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Good Is Good: Male Yearning

Friday, September 14, 2012

 

Tom Matlack is the former CFO of the Providence Journal and is the founder of The Good Men Project, a non-profit charitable corporation based in Rhode Island and dedicated to helping organizations that provide educational, social, financial, and legal support to men and boys at risk.

Jessica Bennett, a writer for the Daily Beast, recently contacted me about the now full-length book by Hanna Rosin, “The End of Men.” She had been assigned a review — and was searching for a new angle. I found her opening salvo funny, depressing, and somehow refreshing by turns:

hey tom,

can you tell me how sick of this argument you are (cause i know you’re sick of it)? not sure if you’ve read it but i feel like i’ve read it 900 times by now, without a new angle (is there one even at this point?). i’m reviewing the book for the daily beast. 

best, Jessica

♦◊♦

On the way into a speaking engagement Sunday afternoon I was stewing about Jessica’s comment and the whole End of Men chain of logic when a friend tweeted me a BBC oped written by well-known British writer and critic Sarah Dunant in which she reports the distance she has travelled from an experience as an 18 year-old in California as an au pair during the height of sexual liberation (1969) to a world in which feminism has taken hold and yet women are ravenously consuming 50 Shades of Grey. Her key point is to call out men for their inability to speak on the topic of sex:

And that, I suppose, is what worries me. Where are the heavy-weight male voices debating contemporary sexuality? It’s difficult – getting men to talk honestly about sex. Not the nudge-nudge in the pub, or the throw-away gags of comedians, but serious questioning.

We accept that in the aftermath of feminism growing up male can be hard: but where are the big public conversations about men’s sexuality. The impact of pornography. How far has our desire changed theirs? Is their line between what is and is not acceptable different from ours?

Such admissions will not necessarily be politically correct. Sex often isn’t. It doesn’t help that when men do open their mouths on the larger stage, they are firmly shot down. Both George Galloway and our now ex-Justice Secretary Ken Clarke might have been ill advised in their remarks about sexual behaviour and the law, but like it or not, they thought something needed saying, only to be met by a storm of female outrage that effectively stifled all debate.

Yes, we have a long way to go. But we can’t do it without the views of men.

♦◊♦

Ms. Dunant put me in a bad mood on my walk Sunday afternoon from parking my car to finding the Harvard Science Center auditorium where I was to speak. So too did the knowledge that the New England Patriots were kicking off their season just about the time I would be taking the Podium to talk about Love and Ethics in the context of Humanism.

I hate Bud Light commercials with a passion, but smash-mouth football really seemed like a much better idea than sharing the stage with an ex-nun, a relationship columnist, a lobbyist, and a Humanist Chaplain. Especially with the whole world seeming to embrace the End of Men philosophy and calling us guys out for not speaking about sex when at GMP we publish piece after piece on that exact topic.

Sometimes, I hate to say it ladies, it does feel like we can’t catch a break as men in 2012. That has nothing to do with privilege or gender theory and everything to do with personal shortcomings of this author.

 ♦◊♦

It’s been nine months now since I penned the now infamous blog post, “Being a Dude is a Good Thing,” which started with my idea that as guys we are often misunderstood and ended with what felt like a world war, the resignation of some of our best known feminist writers, and Roseanne Barr (complete with shotgun in her profile pic) and Slate’s Amanda Marcotte pinning me to the wall in some kind of ultimate Twitter battle which left me sleepless for the holidays.

I really don’t want to go back there. GMP has moved beyond that—in large part moved beyond my limited view of the world and manhood—and I’d like to believe that so have I. I read that post back now and I can certainly see why people got so upset by some of the things I said. I know my motivation for writing what I did was born out of an attempt to be radically honest about tough stuff (ironically just as Ms. Dunant asks of the “heavy-weight male voices”) but it missed the mark in terms of what GMP really aspires to be and do.

As I settled in at the panel Sunday and listened to Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein talk about love as the greatest human need the germ of a thought began to occur to me.

As I listened to Mary Johnson, who worked closely with Mother Teresa for twenty years, talk about why she was attracted to doing good as a nun but ultimately had to leave Catholicism to embrace love on a personal level (“I first found myself in a lesbian relationship with a sister who was something of a predator,” she said before getting a huge laugh for admitting, “but then I had a much healthier relationship with a priest if such a thing is possible”), that thought continued to blossom in my mind.

Boston Globe writer Meredith Goldstein, author of the “Love Letters” column, talked about how often commenters assume the gender or sexual orientation of a letter writer wrongly. And when they realize their error they have enough self-awareness to radically change their advice based on gender and to understand how problematic that change might be.

