Once more, the Grim Reaper is coming up the pathway to visit the old year, 2008. The economic forces that were put in motion over the last ten years have finally tipped the scales, particularly over the last six months. Huge corporations are dropping like flies or are begging to be propped up by the very people most hurt by their business decisions (us). Jobs that once-upon-a-time were taking flight overseas are now just evaporating as our artificially super-charged economy runs out of gas: an energy crisis of an entirely different sort than the one we were anticipating. When these things start to happen, who gets hurt the worst? Men in midlife, that’s who. Merry Christmas; here’s your furlough papers. Happy New Year; here’s your pink slip. Happy Holidays; and, by the way, your hours are cut, your salary’s reduced, your contract is being terminated. See you around!
What happens to you when you find yourself sitting at home scanning the ‘Help Wanted’ ads online? What’s going on while you’re putting the finishing touches on updating your resumé for the umpteenth time? What makes up that black cloud that seems to be swirling around you: that feeling that the world’s a nasty place and it’s got your number? If you really want to appreciate the reasons why facing the prospect or experiencing the fact of being unemployed can be so devastating (although ‘appreciate’ may not be the best word), you might want to take a look at what having a job means to you as a man at the height of your career or the pinnacle of your productive capacity. What exactly does your work or your career mean to you?
You’re a male. That was a fact of your conception. You’ve got an X and a Y chromosome, so every one of your cells reflects your gender. On the other hand, even though you were born a male, that still doesn’t make you a man. At least in our culture, becoming a ‘man’ represents a sort of unending, lifelong quest: one that, unless you’re recognized as some sort of major hero, you’ll never quite attain (although, if you’re like most guys, you’ll never stop hoping and never stop trying). Becoming a ‘real man’ has to do much more with what you do rather than what you are. The best description that I’ve found of what you have to do to ‘prove’ your manliness comes from the work of Dr. Jed Diamond (my favorite author on midlife matters), who presents twelve ‘commandments’ for a ‘real man.’
1. I can never be weak.
2. If I have a weak moment I must hide it from everyone, including myself.
3. I must never fail at anything.
4. To fail is to lose my sense of self. To fail my family is to lose my reason for living.
5. I must work to support my family whatever the cost to myself. To ever lose a job is to feel shame at the core of my being.
6. I cannot express emotions, particularly love, fear, or sadness. Anger is sometimes acceptable if directed at other men.
7. I must not cry, complain, or ask for help.
8. I must never be uncertain or ambivalent. If I’m not always sure of myself, I must act that way.
9. I must not be dependent or act like I need someone.
10. Disrespect is my greatest fear. I’m afraid I might kill or die rather than live a life where I felt disrespected.
11. I must ignore my own health. “Real men” are indestructible.
12. If I’m sick or injured I must “play through the pain.” To slow down to take care of myself is unmanly and a source of shame.
Check out ‘commandment’ number 5. This one cultural imperative touches on the core weakness of the the English-speaking North American male. It’s your Superman’s kryptonite. What is it? It’s shame. According to our cultural myth, being a male but not living up to the code of manliness strikes at the core of your self-esteem. For you as a male, who you are (a ‘real man’) depends entirely on what you do and how you do the things you do. You’re either a manly man, or you’re nothing: a cipher; a zero; a wuss; a wimp; a sissy. As a guy, nobody has to tell you these things; nobody has to point a finger at you and accuse you of being a failure and a traitor to your sex. You’ve been well-trained to be your own judge, jury and executioner. Nobody could possibly be harder on you than yourself.
What can you do when you’ve come to the end of a job, a career, or a contract? Your first and most important move should be to get in touch with how you feel. This is critically important because of the nature of our culture. Your attitudes toward yourself as a man and as a provider have been formed by your cultural context and they are pre-logical. In other words, how you feel about yourself and your work has been predetermined by your upbringing, and it’s not something that you’re even aware of. You probably believe that that’s just how things are. You may not realize that this is not the case at all. None of the 12 ‘commandments’ I’ve quoted here have any basis in fact and, what’s more, they’re not even reasonable. It may well be that losing your job could be one of the best things to happen to you in midlife, because it gives you an opportunity to confront these dysfunctional beliefs and to replace them with a new set of beliefs that correspond to your reality. You now have the opportunity to reinvent yourself from the ground (your belief system) up, and to formulate a new set of ‘commandments’ for yourself that are more in alignment with the person you most desire to be, rather than the (fictional) person you’re ‘supposed’ to be.
If the end is near for you (or you’ve already passed through it), now’s your chance to embrace the conviction that every ending represents a new beginning. 2008, with all its troubles, transitions into 2009, with all its hopes. Each path that ends transforms into a new path that begins. Each challenge is an opportunity in disguise. Have you ever heard of the SWOT analysis? It’s a method that you can use to evaluate future prospects. First you look at your Strengths, then at your Weaknesses, then at the Opportunities you face, and finally your Threats. In my perspective, I drop the ‘T’ because I firmly believe that all threats are really opportunities in disguise. I strongly recommend that, as you face the prospect of career change (as we all eventually must), you might want to drop the ‘T’ as well. After all, the only threat you really face comes from the judgments and limitations that you put on yourself. Repent! The end is near!
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