Identity, male grief and story

lone flower 6

My purpose with this piece is to pull together a few of my recent readings and reflections that have crystalized into something that I find important to express; at least for myself.

The readings/pieces are, in no particular order, Kim Anderson’s Life Stages and Native Women, Anthony Griffith’s struggle with grief, Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami and Johnah Peretti’s Towards a radical anti-capitalist Schizophrenia?

I admit that at first glimpse, these do not look to overlap much. And yet they have helped shape my view that the struggle for identity and meaning in our current times is damn complicated and short in coherence; that male grief is real, socially stigmatized and that it often is a very lonely and confusing place/space/experience; and that our experiences, desires, aspirations and so on are, while well catered to in our capitalist consumption based culture, unfortunately and to our detriment only sparsely mediated or guided by story, ritual or ceremony. What I see as one result of the interplay and the convergence of all of these elements is well captured in T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men.

For, “We are the hollow men… We are the stuffed men…Leaning together…Headpiece filled with straw…. Alas!…Our dried voices, when….We whisper together…Are quiet and meaningless…As wind in dry grass…Or rats’ feet over broken glass…In our dry cellar…Shape without form, shade without colour,…Paralysed force, gesture without motion;…Those who have crossed…With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom…Remember us—if at all—not as lost…Violent souls, but…only…As the hollow men…The stuffed men….”

Anthony Griffith’s talk, The Best of Times, the Worst of Times, is layered. In one sense, we see a man caught in the grips of an experience that he can hardly understand let alone act upon. His presentation is a heart-felt sharing full of complexities, ironies, grief, confusion and humanity. A comedian who has just been invited back to The Tonight Show (the best of times) and a father who is losing his young daughter and struggling under medical bills (the worst of times), he shares:

“I am a clown whose medical bills are rising, who is one step from being evicted, who is one step from getting his car taken … and I have to come out and make you laugh because no one wants to hear the clown in pain because that is not funny!… and I am hurting and I want everybody else to hurt because somebody is to blame for this.. so I buck up and I suppress my anger and I develop a nice cute routine for the second Tonight Show and …. and how do you plan for that… and how do you plan to buy a dress for her to be buried in… and I am begging the world to give me a chance … just let me take a breath.. just stop just for a minute .. I want to call my parents and tell them WHAT DO I DO?!… I don’t know what to do! I am a grown man and I don’t know what to do….”

Male grief is complex. Men are not supposed to grieve. We are expected to – why is this so? – be strong not weak, rationally stoic and not emotionally vulnerable, leaders not confused, providers and not in need of help. Grieve is out of place. It may be embarrassing. It may be too human. It may be too exposed. It may be saying too much…

Men are taught to manage grief in a particular way and often experience extreme isolation, so writes Carlos Andrés Gómez in his piece Men & Grief – Staring down the eye of the storm. We buck up, as per Griffith. We develop a façade. We externalize, compartmentalize and squelch grief and its expression.

Gómez writes: “I quietly celebrated that moment of shutting myself down emotionally, as though it were an accomplishment.  I wore it like a badge of honor that I could conceal the hurricane of emotions in my chest”. Many of his friends too, bought societies “misguided and self-destructive narrative…. Men who I love and deeply respect, who have talent and gorgeous, epic hearts but drown all the magic they have inside in bottles of Jack Daniels or numb it away with needles or through pipes or with gambling.”

Squelching, externalizing, deflecting. We are supposed to be in control, but we are not. Sometimes even grown men DO NOT KNOW WHAT TO DO and struggle mightily, often in silence, with experiences and societal expectations.

In The male suicide: How social perfectionism kills, the author asks “In every country in the world, male suicides outnumber female. The mystery is why? What is it about being male that leads to this? Why, at least in the UK, are middle-aged men most at risk? And why is it getting worse?” (more women attempt suicide, but more men die from it, due to their often more violent/final means of ending a life).

Researchers working with mental health and suicide, according to this article, find that there is rarely, if ever, a single factor that leads to any self-inflicted death and that mental illness, most commonly depression, usually precedes such an event. “But the really important point is, most people with depression don’t kill themselves…less than 5 per cent do. So mental illness is not an explanation… the decision to kill yourself is a psychological phenomenon”

And the psychological phenomenon underlying many male suicides, according to this article, is social perfectionism.

“If you’re a social perfectionist, you tend to identify closely with the roles and responsibilities you believe you have in life. “It’s not about what you expect of yourself,” O’Connor explains. “It’s what you think other people expect. You’ve let others down because you’ve failed to be a good father or a good brother – whatever it is.”

