Defining a man

Originally posted on www.fearlessinc.com.au

Question: What is a Man?

The definition of a man is an evolving concept. It is influenced by changing understandings of our physiology and psychology. There is also fashionable trends that can influence what it means to be a man. For a young man, this can be very confusing. Add into this mix, strong parental figures.

Toughen up boy. Be a man.

For me, my definition of a man was strongly influenced by my father, and observing the boys at school. I was born in a small community and began schooling in a small class environment. Part way through this, we moved to the city and I was “thrown” into large classroom environments. I wasn’t ready for it. The “culture” shock was rather overwhelming. The hierarchy, rivalries, power-games, bullying, and macho-ism was utterly unfamiliar. I withdrew becoming the outcast, or no-mates character that always form in such groupings.

I began observing, and not liking very much, my own gender. They were posers, acting “tough” which actually meant being mean, and often violent. There was a clear structure where the boys did not pick on the “tougher” boys, but in order to be a part of the pack, they had to show they were “tough”, so they picked on those that they saw as weaker. People like me, and girls in general.

My father’s solution to this was to encourage me to fight back. To be “tough” like them. After all, my dad was “tough”. Yet, I had watched these displays of toughness, and I knew that people got hurt. Even the ones being tough. I couldn’t understand why anyone had to be hurt in order to be to be a man.

My mother got me into self-defence and I think the intention was to teach me some fighting moves. I don’t think they realised that the classes they had set up for me were less about attack, and more about defence. I often wonder if, had my father known what Ju-Jitsu actually was, if he might have insisted I do Karate instead. So I learnt things like evasion, deflection, pain control, and most importantly, not getting angry or aggressive. The best form of self-defence is to avoid conflict if you can. If you can’t, find a way to end it quickly without getting aggressive. Disarm, restrain, and avoid. For me, it was a match to my evolving philosophies.

I endured the teasing, the bullying, and unreasonable hatred for 12 to 13 years, and I came out stronger for it. I still recall meeting ex-students from my schooling years, ones who had been so very cruel, and many seemed to be more emotionally uncertain of their lives then I was.

Getting it right, the first time.

My father was an impatient man. Trying to help him with anything was usually a path to humiliation and distress. If I couldn’t grasp a concept, or didn’t seem to be quick enough on an activity, he would often become frustrated, take over, all the while claiming I was “bloody useless.”

Men, it seemed, must enjoy pulling apart cars, being mechanical, doing laborious tasks, putting themselves in high-risk situations… basically tangible things. He would take me on site with him when he was working his own installation business, send me into the grid-work of exposed roofing supports of large work-sheds, drilling holes through concrete walls, working in extreme conditions like within the roof of someone’s home in the height of an Australian summer. He wanted me to take over his business.

I began to believe that I was never going to be good enough. I could never seem to get any sense of satisfaction from this. I felt like I was a failure, and that something must be wrong with me. I just wasn’t interested in doing the things we wanted me to do.

On the other hand, my mother was artistic. A potter, and painter. Her work inspired me, and I often tried to find my own ways of creating similar art. I tried my hand at drawing, and while I was only so good at it, I loved doing it. I loved taking pictures, and while opportunities were rare for me as a child, when they were there, I relished it.

However these pursuits would never make me a man. I’d never be able to make a career out of them. They were great as a hobby, but I needed to find a real job.

Ending the pain

Age 12, end of Primary School. The move to High School loomed liked a shadowy demon. The thought of high school, with the same punishment, the same kids, frightened me almost to death. I tried to take my life. I was deadly serious about it. I have my father’s rifle. I knew what a hollow-tip round could do. I couldn’t reach the trigger. My arms were too short. I became scared that my parents would be home soon. I quickly hide any evidence. Resolved to try again later, but fear of my father ever finding out stayed my hand from further attempts, and I endured.

I had even failed in that.

Creativity is not manly

I discovered theatre in my final year of high-school, or should I say, rediscovered. After a disenchanting experience at Primary School, theatre was never a thing I considered until it was re-introduced to me in my final year of high-school. I loved it. I wanted to do more. I wanted to study it.

