activists — mostly female — were coordinating a worldwide school strike to protest inaction on climate change. So while boys were busy flying deadly drones and blowing shit up, girls were working on saving our collective asses.
In 1951, Philip Wylie wrote ‘The Disappearance,’ imagining the aftermath of an extraordinary global occurrence that forces Earth’s men and women to exist in parallel dimensions. True to form, men bring their world to the brink of nuclear annihilation while women seek to resolve their differences by chatting and shopping.
Of all wild beasts, said Plato, boys are the most difficult to manage.
What’s wrong with us?
Why are most men incapable of expressing their fears and emotions besides slamming doors, sulking, having affairs, scapegoating, drowning in alcohol, drugs or pornography, or blowing shit up?
“A few suits of clothes, some money in the bank, and a new kind of fear constitute the main differences between the average American today and the hairy men with clubs who accompanied Attila to the city of Rome. ”— Philip Wylie, ‘Generation of Vipers.’
I know our brains are hardwired differently than girls, and that our long history as warriors and hunters predisposed us to action rather than introspection. I also know that, at times, the fierce boldness and aggression in men is vital. But come on guys! There is a reason our species is called Homo Sapiens (Wise Man). I say it’s time we live true to that classification.
Are we so straitjacketed by our warped sense of manhood to be incapable of becoming versed in the subtleties of emotional language? Must we continue to camouflage our fears with an exaggerated sense of strength? Isn’t it high time we learn to feel less threatened by emotional complexity? Can we learn to see our darkest emotions as Dragons and choose fight, instead of flight?
“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” — Katherine Hepburn in ‘The African Queen.’
In ‘Raising Cain,’ authors Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson say our culture’s historical assignment of relationship work to women has turned emotions into a disregarded “second language” for men. As a result, most have limited awareness or understanding of their feelings or the feelings of others. Instead, they tend to fall back on what they have been taught to do with other men — compete, control, and criticize.
It is not women’s responsibility to teach us this language, but seeing they’re better versed at it, we should have the humility and willingness to learn from them. After all, we demand their undivided attention as we ‘mansplain’ the refined art of changing a flat tire.
So where do we start?
Rising above our nature begins with learning what that nature is all about.
“We are blessed with two close primate relatives to study,” says Frans de Waal in ‘Our Inner Ape,’ and they are as different as night and day. One is a gruff-looking, ambitious character with anger-management issues. The other is an egalitarian proponent of a free-spirited lifestyle. The power-hungry and brutal chimp contrasts with the peace loving and erotic bonobo — a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
What you probably did not know is that the modern version going around on the Internet is not the original story.
The adulterated version goes like this:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he tells the boy. “it is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside of you, and inside every other person. The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” To which the old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
The original story, however, ends this way:
The old Cherokee simply replied, “If you feed them right, they both win.” And the story goes on… “You see, if you only choose to feed the white wolf, the black one will be hiding around every corner waiting for you to become distracted or weak and jump to get the attention it craves. He will always be angry and always fighting the white wolf. But if you acknowledge him, he will be happy, so will the white wolf and you all win. For the black wolf has many qualities: tenacity, courage, fearlessness, strong will, and strategic thinking that you need at times and that the white wolf lacks. But the white wolf has compassion, caring, strength, and the ability to recognize what is in the best interest of all. You see son, the white wolf needs the black wolf at his side. To feed only one would starve the other and they will soon become uncontrollable. Feed them both and there will be no more internal struggle for your attention, and when there is no battle inside, you can listen to the voices of deeper knowing which will guide you in choosing what is right in every circumstance. How you choose to interact with the opposing forces will determine your life.
“Anger as soon as fed is dead. ’Tis starving makes it fat.” — Emily Dickinson
Dealing with conflict is as simple (and as complicated) as knowing when to flip the switch between these two energies. Chimp-like, or black wolf aggression in our relationships leads to a dead end. But it was essential, for example, to rid the world of Adolf Hitler in the 1940s. That was definitely not the right time to sit down with the bully to talk about his feelings.