Michael DeDora, Director of Public Policy for the largest Humanist think tank, talked about the visceral feeling he had while protesting the imprisonment of a Alexander Aan, 30, an Indonesian man who received a two and a half year sentence for checking off that he is an atheist on Facebook. Michael reported talking to the policeman outside the embassy where the rally was being held who kept asking him questions about the man who was serving two and a half years purely on religious grounds. He kept asking Michael whether he personally knew the guy and when Michael responded that he knew of him from the news media and had been in touch with his legal team, the policeman had this look on his face like if you don’t even know this guy why are you out here protesting for his release? why do you even care?

The answer for Michael, like for Greg, Mary and Meredith was human love.

 ♦◊♦

Speaking last on a panel can be interpreted two ways:  you are either the least important so you better keep it really short or you are the cleanup batter so it’s your job to take everything that has been said before, throw out whatever prepared remarks you might have, and smack the ball well beyond the Green Monster. I elected to interpret my position last Sunday as the latter of those two possible interpretations.

What came to me was this idea which is the flip side of what I tried to talk about in the ill-fated blog last December, what Hanna Rosin is talking about with the macro trends which pits men against women and falling dramatically short, and the well-meaning but to my mind blindingly naïve piece by Ms. Dunant calling men out for their lack of forthrightness when it comes to sex.

In all my travels talking to men, listening to their stories, writing about them, and just plan sitting around a table playing poker and smoking cigars (yes that is what I most like to do), what I hear is a deep-seating yearning. A yearning for love of all kinds—romantic, sexual, fatherly, in work, in friendship.

All this gender based finger pointing is completely beside the point.

When I finally opened my mouth, I told my story as vividly and concisely as I could and explained how my own search for meaning and for love had led me to other men who helped me see the ways in which I had bought a bill of goods around what is important as a guy and to heal the broken place in my soul. And how everything that had come after was a reflection of the power men getting real about that innermost yearning.

The fundamental point that much of the public discourse about masculinity misses, and the GMP is trying to address, however imperfectly, is that the yearning for love and meaning among men is at epidemic proportions.

We have this notion that the guy watching a football game or working at an investment bank has no heart, is dead inside. That just isn’t true. I’ve said for a long time that at times the vocabulary that some men use to talk to each other is different than some women use to talk to each other. But take the most stereotypical macho, beer-guzzling, knuckle-headed guys (i.e., my friends) and tell them a story about photojournalist Michael Kamber’s imbed on the ground in Iraq when his unit gets hit and he has to decide to take pictures or save lives, and those guys are all gonna be crying. And so am I. As men we see and feel the importance of what is being talked about and how it applies to the challenges in our lives to figure out what the heck it means to be a man and to be good and to try to do things that are impossible despite the long odds.

So please, let’s stop talking about the end of men. Let’s stop talking about how feminists and MRAs can’t get along. Let’s stop talking about how men need to come clean about their deepest sexual desires (hint there Sarah, men that I know are more interested in love than sex but they get lost along the way). And let’s stop pitting men and women against each other.

Let’s start acknowledging that in 2012 men are suffering in all kinds of ways that include the very definition of what it means to be man in a world with quickly shifting sands economically and socially. And at its core that suffering is about a yearning that can only be filled by deeper connect with each other and with the women in our lives.

 ♦◊♦

 On the way out a young male Harvard student stopped me to talk about the controversy last December. “I love your site but I just don’t understand why you let Hugo on your site to begin with,” he started out.

I made clear that honestly everyone is invited to this party. In fact I had gone inside Sing Sing prison to bring the GMP to convicted murders and left a changed man by hearing their stories and sharing mine. “Who am I to pass judgment?” I asked him, making clear that we don’t have an editorial stance on any issue other than to allow all sides to discuss openly as long as they can do it civilly.

After a bit of shuffling of feet, he came to his real point. “I still have such a hard time opening up with other dudes,” he admitted. “There’s all this stuff going on in my life that I don’t know what to do but I’m afraid of sharing it because I think I will look stupid or get criticized.”

There it is, I thought. The yearning. Even in this 20-year-old brilliant kid. Especially in this 20-year-old brilliant kid.

“You can start online,” I told him. “It’s less threatening in a community like ours. But at the end of the day what changed me was sitting down with guys I trusted and spilling my guts.”

For more of Tom's works, as well as other pieces on related topics, go to The Good Men Project Magazine online, here.

 

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