I was told that I would never make a career out of it. I needed to find a real job. A man’s job. Look son, computing is the way of the future. You should do something in computing. This theatre stuff was a great hobby, but you need a real job.

Still very much under the sway of my parents, too scared to go against my father, I did just that. This would be beginning of a change in my perspective. I met new people who could see me for what I couldn’t see in myself, or was told not to see. I was shown that I had other choices. I slowly began to break the walls that I believed should define me. I began to define myself.

Redefining a life

I did as electives, theatre, philosophy, and creative writing. I was employed as a student tutor, and found that I loved teaching. Slowly, the social creature that had laid dormant for so many years, the being I had been in that small town so far away, was slowly revealed, under the layers of encrusting, hardening, and toughening up. Under the layers of false man-hood.

I continue to chip away the bits today, such is the legacy of my youth. My father has long since lamented the choices he made for me all those years ago, and likes to remind me that he was wrong, and that he he had encouraged me in my theatre, I could be something different than I am. Late comfort, but comfort all the same.

Everyday I learn more about myself for me, not to any standard or expectation of what I should be. I have my own definition of what it means to be Jeff. I am a man in physiology, but a person in psychology.

So if you were to ask me now what defines a man, I will tell you that lies define a man, because you’re asking the wrong question.

You should be asking what defines you.

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The Sins of the Father

Today, I am reminded of one of my previous articles, about my panic attacks. It dawned on me that it has been quite a while since I’ve had one… almost since I posted the article.

Yet I am confronted by another troubling issue. My dear daughter, who appears to be suffering from her own version of these panic attacks, and has further anxiety issues. Add this to her being at the age where everything is changing, confusing, and overwhelming, the poor girl must feel like the rope in a multi-directional tug-of-war.

4wg_3

Plus the divorce… Yes, her parents are getting divorced. Not your typical, aggressive, bad-blood type divorce, but the far more common, it-just-isn’t working and still friends kind. So while there is none of the agro, arguments, and frustration, this is just yet another thing that our daughter is processing. The pressure is sure on.

If it wasn’t for the anxiety attacks, the complete disregard for her personal hygiene, and 180 degree personality flip in the past year, I would simply put it down to teenage years. Maybe my Depression Radar is over reacting again, or I am being the overly concerned dad… I am worried.

We, her mother and I, have initiated an intervention of sorts. Nothing too extreme, just something the get her attention. When words fail, or fall on a closed mind, then action must be taken, for action speaks louder.

I have also tried to teach her some calming mediation, to help manager her feelings a little. She says it has helped.

It’s early days yet, but already, we have seen some changes in her. Positive ones.

If there is anything I can do to to prevent it, I will do what I can to help my daughter through the fog.

The Hard Road Part 6 – Someone Saved my Life

DarkI left off at a very dark place with my last post on this, and it got darker. My emotions slowly grew in strength and I struggled to maintain my rational self. I began fantasising ways I could end my life, and yet leave wife and daughter able to carry on financially. I thought that was the value of my character; the money I was worth.

Theatre was a small bright light, but even that was becoming a chore. Keeping up the pretence was exhausting, and I was tired a lot, even though I had substantially cut down how much I was doing. Still, I had made a great many good friends their, and I still enjoyed their company. It just wasn’t enough to cast light into the darker places of my thoughts.

ReactI lived like that for over a year, going through the motions, just barely containing the bubbling chemical reaction inside.

I had been directing theatre productions by this point in time for a few years. Owing to my cut-down commitments, I had only done a couple, but I had formed a close circle of friends whom had all connected on my shows. It gave some joy to see the friendships that formed, and still exist to this day, in shows where I was the one calling the shots. Even today, it is a warm and pleasant feeling to think on.

One from this circle managed to break through my walls, and reach me in a way no-one else did. They showed me something that I had lost; that I was worthy of appreciation, of love, and of respect. Their kindness, and faith in me, was uplifting, and in my darkest hour, dreadfully needed. While it did not clear the darkness within, it did stop it, giving me some room to breath, room to think. I had been on the brink, and now stood looking at what I was doing with clear sight.

