Home > Life, Politics, Really?, Spirituality/Religion > Inertia and the Hell of Being a Man

Inertia and the Hell of Being a Man

sure1Help me out here, people.

I’m finding my mind whirling as I try to figure out the best direction for our country.

You too? Imagine that…

I’m really starting to understand the adage about not talking about politics or religion because it’s a no-win proposition. You either find people who agree with you, hang out with them and preach to each other’s choir, or you turn blue in frustration trying to convince someone else that your ideas are valid. Eventually you reach an impasse and everything comes to a halt.

But the one thing I try to do when I disagree with or don’t quite understand someone is to step into their shoes for a time and see the world through their eyes.

Lately, I’ve been trying to understand what it is to be a man in our society right now. I read a disturbing statistic recently that the rate of suicide for men between the ages of 45 and 54 has risen substantially in the past few years. I’ve seen it played out in my own life with two old high school classmates taking their own lives in the past 3 months.

Before I was 12, I was convinced that I’d grow up to be a man. At that time it seemed that everything good in the world was only available to men. I was disappointed when I found out I was ineligible, but now I feel like I was given a get-out-of-jail-free card. Being a man is not an easy ride these days, and our society, like men’s biology, hasn’t done a very good job of equipping them emotionally for a crash.

I chose to leave the corporate working world about 7 years ago because I could. My needs were few and I felt that I could make up for it in more creative ways. So far, I have. But watching what is happening to those who did not make that same choice and are experiencing a more difficult outcome makes me wonder how I can help them.

There is a powerful force in the universe called “inertia” — the principle that “an object in motion will stay in motion”, which makes its inverse also true.

As men lose their jobs in the workforce, sometimes for years at a time, their internal engines grind to a stop. I have experienced this phenomenon for myself, though by choice, and I understand how hard it is to get moving again. What seems so simple when you are already in motion is exponentially harder when the wheels have yet to recover their momentum. For many men, the only velocity is “full speed ahead” so a dead stop can be devastating.

You reflect on the fact that you’ve worked your butt off for years to fulfill all the responsibilities you thought were expected of you, supporting a family by selling the best part of your life force to someone who one day calls you in and says, “I’m sorry. Through no fault of your own, we have to let you go.” Just like that. The most powerful years of your life dissipate in a puff of smoke, your contributions soon forgotten by everyone you knew.

After the initial devastation subsides and you scramble for your footing, you think, “Hey, maybe now I can pursue that dream I thought I’d never have a chance to explore” even though you put it aside so long ago you have to think hard to remember what it was. Grandiosely you imagine that maybe this is God’s timing and you’re being told to pursue it, so you get started.

But you’re tired now. Middle-age has doused the fire in your engine and you’re lucky if it still has some burning embers capable of igniting this new fuel you’ve stumbled on. You wonder if your dream was a calling or if it was merely the incendiary energy of youth. You grow desperate as you try to figure out what to do and each passing day puts you further behind. Your mind blurs as you try to accomplish even the simplest tasks of taking care of your household (often a foreign concept) or sending out a resume that you know will probably be lost in a stack with thousands of others.

It seems as if nobody wants or needs you. Maybe your kids are grown and your wife has established her own rhythm in your absence or in her own career. She probably gets to keep her job as that “what-goes-around-comes-around” backlash hits because she makes less money for doing the same job. The one thing that made you feel worthy in the world — your work — doesn’t even need you anymore and you’re lucky if you’ve prepared for this time financially.


And then it finally happens… You fall to your knees, crying, begging for relief from this pain. Maybe you think you’d be more valuable to your family if you just weren’t here anymore, that maybe you can figure out a way to cash in on your life insurance so they won’t be left with nothing. You rationalize that their having money is more valuable to them than having you.

You feel relief. You have a plan! Everything seems great because your inertia has broken and you can move forward! That fire in your belly starts to ignite and you feel alive again!

Oh, the irony…. that the “promise” of this hell can be so seductive. I’m not a believer in hell as a place in eternity. I believe it is right here and we live it now. But what we don’t realize is that hell is not the painful part of our existence. Rather, it’s in the premature release; the thought that a simple action can end our suffering forever. It’s the very hell our country finds itself confronting as it deals with having fallen prey to the seduction of the “easy way out”.

At the risk of sounding spiritually trite, maybe there is something to be said for being driven to our knees in desperation. Maybe it’s God’s way of saying, “I’ve taken away your legs so that I can teach you to move forward again, on my terms, not yours…” Maybe if we stop struggling and stay there long enough to muster the courage to dry our tears and look around from that vantage point, we will find that the view down there is completely different, that maybe we are seeing a world that most people won’t humble themselves enough to look at.

Maybe this is a glimpse into the heaven in our own life knowing that we can learn to walk again one step at a time as our new, stronger legs form.

Dear, sweet men…. we ask so much of you…. that you be strong and courageous, that you never show us your defeat. Have we asked too much, or have we simply asked of you the wrong things? The rest of us have won our right, at your expense, to change and to fulfill our own longings…. but in doing so, have we denied you yours?

  1. October 2, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    As Rick’s father used to say,”Life is nothing but a grim struggle for survival.” Coincidentally, he took his own life just over 20 years ago.

