A good man who had been important to me when I was a young bloke passed away the other day. He’d been unwell for a while and his time had come. I imagine he met it well…. He was a good man whom I’d not seen since I was about 21. This, because his daughter and I had long since parted ways and well… you know, it gets a little awkward after that. I feel an oddly overwhelming sense of loss over his passing however… he’d had more of an affect on me as a young man than I think I’d been prepared to admit.
I’d had the misfortune to have a fairly spectacular motorcycle accident when I was 20 and managed to frighten a lot of people, my own parents especially.. They endured the kind of hell only a parent with a seriously unwell kid can come to know. Neville however, was one of the first faces I recall when I awoke in ICU some days later. Amidst my own confusion, his face was a comforting mix of relief, joy, concern, laughter; but mostly caring. My parents told me later that he’d been an unwavering source of support to them when they needed it.
In courting his gorgeous daughter I’d come to know Neville pretty well – we’d sailed together.. (I suspect I was ballast) ; we’d puzzled over his failing Chrysler; we’d smoked together; drunk red together and he’d admired my motorcycle appreciatively while not-so-secretly detesting it… I’d admired his executive role with a large multi-national and regularly asked him business advice. He answered by quizzing me on mine… which was frankly a waste of his time as I had none… but he was always generous with his time and interest and I’m grateful to have those memories.
It got me to thinking about the affect of positive role models on young men, and how essential they are in forming well rounded humans. I’m one of the lucky ones.. I was fortunate to be schooled in an environment with lots of male teachers; and then lucky enough to have a number of strong, male role models turn up in my life when I needed them and I think my life has been better for it…
I feel sorry for young men nowadays. Overstimulated by uninterrupted internet access on ubiquitous gizmos, reeling from an unrelenting pace of everything in their lives, apathetic towards a society which they feel catapulted into but disconnected from; spiralling student debt; out of reach accommodation costs, fewer entry-level jobs available; politics that feels irrelevant and so on….all of this has to be frightening for them..
Then for some, there are fathers who are absent; either physically or emotionally. Thanks to our creation of the ‘nuclear’ family model – oftentimes uncles or close male family friends are simply not available.
Most young men will have been taught at school primarily by women (it seems fewer men are becoming teachers these days), so that and all of the above create a shrinking availability of male role models in their lives… What next? some might turn to social media and/or porn to learn about life’s specifics: sex, relationships, etc – all of which of course is screwed up and gives a warped rendering that doesn’t approximate real life.
Then, if any doubts linger about their personal and social worth, they can count on the media to continually portray men as either stupid or problematic in the name of god-only-knows-what.. This cannot be good for their mental health.
Now, add in a society hung up on a mostly unobtainable body-image (which, it turns out… is not gender specific in any way) and which communicates almost exclusively visually via the ‘net, then you get this perfect storm of peril for young men’s sensibilities. Any wonder our boys seem so listless? can we blame them? We did this.
So, how to help them? I’m pretty certain that I don’t have anything that could be construed as an answer… but here’s what I know so far ….
- It seems to me that our young men are much harder to approach on any kind of personal issue. In my opinion, it’s repetition that works, eventually. Time, patience and reassurances that their feelings are heard, valued and important are possibly the only cure here.
- Young fellas need environments where they can feel safe enough to tell us that they feel vulnerable, without being judged. Trying to do that face-to-face rarely works because it’s actually pretty confrontational… Rightly or wrongly, we’ve trained our boys NOT to confront their dads. Ask them to explain how they feel and they’ll usually shrug, look away (remember they’ve been conditioned not to ‘do’ feelings…) and say something noncommittal and dismissive….
- For young men and their role models a shared experience helps.. A jointly experienced [insert whatever experience works for you here], something you go through together, provides a space for a conversation to occur side-by-side, rather than head on.
We dads, uncles and male family friends need to step up to the plate and be that role model, starting hard-to-have conversations around difficult topics such as body image, mental health and yes, ‘feelings’. We need to find the side-by-side experiences that need to happen to allow our young men to find their place in a confusing world, confident in their own manliness without needing to offend others. These are the rites-of-passage so missing in our modern, over-scheduled lives.
When I think back to Neville and our red-wine & cigar musings on his boat all those years ago.. that’s all he did .. he validated me as a young bloke. He took an interest in me and my mates and impressed upon me the need to to ‘show up’ in life. I just didn’t know it at the time. Rest well Neville old mate; you went OK.