A comment in a conversation between Terry Real and Bert Hoff caught my eye. He said he wondered if in fact men actually felt things more deeply than women. Not exactly the common wisdom. It’s a comment that bears exploring. I have said in these pages how we men are taught to over ride our feelings, and how important that is to survival as kids in the rough environment of school, for example. I still hold to that. We do suppress our feelings. But I am also aware of how deeply I do feel things. I churn through things, spending hours, or even days trying to process them. It could never be said that I did not feel. And I have been like this as long as I can remember. I have also always felt like it was extraordinarily hard to deal with those feelings… “Deal with it,” people say, but I found that a most difficult concept. So perhaps the issue is not that as a man I could not feel, but that there were always too many feelings in a culture where it was not manly to show these feelings. Instead of being able to chat these feelings through with other women, as my sisters would do, I was on my own.
My experience of the calmness of some farmers lines up with this. These blokes spend hours and days alone, driving in circles on a tractor, with time to contemplate life and process their feelings. So too older men who potter in a shed, or walk a daily mile or two to collect the newspaper they may spend less time reading. This is so markedly different from we who leave early, drive in busy traffic, work at pressure cooker pace, drive home, and do more work at home. No wonder this is unhealthy… where is there time to deal with feelings in that?
What are the implications of this thinking?
Firstly, there is nothing to be gained from a men vs. women approach. Men feel, women feel. Maybe men feel more deeply in some ways… end of comparison. (Indeed, how one actually defines feeling ‘more deeply’ is anyone’s guess.)
It would perhaps be helpful to remember when we feel swamped by feelings, and perhaps unmanly, that we men do feel deeply… it is not like there is something wrong with us when we feel swamped by our feelings. It means that often a great deal is being asked of us, especially where we are in the traditional role of full time bread winner where not feeling is often required of us, or where we are coppers or ambos, and asked to exercise the most extreme control over our feelings, and yet remain able to be compassionate and empathetic. All this in an environment that then frowns on us “nattering” it out in the way women are actually encouraged to do by their whole upbringing.
Finally, to feel is natural. In the harshness of life, where as soldier, copper and ambo we make huge decisions, feelings of regret, shame, panic, fear and pain are all what humanise us. Without these we become the animals some people would say we are. Even as an employee in a safe city business, the decisions that keep us awake at night, the struggle between integrity and needing a job to feed our family, the weariness and struggle that accompanies going to work in a place we do not like…. all these keep us human as well. These feelings enable us to keep our integrity and humanity. They are a gift to be nurtured and in a strange way, given their pain sometimes, to be cherished.
July 12 2001
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