This article is dedicated to all the loving fathers, father-figures, brothers, brother-figures, teachers, husbands, lovers, uncles, cousins, grandfathers, and the many yaars, doasts and mates who love, live with, and sometimes even die from an unexamined and unseen pain. In this article, I hope to develop an understanding and acknowledgment of men’s pain, not in comparison to or in competition with feminine pain, but pain as a human condition that stays in our body and torments us, waiting for its own resolution.
This article had been developing in my mind for many years until something recently triggered it. In a conversation with my supervisor, I had an uncontained reaction to his suggesting that women are custodians of cultural processes in the Pakistani society, while men hold the institutional power. Something about this didn’t sit well with me and sent a surge of pain up to my head that jolted me like a million volts. As I looked deeper into what this visceral reaction meant, I uncovered how masculine pain is under-attended to despite men yielding pervasive power. And it might have been at that moment that I recognized I was carrying the pain, loss and yearning of hundreds, or perhaps thousands of men I’ve worked with, lived with and loved; Men whose pain remains unseen and needs a newer lens for its resolution.
When I work with men who are feeling depressed, hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness, they rarely use the language of feeling weak, isolated, lonely, or in pain. They present as having road rage, anger, suicidality, workaholism, infidelity, and substance abuse.
Here’s how some of these conversations may look:
Client: I’m drinking a lot more than usual.
Me: It seems like you find it difficult to be with your family without a drink.
Client (taken aback): No, no, I’m addicted, and it’s bad genes, my father was the same.
Me: What would happen if you didn’t drink when you got home?
Client: I’d be bored.
Me: Any other feeling apart from bored?
Client: No, maybe stress.
Me: I think you’re protecting yourself.
Me: What just happened?
Client: I’m a horrible father, I can’t protect my children, sometimes I shout at them. I called my wife a slut the other day…
Me: I was talking about you protecting yourself.
Client: From whom? I’m the drunk asshole.
Me: You’re protecting yourself from the terrifying shadow of your abusive drunk father. Even as a little boy, you had to turn up to love and protect your mother from your father, and now you can’t separate from her. I know you struggle to talk to your kids or wife because you never learnt how. And now you’re drowning in your pain and don’t know what else to do.
And usually, at such points, we sit in silence. Silently acknowledging, ‘I know what that is like’, ‘I’ve been there’, ‘It must have terrified you as a little boy’, ‘what a terrible, terrible world,’ ‘they should have protected you,’ ‘you’re in an awful lot of pain’. And we work from that place and allow intimacy, unlike what they and I learnt through the masculine code. And that is the precise place from which men heal: when a man shows up for another man. When a man says, tell me your pain, and I’ll not judge. When a man says, I can’t imagine what that may have been like for you, yet I know exactly what you mean.
And more importantly, a man reminding another man that holding on to power and control, coercing, controlling and being angry won’t lessen their own pain. That it’s okay for them to protect themselves than annihilate their own self protecting others. They tear up, I tear up and at that moment, we become whole – we show up for each other as men who can love men.
We’re surrounded by a culture that honours traits deemed ‘masculine’ – non-emotionality, strength, independence – and actively ridicule traits it deems ‘feminine’ – interdependence, care and vulnerability. What stops men from acting in caring, emotional and gentle ways towards other men? Men would rather gain dominance and power and resort to violence than to connect with the feminine traits of care. Nora Samaran believes, ‘violence is nurturance turned backwards.’ Men do not talk to one another about nurturance. They talk to each other about the engine power of their cars, the productivity of their employees, their sexploits, their new investment, the Ivy League their son was just admitted to, or their latest social conquest. After many months in therapy, sometimes they divulge why they’re really there:
I have all these friends, but I’m really alone. Not one of them really knows me. (Q, 45)
I have a gun in the house. Sometimes I think that that’s the only way out. (Z, 52)
They (parents) just left me in the boarding school. I used to cry every night. And then the abuse started from other boys. That has never left my mind, so I drink till I pass out. (B, 55)
Having these conversations with other men may feel too intimate, or the codes of masculinity may prohibit conversations around vulnerability, failure and weakness. Men are looking at other men, and are feeling that they’re alone in this experience, and that the only escape is to anaesthetise the pain through drink, rage, or work and disconnect from their body. Additionally, there’s no way of knowing if these conversations are welcome with other men, and if so, how to even bring them up.