    I hope I let Rick know enough how I appreciate him and how hard he works. I know sometimes he feel fulfilled and other times, defeated. I’ve told him that he really is Superman, but that sometimes the kryptonite of life will weaken him.

  2. Larry
    October 2, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    Ellen, perhaps you did grow up to be a man after all – your post comes closest to capturing the dilemma facing my demographic group: 45-54 year old, white males.

    It is my belief that much of the “angry white male” syndrome (suicides, militia, the GOP and Fox News) is driven by societies changing role of the A.W.M. It isn’t that the A.W.M is evolving into a minority status (although many debate the possibility of this happening), but rather the role of the A.W.M. has changed and lessened as the role of women and minorities increase. In most companies, the role of CEO or senior executives are not automatically awarded to the next A.W.M in line, but real competition (some would say “unfair” competition) is being driven by EOC regulations. Many men welcome the competition, but feel they are not competing on a level playing field. I do not agree with that assessment – rather, I believe the resentment is the inertial resistance to change.

    However, problems arise because while society has made great strides in accepting the changing role of women and minorities, there has not been a corresponding acceptance of changes to the role of the A.W.M. When evaluating resumes for executive positions, the explanation “took time off to raise family” is a plausible explanation for gaps in a female candidates job history. That same explanation has a strong negative connotation for the A.W.M. applicant.

    American society has traditionally defined a successful man’s role as bread winner, leader and executive. Anything less and the man is deemed a failure. The same holds true in many cultures around the world. When I lived in Japan, I learned that the Japanese word for a retired man literally translates to the English phrase “wet, fallen leaf”. The retired Japanese executive is considered powerless and of little use to society, only being in his wife’s way at home. It is not surprising that the life expectancy of a Japanese man is less than 5 years after his retirement.

    Until men can define new, alternative roles for themselves that are as accepted in society as a black President and a woman Secretary of State, the A.W.M. will continue to rail against those changes. I believe the conflict drives much of the anger in politics and the depression and suicide among my peers. Of course, the present economic conditions magnify the problems.

    I would love to abandon the corporate working world and spend my time pursuing academic and philosophical purity. Unfortunately, unless I am lucky enough to wind the lotter, I remain chained to my desk by both economic and societal expectations.

  3. CherylZ
    October 2, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    Ellen, you should definitely be writing for a living. You’re one of the best thinkers I know. Needless to say, I found a lot in this article that was very familiar…no names, please. It is a very difficult time to be a man (or to be married to one!)and your comments are right on target. Hopefully all of us that find ourselves in this predicament will learn how to walk again.

    Thanks, as ever, for your insight.

  4. Ted E. Kinson
    October 2, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    As each day passes with my current occupation, I am full of wonder as to what new young rookie they will hire to take my place, what uphill obstacle will they throw in front of me to make me stumble so that I may not progress upward or onward. It is a generation of replaceable people, all in the name of saving a buck. Quantity versus quality. Christi has been through a few jobs and she comes up swinging with each new role, exceeding the expectations of her supervisors. I do feel at this age that when I myself trade jobs, that I did give up the best of my abilities in youth and that now I’m in it just to stay up with the status of the others my age as we watch the youngsters pass us by, snickering at our staggering progress. Most of us slower guys in the race of our daily routine, fit the age group you mentioned. It’s scary that you know so well what we are experiencing in this modern culture, yet comforting that you feel like sharing your insight with all. Your understanding is admirable and your insight profound. I am blessed by your friendship and appreciative of you being you.

  5. Cheryl
    October 2, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    Ditto what the other Cheryl said!!!!!!!!!!

  6. October 6, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Ellen, wow. A powerful piece. And to your commentors too. All thought-provoking – a mirror really. There’s so much here. A piece I’ll need to revisit, let it sink in. And yes, close to home too. Mostly, these days, I work. Lots. And yes in these times, gratefully. Too, I’m reminded of Thoreau’s Walden; a break to revisit why it is we do, what we do, in this life. Maybe ‘life in the woods’, it’s the safety net, the reminder, that safe place to dwell when one finds himself in the gap, between ‘full speed ahead’ and ‘dead-stop’.

  7. Zon
    October 6, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Thanks, Ellen. I read your words with real interest, now that I’m currently out of work, and with prospects being statistically slimmer than they’ve ever been. Yesterday, I found myself in crisis like I’ve never been (and I consider myself to be a fairly balanced guy). It’s a big, wide world, so it’s good to read what others are thinking. Thanks for your insights and commitment to a thoughtful site.

  8. Kiki
    March 2, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    Ellen, well said,,,again! Just a side note– I know a man who struggled to put himself through school. He had a family to take care of while doing so. His father told him he wouldn’t help financially because he chose to marry. He eventually obtained a Phd. His sister had financial help from dad– she’s now at home caring for her two children, not using that education. Men do have it more difficult in many situations.

  9. Susan Steele
    March 2, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    This is so beautifully written and spiritually rich. Thank you for sharing this. I don’t recall reading it last year…

  10. December 8, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Doug tells me that a man’s identity is wrapped up in his job, so when that goes, so does his sense of self. While things have changed for women, we can lose our job and see it more as a loss of income, but not a lose of selfhood. My 2 cents.

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