The second ingredient for effective conflict resolution is emotional awareness. We men need to get better at identifying what we feel and where our emotions come from before we can begin to understand what to do about them. Our girlfriend’s kind reminder to take out the trash, for instance, might evoke dreaded memories of our mother’s overbearing nature and trigger defiance. A casual commentary by our wife about the neighbors’ lavish summer vacation in Tuscany might provoke a nasty reaction because we interpret her comment as an indictment on our manhood making us feel like a failure for being unable to provide her with such luxury.
“Every time you react emotionally instead of responding consciously, ask yourself, what am I afraid of?” — Don Miguel Ruiz Jr.
Finally, men need to develop emotional granularity, which is a bit like wine tasting, says neuroscientist Lisa Feldman. “Wine experts perceive extremely subtle variations in flavor, even among different batches from the same vineyard. People with less experience might not taste these differences, but perhaps they can at least distinguish a pinot noir from a merlot or cabernet sauvignon. A wine novice is much less capable of making these distinctions — perhaps he can tell dry wine from sweet wine, or perhaps they both just taste like alcohol.”
“People who exhibit high emotional granularity are emotion experts, Feldman adds. “Their brains can automatically construct emotional experiences with fine differences, like astonished, amazed, startled, dumbfounded, and shocked. For a person who exhibits more moderate emotional granularity, all of these words might belong to the same concept, “surprised.” And for someone who exhibits low emotional granularity, these words might all correspond to feeling worked up.”
I have found no better way to develop emotional granularity and expand my emotional vocabulary than to read poetry and literary fiction (especially novels written by women). I’ve also discovered, in foreign languages, more useful words for emotions I had not been able to properly identify and express. For example:
TOSKA (Russian) — At its deepest and most painful, Toska is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness.
TORSCHLUSSPANIK (German) — Translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages. The anxious, claustrophobic feeling that opportunities and options are shutting down; that you have missed the boat, you have to get a grip, you are getting old.
LITOST (Czech) — A state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery. The humiliated despair we feel when someone accidentally reminds us, through their accomplishment, of everything that has gone wrong in our lives. We feel a searing pain at the scale of our inadequacies.
YA’ABURNEE (Arabic) — Both morbid and beautiful at once, this incantatory word means “You bury me,” a declaration of one’s hope that they will die before their loved one because of how difficult it would be to live without them.
Just imagine the deep connection and intimacy such emotional granularity and richness of expression could bring to our relationships… with ourselves, as well as others.
Learning about our chimp/bonobo nature, becoming aware of the origin of our emotions, and developing emotional granularity will also lead to empathy, or, at the very least, rational compassion. With more and more men becoming fierce gentlemen — the oboes of the world — we will put an end to the age of puerarchy and join women in the struggle to overcome the many challenges our world is facing.
In this struggle, the female gender must also evolve. Hepburn’s dictum, that nature is what we are put in this world to rise above, must also be heeded by women. While gender-equality continues to make steady progress and fundamentally changing gender dynamics, women must learn their biology is still encoded with innate drives which unconsciously makes them predisposed to prefer a partner of status and wealth and who displays unwavering control, is strong and stoic, and who always seems to have an answer.
Faced with a man who has the courage to be vulnerable and express his deepest fears, his confusion, and his occasional feeling of helplessness or unworthiness, women must short-circuit their innate biases and receive him with compassion, which means, at origin, to suffer together.
As men learn to properly emote, women must be patient. At times, we will want to run away from deep conversation. Bereft of words for our emotions and afraid of vulnerability, we will often choose to flee to the solitary cave of our tortured souls. Allow us that respite. Like a pressure cooker, your escape valve is talking things through. We let-off steam in silence. This does not mean you should let us off the hook. Like a deft fisherwoman, slacken the line at times, then reel us back into conversation. We’ll get the hang of it, eventually.
Or you could send us to Mars, which might sound more expedient and appealing to many of you, but you will strip away the fierce boldness the world requires. You’ll be forever haunted by SAUDADE, Portuguese for the deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for and loves, and the knowledge that the object of longing might never return.
We’ll both end up living in barren worlds. One utterly silent, the other with plenty of flat tires.