I've just watched a fabulous short film: What Men Fear Most.
In an enacted piece of poetry by Elliot Barnes-Worrell the voice-over describes the scene.
We see a father and son in the pub, sitting opposite each other. The father asks the son "How are you?" There's the default answer we usually go to. And then there's the truth: the depth and darkness of unspoken emotions. The yawning chasm between them. The hope that neither one will go there, because they're scared of what will happen if they speak the unspoken...
In the background is a group of blokes and the one in the middle - although he's out of focus - we can see he's talking to the group. And we see that he's in sync. We see that he's the speaker. The owner of the voice-over. Little by little we notice he's speaking in rhyme. Subtle rhythms and sophisticated patterns of emotional articulation.
And all this time the father and son are frozen in the moment. Lost in this opportunity to actually acknowledge their feelings, to say something real.
Elliot Barnes-Worrell speaks for sons. He speaks for fathers. He speaks for boys and he speaks for men.
We're all scared. And we've learnt to suck it up or swallow our fears. But they stay with us, within us, and it's no wonder that men under 45 are the highest suicide risk, because what do we think will happen with all those unexpressed emotions? That they'll just sit there quietly and have no impact? That there won't be an inevitable tipping point when so much has been felt by so many for so long? That those sad feelings wouldn't emerge dressed as anger because that's what we've been told men should do?
Who are our role models? Sportsmen? Movie stars? Video game avatars? What do they teach us? They have many great and admirable qualities, but machismo surrounds them. And they've learnt not to cry. Look what happened to Gazza...
The showing of feelings is not encouraged. And yet we've all got them.
Why are we so scared of our feelings?
What would our world be like if we let ourselves go and let our feelings show? Would we all be weeping in the street, unable to get to work because of our sadness about how our lives have turned out? Our anger at the other people driving on our road, walking on our pavement, standing in our space on the train?
It's not so much about us expressing our emotions externally, it's more about developing our ability to notice our emotions internally.
Every day I ask my boys how they're feeling. That's my number one concern for them, that they can articulate and handle their own feelings. I ask them if they're happy boys. Usually they say yes.
Sometimes when they're acting angrily I ask them how they're feeling and they tell me they feel sad. And I hold them if they want, and I ask what I can do to help. And usually their feeling passes within a minute just because they've had the space to air it, to share it.
Every morning my friend and I start the day by checking in via Whatsapp. 'Today I'm feeling happy/sad/angry/hurt/shame'. Sometimes we write a sentence on what we've learnt or observed about ourselves, our lives, our choices. Every day we gain another modicum of awareness of our feelings and our fledgling freedom in how we react to them.
Sometimes we lose control of our feelings and we act out in ways that we're not proud of. And then we feel shame. So we beat ourselves up but sadly that doesn't help. It creates more of the same problem.
We ultimately come to the conclusion that the only way forward is to forgive ourselves. To acknowledge that we are human beings with feelings. Some of those feelings make us feel uncomfortable, and that's usually when we try to swallow them, or distract ourselves with food, drink, banter, sex, violence etc
We transmute one feeling into another. Say, for example we feel hurt or sadness about something someone says to us. We might find those feelings so uncomfortable that we quickly move into anger. Because anger feels good.
When we're angry our energy is up. When we're angry we feel strong, and that's a good male experience. That's what we learn from sportsmen, from video games, from movie stars. We feel heroic, and sadly for us this is what we think masculinity is. Big, strong, alone.
But after the unbridled anger comes that shame again...
We've got to make friends with our dark side. We can't run away from it. However hard we try. The dark feelings are us as much as the light feelings. We are the whole package. Over time, learning to sit with these feelings we recognise them and realise they're not so scary and once we let them breath we discover they have less of a hold on us and our behaviour.
Each man's spiritual path is to notice how he feels and to allow it. If he can name those feelings and let them be, he'll be halfway to a peaceful and strong life. When he can disengage and override the autopilot he'll be able to make real choices. Choices based on freedom.
He'll be free to listen, to allow, to give space to others and to himself. He'll no longer revert directly to anger as the only solution. He might notice his sadness and allow himself to feel it, without having to do anything about it.
And after a time that feeling will pass.
Imagine not being fearful of our own feelings...
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