Fighting Alone

ZombiesI had discovered that something was wrong with me years before, when I found the knife in my hand. I vowed then to watch and keep a check on it. I realised this time that what I was doing was not enough. I was trying to manage this alone, out of shame, fear. It took another to show me I wasn’t coping. I needed help. I needed knowledge.

When I was working with Curtin University, I had seen an on-campus counsellor to help me the pressures I was feeling, so I thought about starting there. My wife an I agreed to seek further advice for both ourselves, and as a couple. We did this for a number of years, and with a variety of services.

I also engaged in personal research, to find methods to cope with my feelings. I learnt a lot about myself.

I am a “touchy-feely” person, in the sense that I value and enjoy physical contact with others (don’t go dirty on me here.) I resolved, for the sake of my marriage and daughter, to find a way to manage this. I was committed and I accepted the implications of my choice. I knew that I would not be able to turn-it-off so to speak, but I wanted to find ways to manage my feelings.

What I discovered was far more. I read a wide range of texts including religious, philosophical, psychological, new-age, and so forth. I don’t think I have read more in my life than during this time. I was exposed to all kinds of methods, beliefs, and concepts which challenged so many things in myself. I began to question, not myself, but the perceptions that I had grown up with.

I found them lacking.

Find the entire Hard Road series here.

The Hard Road Part 5 – Picking up the pieces

DeskJobSo with the events of my trip to the UK behind me, and my still aching ego nagging at me, I nursed my wounds for a short while. Then I ended up back at uni, this time as an employee. I got straight back into my theatre work, and resigned myself to the life of a single, mediocre actor, working to keep alive. I moved in with a long time friend and left behind staying with my parents. I needed to work myself out.

Incidentally, I had moved out previously during my years at uni (as a student), but it was short-term. When my flat mates decided to get married and get a place of their own, I went back to my parents. That was before England of course.

An interesting thing happens when you stop looking for things, or stop worrying about not having things; they stop getting you down, and they have a tendency to find you instead.

The job I had at uni was working alongside my course controller, from when I was a student, in the development of an on-line, Professional Educator Development course. It was for teachers at all levels, and focus on the use of technology, in its carious forms, as tools in the classroom. I was even given an entire unit of my own to develop, deploy and teach. It was great work.

The One

I also connected with a woman who would go on to be my wife. We had actually met briefly before I had left for my ill-fated trip overseas, but my plans were in place and I wasn’t really thinking of anything else at the time. The story of how we got started is peculiar for those who knew me in the old days.

BFGFI’d been back a while before it happened, and had done a few seasons of theatre up in the hills. I recall, almost as if yesterday, walking out from the theatre into the foyer. There was the usual mill of people around, and I was on the look-out for my agent who I had recently signed up with. Sadly they never showed and that partnership was short-lived.

Then I saw her. I swear that the room around me when to shades of grey as a spot-light of colour focused on this one woman. Initially, I did not recognise her from previous meetings (there had been a couple), and so what I did next was so completely out-of-character, I still wonder today what came over me.

I walked right up to her and her small group, said, “I’ll be right back, just going to get a drink” and did exactly that. I pretty much ignored, without thought, everyone else in the room, and that was the beginning of a new direction in life. I had never before expressed such confidence and bravado. It didn’t shock me until much later, after the thrill had worn off.

Our relationship was exciting, frightening, stressful, wonderful. It was a little whirlwind turbulent. I quickly realised how naive I was about many things, but I was committed to making it work, as best I could. I made some embarrassing and almost deal breaking mistakes. I fumbled emotionally through many things, and found myself having to learn very quickly about things I never realised existed.

It wasn’t my first relationship. I had had a few previously, but most lasted between a day to a fortnight before simply not being anything any more. I look back, and I know I tried far to hard than I really should. I potentially made things worse.We both brought our baggage and dealing with that was a new, and difficult challenge for me.

