I read one of Dr Ornish’s books last year when I was doing a lot of research on how to manage heart disease. One of the interesting facts about this condition is that it comes with built in risk factors above and beyond things like high blood pressure and cholesterol. These include, but are not limited to, stress, depression and anxiety. For men this can be difficult to deal with simply because of the way we’ve been socialized. Even gay guys have trouble with this – the hyper masculine ideal and such. We’ve been taught to be strong and independent. We can handle anything that comes our way. Every problem has a solution. Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve and so on. At first I didn’t understand what he was talking about even though the author used some good examples. Dr. Ornish was exploring having the courage to open up about how we feel. The effects others have on us. The hidden, but real, cost of holding things in. Going it alone. Bearing to much weight by yourself. Wearing pleated pants.
Charles Darwin once said “A man’s friendships are one of the best measures of his worth.” So what is it that prevents us from being open with one another about our emotional needs?
While all men are different, our ideas of traditional masculinity have some shared cultural artifacts. In the end all we can hope to do is to understand why one man does something, ourselves. We can refract this through a collection of conjectures. The lens representing our perception of the people we meet. The light being our own experience and feelings. “Know yourself” is not as easy as it sounds on a bumper sticker. It gets a lot more difficult when you try to understand another person.
My story? I worked in a luxury business from my early ’20’s all the way through my ‘30’s, and by extension my mid ‘40’s. I started in sales. I had a good time and made a modest living telling stories and building client relationships. At the turn of the century a mid ranged national company bought my smaller boutique employer. They merged us with a larger local more hostile one. This abrupt move ended up being disastrous in the short term. I made the shift into IT at that point. I had trouble accepting that the diverse business I loved was devolving into a quota farm. That and the prospect of selling sub par gimmick or bulk quality products. Many more of my colleagues just abandoned ship outright. We started hearing management dropping phrases like “embrace change.” Luckily I had a propensity for reporting and database work so change was on the agenda. That and I had been studying up on web development during the mid ‘90’s while the .Com thing was still a thing. So I learned a new trade… and changed.
I held onto my personal motto of there is always “more than one way to skin a cat.” Hell that phrase should be written on my tombstone someday. Regardless, I ended up adopting new corporate postures as if they were akin to putting on stiff and ill fitting bedazzled Texan pants. All while keeping my feelings, and soft parts, guarded. So I ended up moving to Dallas, TX for this company. It was both the best and worst decision of my life. And it was an incredible adventure to hit both such a high and low at the same time. Dallas is an amazing City but I found myself there without the benefit of friends and family outside of my partner who was trapped there by choice with me. Our days consisted of working and then crashing at home… for about 7 years. Again, guarded for both of us does not even begin to explain life there. Besides being an outsider it was also a little bit of a cult-of-personality… but that’s another story. While I made some great alliances which changed me and helped me grow it was not home and was still the quota farm that it had to be to compete with the even larger company it was always in merger talks with.
That’s where the light flipped on… I had a choice to continue supporting these folks and continue my negative feedback cycle through sheer force of willing myself to succeed or I could make a different choice. The latter I have to credit my partner with in helping me reach before I was ready as usual though. We are gifted with certain guides in life at times. He has been one of mine for 25 years or so. Even when I’ve been deadlocked forcing my will against the world as I made my way through it one corner at a time.
Ornish speaks of opening up to people around you which in turn reduces stress. But it’s as if some men close themselves off. Perhaps we are taught not to look weak, un-knowledgeable, monolithic, expose ourselves to failure or entanglements of others. A projection of strength. Which in reality is a facade covering the person on his knees inside.
So it was that I moved back to Ohio three years ago and made a more positive career change in the process. Our trigger was an urgent need that we felt drawn to back home – to be with family as one of our dearest members was getting ready for his final three year exit. Recent heart disease aside, these past three years have been some of the most personally rewarding of my adult life. On that note, I’ve been receiving some pre and post heart attack commentary from a few of my colleagues. Saying how much I’ve changed. Or how open and socially active I’ve become. While I’ve got a long way to go, we all do, there is some truth in what I am hearing from others. I am making much more of an effort to take risks with people. Share how I’m feeling and then to let it go. Be open.
I met a guy in cardiac rehab who, in my head at the time, was one of the saddest guys I’d ever met. He would strike up these super awkward conversations. Grab a dry erase marker and doodle a grade school caricature on the white board and then fish for commentary. Looking back on those scenes though I have to think that he was months, if not years, ahead of me. He was recovering from open heart surgery, hurting and scared. And yet he was drawing people around him. I was “strong and shielded” … but not really. It took awhile, lots of running over the past year and a half, my spouse, friends, family and a therapist to start to open my eyes a little more about my feelings wider than I would have.
Why are, some, men so resistant to being open? I would guess they don’t know just how fragile and dependent upon the kindness of others we are. Or what a gift it is to open oneself up to others who need a shoulder or just someone to listen to them put feelings to spoken word. To share a burden with someone else and in the process relate to one another in a way that banishes fear. There’s a biochemical reaction when we open up that I’ll never understand. It evidently helps us to reduce stress and thus improve our health over time. Almost as gradual and powerful though is the effect we have on one another. It’s where admiration, friendship and camaraderie live.
Being open with those around us makes our precious time so much richer than it otherwise would be. And if life is being grateful about today, isn’t making the effort to be open with and supportive of others worth it in the end?