Because it’s a judgement on other people’s imagined judgements of you, it can be especially toxic. “It’s nothing to do with what those people actually think of you,” he says. “It’s what you think they expect. The reason it’s so problematic is that it’s outside your control.”

We are our personal projects, Cambridge psychology professor Brian Little, claims. From walking the dog, to being a successful father and husband to working a job, we all have personal projects; and if they begin to fall apart? How do we cope? If you are a social perfectionist, dangerously dependent on maintaining a sometimes impossible level of success, you just might collapse. When you’re defeated, you’ll collapse.

A big issue is that men, given the nature of the beast, find it often very hard to talk about emotions and feelings and difficulties. We keep the struggle to ourselves and try to figure it out… reason through it…fight it… best it… charge ahead… clear the deck…and if that does not work, if the fight response becomes inadequate, there always remains flight and the ultimate means of flight is death.

But what about collective grief? In Ghosts of the Tsunami, Parry shares a story of meeting a Buddhist priest in Japan exorcising the spirits of people who had drowned in the devastating 2011 tsunami.

“Nearly twenty thousand people had died at a stroke. In the space of a month, Kaneda performed funeral services for two hundred of them. More appalling than the scale of death was the spectacle of the bereaved survivors. ‘They didn’t cry,’ Kaneda said to me a year later. ‘There was no emotion at all. The loss was so profound and death had come so suddenly. They understood the facts of their situation individually – that they had lost their homes, lost their livelihoods and lost their families. They understood each piece, but they couldn’t see it as a whole, and they couldn’t understand what they should do, or sometimes even where they were. I couldn’t really talk to them, to be honest. All I could do was stay with them, and read the sutras and conduct the ceremonies. That was the thing I could do.”

As a result of the mass devastation, many survivors were forced to bury their dead in mass graves; this goes counter to ceremony in that in Japan, many people believe that only through cremation can the body’s spirit be released and peace be given to an otherwise restless ghost. Furthermore, the cremated are then brought home in an urn where they are kept by families for weeks if not months, prior to burial.

Parry describes household altars or “butsudan, which are still seen in most homes and on which the memorial tablets of dead ancestors – the ihai – are displayed. The butsudan are black cabinets of lacquer and gilt, with openwork carvings of lions and birds; the ihai are upright tablets of black polished wood, vertically inscribed in gold. Offerings of flowers, incense, rice, fruit and drinks are placed before them; at the summer Festival of the Dead, families light candles and lanterns to welcome home the ancestral spirits”.

The tsunami did appalling violence to the religion of the ancestors, writes Parry. The tsunami destroyed all; houses, people and “household altars, memorial tablets and family photographs; Cemetery vaults were ripped open and the bones of the dead scattered. Temples were destroyed, along with memorial books listing the names of ancestors over generations”.

Yozo Taniyama, a Japanese priest, explained the significance of this: “The memorial tablets – it’s difficult to exaggerate their importance…when there’s a fire or an earthquake, the ihai are the first thing many people will save, before money or documents. People died in the tsunami because they went home for the ihai. It’s life – like saving your late father’s life.’”

But in Parry’s account, it were the recently dead, who could not be properly cared for; rituals and ceremonies to mediate grief, mourning and lasting connections to the dead were interrupted by the incongruence the tsunami left in its wake.

“Thousands of spirits had passed from life to death; countless others were cut loose from their moorings in the afterlife. How could they all be cared for? Who was to honour the compact between the living and the dead? In such circumstances, how could there fail to be a swarm of ghosts?” Kaneda, Buddhist priest, tells Parry. The result? Ghostly encounters:

“Haltingly, apologetically, then with increasing fluency, the survivors spoke of the terror of the wave, the pain of bereavement and their fears for the future. They also talked about encounters with the supernatural. They described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbours, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns. The experiences ranged from eerie dreams and feelings of vague unease to cases, like that of Takeshi Ono, of outright possession…”

The importance of ceremony and ritual to giving meaning to life’s experiences is beautifully explored in Anderson’s book Life Stages and Native Women. First Nations elders described that in times of death, for example, very old customs would be called upon. “They would make us cry, for example. The old ladies would come in and they would just wail – do this keening that would make everybody cry. And then, when you finished crying, they would bring out tea, and sit around laughing and telling stories in little groups. Singing songs or whatever. And then it would be time to do the whole thing all over again. You would do that four times during the night for the whole time of the wake….”