It has taken me years, perhaps decades to be comfortable with physical touch with my male friends. I’m not talking about that manly handshake, or fist bumps. I’m talking about holding a friend closely when they share their experience of shame or allowing them to cry on your shoulder. Or men group-hugging as a ritual of connection outside of sport. I have discovered the immense power of the healing this provides me. Maybe there’s something to masculine touch carrying gifts of healing and love which men are deeply disconnected with. At our core, we may all need that archetypal father (figure) to hold us closely and gently till we say “I’m okay.”
If men healing through their pain requires a newer lens, how do we initiate this? One way forward is to begin the process of gaining the awareness of how men did not get their needs met at key developmental stages (of safety, of nurturance, gentleness, attuned connection etc.), and must do so now to gain freedom from being stuck in a world controlled by their past, unmet needs.
“We can heal when we can finally be our whole, unguarded selves, in human community, without shields or guards, and be liked, accepted, seen, held.” (Nora Samaran)
Just like how my visceral reaction to my supervisor alerted me to what exactly was being overlooked in the calculus of male pain, the healing from this requires that men must do this work with other men – not alone. An insistence on pushing them towards therapy might not be scaleable, especially in a country like Pakistan, where men’s defences may be high, and they may not be ready to accept healing from women. We need to capitalize on the idea that men have, for millennia, been healers and saints in their community, and they have the innate knowledge to utilize their own gifts to heal each other. Men understand what it’s like to be a man, and they can teach each other how to work through pain, isolation, distress and loss. Through our small scale interactions between fathers and sons, groups of friends, or through the tribe sitting by the fire at night, we need to dispel the idea that a man should only solve problems for himself and that he shouldn’t need others’ help.
Overcoming the barriers that keep men from talking to other men can be encouraged by bringing men together in activities they may naturally gravitate towards. Men’s Shed in Australia, for example, is doing remarkable work for the wellbeing and health of men. It brings together the younger members of the community with the older members in their work sheds to learn a craft like repairing furniture, restoring cars, fixing equipment etc. They get an opportunity to learn about life from more experienced men while enjoying a cuppa or a beer. We need to use our indigenous and cultural wisdom to come to solutions that can bring men together in the safe company of other men, where they can find support and understanding in an atmosphere of old-fashioned doasti or shagirdi (apprenticing).
Men also need to come together in guided physical, online and social media communities where they can share their experience of pain and be supported through it with other men. Men’s support groups, both formal and informal can open up safe spaces to talk about love, life and loss. When the top male brass of the organizations embraces their feminine, they can cause a seismic shift in the healing processes that unfold in their organizations.
In Ursula K. Leguin’s book Gifts, an entire culture lives by the rule of what they call ‘gifts’ – powers to do harm – possessed by certain of its members. Some families possess gifts of ‘Unmaking’, where they can turn a farmer’s field into a blackened waste or a puppy into a sack of dissolved flesh. Some possess the ability to create a wasting illness, or blindness, or the gift of ‘calling animals’ to the hunt.
By the book’s end, the child at its centre has struggled, against his culture, to realize something profound and fundamental. The gift they call ’Unmaking’ is actually a gift of ‘Making’, turned backwards upon itself and rendered unthinkingly into a weapon. The gift of ‘calling animals’ is turned into a way to hunt them, when it is meant to let humans understand animals and live in balance with them. The ‘wasting’ disease is the backwards use of a gift of healing illness and old age. He finally asks his best friend and closest confidant: what if we are using our gifts backwards? To harm instead of to help? What if they were meant to be used the other way around? (Nora Samaran)