At the end of my two-year contract with the uni, I was let go. My work performance had dropped, and they simply could not justify my employment any further. This was shortly after my partner went through a painful and distressful ectopic pregnancy. I ended up working as a contract trainer doing odd job for a number of training establishments. We proposed to each other. I did mine in the privacy of our house… I was a little chicken all right! She had the balls to do it at a restaurant, which got us a free champaign. WIN!

A Proud Dad

ProudDadWe married in December of 2000. Then, on September 11, 2001, our daughter Hayley was born. I remember holding our little girl in the Birthing centre, watching the news about planes going into the World Trade Centre. It was surreal. For months after, the TV was dominated with articles on the event, and we wanted to focus on our daughter. So we didn’t watch a lot of TV for a long time. I focused on developing my training connections to keep the work coming in, and my theatre dropped off almost completely. I was, I am proud to say, a hands on dad.

Those first few years were stressful and incredible, for both of us. We went through extremes highs one day to extreme lows the next. We were learning a whole new way of life from nothing. We got into a habit of waking every two hours during the night to feed Hayley. I would get out to get Hayley, as her mum got herself ready. I would then sit beside and read until they were finished, and then return Hayley to her cot. I wanted to be a part of the process somehow.

Then Hayley didn’t seem to want to wake up, but we persisted anyway. She didn’t want to feed, which was troubling, and eventually frustrating. We eventually sort professional help, and their advice was, let her sleep. If she wants to sleep, let her sleep. So after two further stressful nights where we let her sleep, but worried that she was still all right, we eventually were able to relax ourselves. We were lucky that Hayley weaned so quickly. I have since heard far to many stories about children taking far longer. Not sure how I would have handled that.

This was pretty much our life, new things would crop up. We got scared by what it meant, found out better, then onto the next crisis. However, the stress of it all, the before and after, took its toll on both of us,. The relationship, little by little began to erode. There were other things; medical, psychological, fiscal, etc, that further exacerbated the relationship.

In my work life, I was offered some long-term contract work with the Department of Corrective Services, and after the instability of contract training, the thought a period of regular pay was very appealing. This eventually lead to permanent full-time employment with the Department of the Attorney General, making our future a little more secure. Yet even the regular working hours took a further toll.

A Defeated Man

FearIt wasn’t long before I found myself in uncomfortable, yet overly familiar waters; questioning my reason for being. I blamed myself for the breaking down of the marriage, and it was easy. I knew myself best, and knew my faults best, so being able to attribute the changes to things in me was… like riding a bike. I actually rationalised that if I were to die, not by suicide mind, but die all the same, that they would be better off because of the insurance on me, and I wondered how I could arrange that.

I felt like I was not good enough. That I couldn’t be loved, because there was nothing to love.

Find the entire Hard Road series here.

The Hard Road Part 4 – Strange Games

Not my actual cat, but very like him. I may upload a proper photo later.

Upon my return home, somewhat relieved, but bitterly disappointed in myself, some interesting stories unravelled over the course of a few weeks. First I need to explain one thing before getting to the meat.

While I was in the UK, my cat had passed away. He was a gorgeous Russian Blue, and incredibly intelligent. When he passed, my parents told my grandmother, with whom I was staying at the time. They did not want me to know as they thought it would upset me. My grandmother didn’t agree, and eventually told me. Thing is, I already knew.

I had been strolling across Cornish fields with some of my extended family, when I suddenly saw Smokey (my cat). He ran up to me and rubbed himself on my legs. He then looked up at me before running and fading away.

I had to step away from my desk for a moment. The emotion got to me, which in itself is interesting, considering that at the time, I felt an incredible sense of calm. I knew then that he had passed. Just a note, this wasn’t my first contact with “spiritual” experiences, but that is another story entirely.

So my parents were understandably concerned that I may upset about that, which I wasn’t, but they were hesitant about telling me about other things, so news came in dribbles for a while.

