HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around masculinity in the 21st Century, and the pressures men face around identity. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, from bringing up young boys to the importance of mentors, the challenges between speaking out and 'manning up' as well as a look at male violence, body image, LGBT identity, lad culture, sports, male friendship and mental illness.
It's striking how many times I as someone who runs an organisation working with young men and boys am asked why some of those we help need people to support or advocate for them. To answer that question, I am constantly searching for ways to show people that we aren't all as different as we purport to be. And to show that compassion can stem from us exploring similarities and understanding differences.
I have moved away from explaining that we work with fathers as young as 14, or pointing out that some of those we help have spent their early lives in care or living with physical, emotional or sexual abuse. That another recent spate of high profile men taking their own lives should remind us that roughly thirteen men in the UK will find some way to take their own lives today, and that male suicide rates are at a decade high. Or, on top of this, those we support are greeted by an outside world which will often define them by gender-labelling, judging them either as "weak" for needing help in the first place, or as men to be "dealt with" in a punitive way when in reality they are still just children.
Instead of explaining all that, I try to find areas in people's lives where they themselves might have experienced similar needs.
I think I have stumbled upon one area in particular: our own relationships with ageing parents and relatives.
Recently, I've found that I, and many similarly aged colleagues, schedule leave days to care for or support our parents or other relatives. Most people who get to middle age and have a relationship with older family members begin to accompany them on ever more regular doctor or hospital visits. Or have visits to care homes with associated nurses, managers and support staff. Home care means communicating with other "players" like carers or hospital transport.
Indeed, it can feel like we've switched roles, helping our parents make decisions that they once made for us.
Some feel burdened and even resentful. Last year, a Care UK study of 2,000 adults with parents over 60 showed that fewer than 30% would be willing to look after their parents full time. A third of people wouldn't let their parents move in, while another 36% admitted they would have to seriously think about it.
It is often said that some people are predisposed to caring and others not. Historically it has been suggested that men are less likely to be compassionate than women. There are various nature or nurture arguments about this but I think it's just a remnant of an ageing social construct, rather than the reality of where things are heading in the future.
But there is a theme developing for me here about systems, process and the way we treat those they affect.
It was really brought home to me recently as my mother bravely underwent eye surgery. For all the scare stories in the press about Britain's National Health Service, I believe it is still the best healthcare system in the world. I am very happy to have paid into it for all my working life.
Nevertheless, my mother's operation didn't go particularly well and was extremely painful. When it became clear she would have to go through the entire experience again, she was less than taken with the idea. As we embarked on the pre-op process for the second time, she had a lot less tolerance for the doctors and nurses.
My mum suffers from Parkinson's disease. It was an added complication but importantly also meant that she often felt misunderstood. As a result of her concern, the attitude of the staff towards her changed and I could tell she was being perceived as potentially "difficult". Understandably, many professionals just did not link her new behaviour to the fact that she might be scared, frustrated and uncomfortable.
So interpreting that for my mother became my job. As soon as she gave me a certain look, it was my role to pipe up, giving context and background to her new vernacular. The penny would then drop for most of the patient staff. They took on a more conciliatory tone and began to weave it into their interactions with her.
Now, some might say that I took control and started speaking on behalf of my mother. Nothing could be further from the truth. We all have times when our emotional state, or journey travelled, stops us communicating as effectively as usual. At such moments it is great to have someone beside you to help you navigate, and perhaps help describe the journey you have travelled and why that should be respected.
All this may or may not cause you to reflect on whether you have ever needed someone to support you.
But what does it have to do with my organisation, Working With Men, and those often marginalised people we help?
Well, the fact is that they too can often present in ways that are hard to read. They might seem irritated, angry, upset, stoic, monosyllabic or use a tone of voice which seems to equate to hubris. My own experience with my mother reminds me that, when any of us arrive somewhere, how we present directly relates to our journey travelled.
Sometimes it will just be about the journey that day. But at other times it will expose our life journey. If we've had a bad experience previously or we just don't feel properly listened to, it's logical that we may be less than amiable when we interact with others.
When it comes to some of the young men and boys we work with, the reality is that many of us will simply never know what it's like to live in real poverty or to be physically and emotionally abused to the extent they have been.
But most of us will have supported loved ones in some capacity and so realise that often what we are trying to get across is some understanding of the journey travelled.
Whenever there is a medical or social challenge, many wonderful and highly skilled people and organisations get involved. Even so, those at the centre of the situation often end up in the demoralising role of having to tell several different people the same things over and over again.
At a time when we are necessarily focussed on the outcomes, we seem to forget to take into account the journey towards that outcome. It's about the quality of engagement and the quality of process. Neither should be underestimated or ignored.
How we listen and act in these situations involving the vulnerable will shape our wider experience. It has the power to help or hinder us and them as they continue with the rest of their journey.
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