I told someone yesterday, that in many respects it feels as if I’m entering a second adolescence. Approaching fifty feels strange. In most every respect I feel restless. The world isn’t the same. And I’m certainly not the same. The basic components of my primal personality are still intact, but they have certainly evolved in desires and in directions. I’m not the same person, and in other ways I am. For those of you that have known me a long time, the inclination is to superimpose your impressions of me at our last interaction.
I believe this is normal for all of us. We create a certain a stereotype of everyone we interact with, and this is helpful in moving relationships forward, but it is challenging when people change in violation of our preconceived expectations. Many people are willing to love us for who they expect us to be, but few are willing to love us for who we actually are, and fewer still are willing to love us for who we are becoming. And this isn’t a lament on my identity as a man. I realize that as a cisgender white male in America, I am among the most privileged in all of human history.
But privilege isn’t without problems, especially when you endeavor to reflect on how that privilege impacts those around you. And especially if instead of just enjoying that privilege, you actively seek to mitigate its expansion of harm, neglect, and oppression on others. This results in a mentality where I often feel as if I don’t have a home. Where do I fit? Where do I belong, ideologically, theologically, relationally? I believe this is why so many men of a certain age seek escape. And most likely why I endeavor to escape as well. But as the old adage goes, “Wherever you go there you are.”
Navigating the waters of masculinity can be treacherous. Like sailors learn to harness the wind to propel them to their destination, society gives us certain expectations for harnessing the winds of gender and arriving safely on the shores of paternal, maternal, and societal expectations. But sometimes the winds blow in different directions, causing the waters to churn violently. Ernest Hemingway explores these waters of masculinity in The Doctor and the Doctor’s wife.
Thomas Strychacz observes in Dramatizations of Manhood in Hemingway’s In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises, “In the two great works that begin his career, Hemingway returns obsessively to the arenas where, he suggests, men typically act out their dramas of power and shame.” Power and shame are two emotions that men mismanage often resulting in the hurt of others. Hemingway demonstrates this in The Doctor and The Doctor’s wife. Nick’s father has to navigate his pride when he is confronted by Dick Boulton. Dick passively aggressively suggest that Nick’s father has “stolen some nice wood”. The insult is in the wording. Men are taught to find identity in bedroom, ballfield, and board room exploits, all of which derive from the central place of identity for men -the contents of the billfold. So when Nick’s father is accused of stealing, by claiming the discarded wood as his own, his identity is at stake.
Nick’s father attempts to share his shame with his wife, but cannot tell her the ugly truth that would implicate him. Men “power up” when they cannot safely share their shame. When these storms rage it often leaves a shipwreck in the wake. Nick’s father was challenged by Dick, who insults him by calling him “Doc.” In the arena of chopping wood this was a challenge to his genuine masculinity. Nick’s father was forced to respond to Dick’s challenge and did with “If you call me Doc one more time, I’ll knock your eye teeth down your throat.” The unwritten rules of manhood demanded a response, but after his response he was unable to find a place of his refuge, because his wife chided him “I hope you didn’t lose your temper.” It is very difficult for men to understand when, where, and how to appropriately express anger. It is interesting that Nick’s father was unwilling to share all of the details of the altercation with his wife. Fear dresses up as power and shame depending on occasion.
These themes were interesting because we don’t often view men as marginalized. But in the emotional arena men are often marginalized because they cannot harness the winds of societal expectations. I found the readings enlightening, as I often struggle with appropriate expressions of my own masculinity set against the expectations of others and the culture. Balancing my genuine self and the expectations of those who watch my life can, at times, prove difficult. As Strychacz points out it is the societal observers that often give the blessing or the curse to what constitutes genuine masculinity, “Arising out of an audience’s empowering acts of watching, a protagonist’s sense of self rests precariously upon the audience’s decision to validate or reject his ritual gestures toward manhood.” Through his writing, Hemingway creatively provides a beautiful reflection of the mistakes of masculinity, providing the readers with a safe route through these troubled waters.
And as instructive as reading can be, it leaves me with little solace in these difficult times. I’m still not sure what to do with myself.