Hero culture has set an impossible and dangerous standard for men in this country.
The John Wayne type of independent, self-reliant, emotionless icon has been replicated, digitized, and repacked into countless new action actors and movies. Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Dwayne Johnson make up just the tip of the iceberg that is, unfortunately, acceptable American masculinity.
At best, men’s hero culture is simply causing us pain; it gives us the option to be 1 of 2 things, 1) on top (a winner) or 2) NOT on top (a loser).
Since there can only be a small number of people on top, that leaves the majority of men not on top who live in shame, trying desperately to keep their “loser” status hidden.
At worst, and unfortunately the worst is happening at an alarming rate, it is filling the morgues of this country with dead bodies ravaged by self-inflicted gun shot wounds.
Something must change.
This is very personal, and although it affects men of all ages, I’m focusing on men like me in their mid fifties. While sorting out my own day-to-day malaise, a malaise I have not be able to shake for nearly a year, I’ve become aware that this feeling of discontent is common among men my age.
When our careers are winding down, we look to the future and find it surprisingly free of road signs. From my point of view, a 54 gay man living in Hollywood, California, the future appears to be completely void of any roads at all.
There is no clear path to walk either alone or with companions.
This is why so many men end up in isolation. We feel lonely, vulnerable, and disoriented.
All things hero culture abhors.
Hero culture ideals require us to show no vulnerability, to need no one, and to have all the answers. Our need for love, our desire for friendship, and ALL our fears around money, relationships, relevance, and death must be buried under a façade of muscle, fast cars, and sexual conquest. If not, the culture considers us weak.
And weakness is currently reviled in American.
So, alone with our fears, desires, and dreams it is.
This is more than just sad. It’s dangerous.
The hero model of masculinity that our society embraces causes a toxicity that is alarmingly fatal.
This is not the “toxic-masculinity” used to describe narcissistic, selfish, hostility from men. This is a toxicity that causes self-destructive life-threatening isolation inside of men.
It’s a toxicity that is causing men to kill themselves at an alarming rate!
Brené Brown, a shame researcher, and Psychology Today, point to studies that show loneliness is more fatal than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day or living with obesity.
According to the National Institute on Mental Health, who uses Center for Disease Control data, American men kill ourselves at 2 to 3 times the rate of women; we are more likely to die from suicide than homicide, and a gun is the most likely way we do it.
Suicide is one of the top leading causes of death for men.
I am not in a suicidal state, but I am experiencing a midlife malaise that I want to turn around before it flirts with the kind of loneliness that kills.
Notice, in my earlier statement about my malaise, that I didn’t used the word “normal” to explain my condition; I said, “common” because I refuse to believe that this many men quietly killing themselves in the shadows is normal.
This is a clear and present danger that must be addressed.
The first step is for us to talk about feelings, listen to others when they express their feelings, and trust that the culture, deep down, wants strong, empathic, community-oriented collaborators more than it wants men who break things and can only express themselves with one emotion: anger.
The more open and honest I am with other men about my own desires for friendship, love, and relevance (usefulness), the more confident I am that our current state of hero worship will change. This past Sunday I met with a small group of Gay Men Over 50 (GMO50), a private group started by a man I’ve known for 34 years, and we talked about our living options as we age.
There was a palpable creative energy in the conversation.
After we got past the realization that there are no brick and mortar venues or “arenas” for gay men to gather that are not bars, sex clubs, or sex apps, we had an exciting conversation about communal living spaces, elder roles, and what “community” means.
We need places to connect.
Not chat rooms or conference calls. We need to breath the same air, hear the same laughter, and lean in when the quite moments present themselves for heart-to-heart connections.
This is a new frontier. We will need to find the answers and build the future together.
For my part, I intend to keep talking about these issues, listening to ALL the feelings my brothers are able to express, and follow all leads that guide us to a physical community space (or spaces) where gay men thrive.