I wanted to write an article that somehow relates the midlife transition with the Thanksgiving Holiday (as I’m writing this, it’s the day before US Thanksgiving). The answer that came to me was surprisingly simple: all that would be necessary would be for me to point out that you can’t be angry and grateful at the same time. I’ll get to that matter a little later. In the meantime, I suddenly realized that, in all my studies of the how men behave before and during the midlife transition, the subject of ‘g download (6)ratitude’ never came up. Ever. At all. Even in my presentations about the culturally-enforced poverty of men’s emotions that suggests that negative emotions are expressed only as anger, while positive emotions are translated into sex (with the possible exception of ‘pride’ that seems permitted as an expression on its own), the question of feeling grateful never even came up. How telling!

It may well be “more blessed to give than to receive,” but, at least sociologically, it’s also more powerful. It’s been recognized for almost a century that gift-giving establishes a relationship of inequality between the giver and receiver, where the receiver becomes socially obligated (‘much obliged’, as they say) to the giver. Expressing thanks is not only a recognition of the giver and his or her generosity, it’s also an acknowledgment of the inequality of the social bond that now binds them together, the receiver entering into a dependent relationship with the giver. I expect, because of the cultural requirements of his maintaining his masculinity, a man would find it more difficult to express genuine gratitude than a woman would. In fact, shouldn’t we actually consider the feeling of needing to express gratitude a negative emotion, since by it the person acknowledges a submissive position?

Anger, whether it’s expressed aggressively, defensively, or passively, should be considered a fear-based emotion. People become angry when they feel threatened: as when an enemy is coming against them. People react with anger when they feel that someone or some thing may be coming to take away something important that’s theirs: their property, their rights, their privileges, their power, their social standing, their good name, their autonomy, their friends, their family members, their health or even their lives, for example. Even vengeance represents an attempt to restore something that was lost: a sense of balance or propriety. All anger comes from a sense of being robbed of something precious to you; and when you dig down into the experience far enough, you discover that, ultimately, that ‘something precious’ can be reduced to one thing: your life. Fear of annihilation is so overwhelming an emotion that it blocks out the experience of any others. It summons the maximum forces toward self-preservation. Anger overrides every other value, setting your own well-being above every other concern.

Gratitude just can’t coexist with anger. Here’s what Daniel Defoe wrote about how the islander he called Friday expressed his gratitude to Robinson Crusoe: “he … kiss’d the Ground, and laid his Head upon the Ground, and taking me by the Foot, set my Foot upon his Head … in token of swearing to be my Slave for ever.” Gratitude – and it’s external expression, giving thanks – constitutes an emotional recognition of power distance from the point of view of the lesser partner. As such, it’s essentially an expression of humility. In the same way that anger serves as a reactive expression toward a threat to your existence, gratitude expresses a recognition that someone else has enhanced (or saved) your life. Therefore, you find yourself indebted and with no viable means of repadownload (1)yment. It’s just not possible to be aggressive and submissive at the same time. Likewise, it’s not possible to be angry and grateful at the same time.

Which emotion has to yield? Which emotion takes precedence? For the pre-midlife male, that’s a difficult situation to manage. Since masculinity remains culturally equated with rugged individualism, and our culture interprets acknowledging dependence as unmanly, and men define themselves by their (apparent) masculinity, acknowledging indebtedness to any significant degree will bring up that most destructive of all feelings: shame. Shame, interpreted as an attack on a man’s very identity, triggers defensive anger. Anger refuses to acknowledge dependence, and gratitude is lost. Only on those rare occasions when he is literally rescued from actual immanent disaster can a male allow himself with impunity to experience gratitude. Outside of that, to experience true gratitude, his anger must be set aside.

I never quite realized before now how significant the Thanksgiving celebration ought to be to men in midlife transition. It’s an opportunity for us to lay aside our defensiveness and to give a sort of public recognition to the fact that we’re most definitely not independent and self-sufficient. If anything, the current global financial meltdown should have shown us that much. Rather than becoming angry at all that we’ve supposedly lost in the current crisis, this holiday suggests – or demands – that we set aside our unrealistic and unmet expectations and the disappointments that go along with them, and focus rather on our giftedness. We are, indeed, at the mercy of the forces that surround us, and not the ‘masters of all we survey,’ as we’d often like to pretend. Our very survival should be venerated as miracle enough. Just as gratitude demands humility, true humility demands gratitude. Embracing them both as a self-aware man this Thanksgiving will serve as a giant step toward attaining true maturity.

H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
ProActivation® Coaching
Website: http://www.MidlifeMaster.com
E-Mail: info@ProActivation.com

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Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown

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