After the burial too, there were ceremonies to mediate grief. “We were told that when the person was buried then we had to turn around… we turned around clockwise and we would walk out of that graveyard and never look back; we were not supposed to say that person’s name again. We put them out of our mind for a whole year. Because they need to make their journey, and it was not up to you to make that journey harder for them. And if you cried or talked about them, then you were keeping them here…at the end of the first year, there would be a feast or the person, at which point it would be acceptable to talk about the person once again. And again, it was the old ladies who governed the processes…”

Anderson aptly calls ceremonies, teachings and rituals that guide people through their life – as individuals and as part of and connected to a community – medicines. In a First Nations context, where culture and ways of being have been and continue to be destroyed and eroded, it is the uncovering of medicines, claims Anderson, that will allow people to heal, recover, find voice, agency, decolonize and re-build resilience.

Lacking teachings – ceremonies, rituals, tales – that guide and provide meaning to an experienced life and that connect the individual to the lives of other people and the health of a community, there is breakdown, isolation and a severe incongruence. Identity – who am I and why does my life matter and what is my purpose and who cares – is a difficult place to reach. The path is confusing and often made treacherous by how society acts upon people and cultures; how people act on people; how norms can be damaging and how a lack of mediating stories invokes vertigo.

And this brings me to a rumination on capitalism and schizophrenia. Briefly, the author of the article explores a philosophical and yet, I believe, highly relevant concept of identity formation in the time of mass production, commerce, conspicuous consumption and a loud and prominent advertising/marketing of material things.

“My central contention,” writes the author, “is that late capitalism not only accelerates the flow of capital, but also accelerates the rate at which subjects assume identities. Identity formation is inextricably linked to the urge to consume, and therefore the acceleration of capitalism necessitates an increase in the rate at which individuals assume and shed identities. The internet is one of many late capitalist phenomena that allow for more flexible, rapid, and profitable mechanisms of identity formation”.

The association with schizophrenia is as follows: the “schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the “I” and the “me” over time”. According to Fredric Jameson, author of Postmodernism and Consumer Society, “the schizophrenic lacks a personal identity, is unable to differentiate between self and world, and is incapable of experiencing continuity through time”.

Capitalism and mass media, so it is argued, simulate or stimulate a schizoid experience. “The rapid fire succession of signifiers in MTV style media erodes the viewer’s sense of temporal continuity… the images that flash across the MTV viewers’ retina are isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. This… montage can have the effect of disorienting the subject, and may contribute to the egolessness that is characteristic of schizophrenia.”

I believe that identity is fluid, dynamic and in constant conversation with our environment. I also believe that this openness to change is important for individual and societal health – in fact, a radical anti-capitalist schizophrenia is described as a refusal to identify with the status quo / common sense and as an ability to break old identification in order to facilitate “forms of community that are played out over and above the logic of commodity exchange”.

What I take away from this article, however, is that there are so many demands placed upon us and so many stimuli that invade our sense-making and that disrupt our sense of time and continuity, that it becomes very difficult to find ourselves and settle upon an identity – even if it is dynamic – from which we can launch our daily acts of living. We experience vertigo and may be disorientated.

And it is at this point that we come back to male grief and try to understand how, amidst an onslaught of stimuli that fracture identity and distance us from ourselves, we are also given a misguided and self-destructive and yet common narrative of needing to conceal the hurricane of emotions, if it appears. Think back to how this relates to the experience of social perfectionism and suicide.

Is this ever confusing. Disorientated by mass media identity culture and therefore, ironically, also arguably susceptible to the stories that society at large throws our way, we are explained to ourselves and struggle to voice ‘this is not me!’ and yet, “who am I, if not this?”

Hence, the importance of rituals, stories and mentors/elders to help mediate experience in a healthier, life affirming way; we are in need of something to attenuate the many and loud voices of society at large and bring us back to ourselves and our relationships. For men, it is difficult to experience and process grief; we require story to guide male grief and to place it in a context of meaning and sense-making, so that we are able to explain our lives and experiences to ourselves in a way that permits coherence of voice and agency; in a way that permits and allows for loss and affirms that this is not equated with failure; in a way that allows us to cry and understand crying as a vital embodiment of who we are as complex and emotionally involved/engaged individuals.

Or, in the words of Rilke, we are in dire need of something with which we can

“depict [our] sorrows and desires, [our] passing thoughts and beliefs in some kind of beauty – depict all that with heartfelt, quiet, humble sincerity and use to express [ourselves] the things that surround [us], the images of [our] dreams and the objects of [our] memory…”

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