JealousAs I recall today, the first thing I remember being told was that my grandmother had thought my decision to go to London had been my own decision, and that my uncle had been surprised by it, and had apparently tried to talk me out of it. Then I heard that he had been concerned for my well-being, and thought that I was acting autistic. With each revelation, I recounted my version of events, and soon a picture formed of a man who saw this young lad (me) as a rival in some obscure family relations game. Driven by a fearful jealousy, he seemed to have played both sides, or at least, that was/is how it appeared to me, in order to “get me out of the way”.

When all knew the story, there was much anger and upset from the family, except from me. I instead saw it all as having been done, and in the past. There was nothing to anyone could do to change time. It was a fateful series of events telling me that I was not ready, or destined for a different path. Partly self-depreciating, and partly couldn’t be bothered dealing with it. Much later, I learned that the uncle in question was himself a sufferer of depression, and his own actions had caused more suffering for himself, including the loss of his partner, and loss of trust from his family. I just felt pity for him, and moved on.

It was a half-way point for me. I was not getting overly upset by the turn of events, but I was not yet above blaming myself for much of what happened. After all, I had allowed myself to be duped, convinced, and talked into making the decisions I had made. I began to realise that this was a common trend in me; allowing other people to make decisions for me. Giving my self-control over to others, and it had started at home.

For a while, I had taken control over my decisions and my life, and it had been great, and uplifting. I made the choice to go to the UK, to apply for RADA. They were my choices, and it felt good to make them. Then old habits, which really are hard to kick, took up their familiar mantle and things quickly turned sour.

It was the hindsight realisation that when I made the decision to return home, I really learnt the value in taking control over your choices, and the effects it could have. There were so many things that were beyond my control, and there was very little I could do about them, except consider how I truly felt about them. Me. My feelings. When I had my doubts about the plan to go to London, rather than question those doubts, I allowed another to make the decision for me.

Side Note – Food for thought

Now why do we do that? And don’t say you don’t because we all have done, or continue to do. I would hazard a guess that it would be because responsibility is frightening. And why is that? Because we don’t want to be blamed for anything? And why would we be blamed for anything? Because it might go wrong? Might?

ControlOne of the most liberating things I have done to date is to acknowledge those things I am actually responsible for; my actions, my beliefs, my decisions, and my reactions. The good and the bad combined. I’ve stopped worrying about things I can’t control; other people’s actions, beliefs, decisions, and reactions, or even things that simple are.

And don’t get confused between consider and worry. I still consider those things that are beyond my control. I don’t want to become an arrogant snob after all, and I like the feeling being considerate gives me. I just choose not to get anxious, or fretful over things that I can’t do anything about. It is a surprisingly distinct line, and simplifies life choices.

We are complex beings. We have light-sides and dark-sides, and a variety of shades between. Denying a part of yourself is akin to stopping the flow of a river by blocking only half of it, you just make the water work harder to get out, and you increase the pressure. Eventually, the wall will fall.

The question is, would you rather control the flow, or let it explode?

Find the entire Hard Road series here.

Support of the Family

imagesIt is an interesting beast family. They come in all shapes and sizes. For many, it is the seat of support, comfort and encouragement. For others, it is something to fear, avoid, or deny the existence of. Mine edges towards the latter, sadly.

As I have been opening up more and more about the past, I have discovered a developing ability to observe my life from a very detached point of view. Detached yet objective, as opposed to disassociated out of fear and depression. One does not see things very clearly, no matter how detached they are, when the scene is obscured by the exaggerated view point of anxiety.

I have long known that the causes for my troubles stem from my childhood, and my relationships with adults, and quite specifically, my parents. I am also a person that really doesn’t see the need, not like, to blame anyone for things, yet I do accept that people can be responsible. That may sound a little contradictory, so I’ll explain.

To blame, in my mind, implies intent and purpose. Rarely does anyone do anything bad deliberately, or without considerable distraction. Of course, when intent is clear, then blame is certainly appropriate.

hole

Sure glad the hole isn’t at our end.

On the flip side, people’s actions do have impacts. So even when the results are unintended, we are still responsible for it, or at the very least, our part in it.

Also, blame is often very focussed on the individual or group, where as responsibility is more often a shared accountability, with each involved member being accountable for their part in the process, even the victim. Even though I was a child, I still made decisions that are mine, and I take responsibility for those choices, but I can’t be responsible for the choices and actions of another.

When it comes to accepting responsibility, everyone shares that.

And before anyone says anything, this does not imply that the choice is either right or wrong, just that the choice was made.

But I digress. The point for my post today is the meaning of family.

FearOnce I valued the need for family, while at the same time was eager to leave it. I swallowed the platitudes and warm fuzzies that spoke of the wonder of families. The love and support they offered. The sense of security. The solidarity that one should always show to family. I tried hard to believe it. Tried.

I still think it is a fine thing to feel that sense of connection to family, and in a small way I envy those that have such a bond. I do not feel it myself.

For me, family has been a source of fear, sadness, pain, and uncertainty. While I do still stay in contact with my parents, my natural inclination is one of reluctance and hesitation. It is far to easy, and natural, for me to let weeks slip by without even a thought, and often I have a voice inside telling that this is wrong…

This contrast was brought into sharp focus of late when I informed my parents of my separation from my wife of 14 years. It is not a separation of anger, sadness, or conflict, just an appreciation that we have drifted apart over the years. It is not unexpected, nor overly upsetting. Well, it is a little upsetting, but not devastating.

Upon telling my parents, it was as if I had flipped a switch. Suddenly the warnings, fears, judgements, and suspicions were flying faster than debris in a cyclone. My attempts to clarify and explain that there was nothing to worry about brought on the statement that they questioned my ability to handle it. I assured them that I was quite able to handle it and to please, for once, have a little faith in me. What followed I shall not repeat, but it demonstrated utterly what they thought of me.

imagesShortly after, I hung up after telling them that I wasn’t going to keep talking if they couldn’t talk reasonably with me… They couldn’t.

I have received more positive, and loving support from people who are not my biological family, than I have from my own blood. Even my brother, long since moved away, and with a paternal beef of his own, has demonstrated for respect.

For me, I have had to redefine what family means to me in order to be able to find the support and comfort I need as a human being. So for me, family is the people who do accept you for who you are. They support you, encourage you, and do not judge, yet can equally tell you when you are wrong.

Turns out, I have a very large family.

Paddling the Deep End

Nothing gains you more experience than being chucked in the deep end. Problem is, it is not always a good experience. Certainly not like being able to dip your toes in the pool before you get your knees wet, but then many of us wouldn’t do anything if we always did that.

Taking the metaphor literal for a moment, I do this when going for a swim, I just dive in. It is much better to simply dive in, let the shock of cold water wash over you, then swim away. I’ve done it many times and sort of know what to expect… now.

Taking the same principle and applying it to something that you really haven’t done is quite another thing. The sense of drowning is rather disturbing, even when it is a psychological one, and that is how I have felt for a few weeks now since I made the choice to take the plunge, so to speak.

It is not something I have done before, and I didn’t know what to expect. Well, that is the reality. I thought I did know what to expect. I felt that I was ready, and I still do. Only, in truth, I didn’t know what to expect, which has taken me and my sense of readiness a little by surprise.

I look over the past couple of weeks, and in my hindsight, this is how I feel; unprepared. Yet, I also question how I could have been more prepared? And I really haven’t got an answer to that.

My biggest fear is for that of my family. Where is the money? While I see money as a false god of sorts, digital currency rather than something with intrinsic value, money is what the world I find myself in works on. It’s what the bills want to be paid in, and how you buy your food. Regardless of my desires to follow my passion, which I have the full support of my family, and rapidly growing array of friends, I have to make sure my family is able to co-exist with me.

This is the biggest challenge of my life. Even bigger than taking on the role of Presenter for a Web Base Series, which is a steep learning curve in itself.

Nothing could have prepared me enough I think, and yet I still have the voice inside that says I am ready. Fear and confidence, living in co-habitation within the murkiness of my mind.

I need a drink.