Number 171-172 - June-July 2016
In this issue:
Cracks in the Armor
Hot Links - I Am NOT Black
Cracks in the Armor
Throughout most of our lives, we wear various forms of armor.
Sometimes it's clothing: we dress like our peers, first in grade school, then in high school, then in college, then on the job. We can think of dressing like our peers as a kind of uniform, but it's also a means of protection. We can think of it as camouflage (the world can't see the real me, whoever that may be) or psychic armor (the world can't hurt me).
Sometimes it's chemical armor: we drink, drug, and overeat to keep demons at bay. No matter that the demons are internal. They feel like they're coming at us from outside.
Sometimes it's emotional armor: we hide our fears and protect ourselves from hurts by presenting, in our behavior, a seemingly impervious and self-sufficient exterior. Society tells us that presenting anything softer or more vulnerable gets us labeled as wusses, sissies, not-men. Girly men.
So we pretend to be well-armored warriors, and we perform according to our image of them. We're self-sufficient. We don't ask directions. We don't ask for help. We work beyond endurance. We compete, we play to win.
Our armor keeps things inside as well as it protects us from the outside. We don't talk about feelings. We get to the point that we don't even recognize them (beyond, perhaps, rage and lust).
All this armor amounts to a very useful coping mechanism for living in the modern world. We are called upon, at home and at work, always to be strong and steady and assertive.
But there comes a point when the armor turns into a burden. It gets heavy. It gets ugly. People close to us may start edging away from it. Somehow it doesn't seem to fit anymore. But it's become such a part of us that we can't imagine taking it off.
There may be cracks in the armor, and pieces of it may begin to fall off. A crisis hits that no armor can defend. Or we find ourselves alone, or we have to go out and start fights (bar fights, arguments at work, whatever) just to test whether the armor is still working.
Or we hit middle age. Not that silly time when the stereotype is the red sports car and the nubile babe. Just middle age. That time anywhere from about 40 to 60 when we peer out from the visor on our armor's helmet and wonder, "Is this all there is?"
We feel like a failure, even if we have a list of accomplishments and piles of money.
We need encouragement, but we've never learned to ask for it.
All these thoughts occurred to me after I read an excerpt I found on Facebook by Brené Brown, a researcher, author, and motivational speaker:
I think midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders, pulls you close, and whispers in your ear:
"I'm not screwing around. It’s time. All of this pretending and performing - these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt - has to go.
"Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy of love and belonging, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever.
"Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can't live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through you. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It's time to show up and be seen."
Just in case we missed them, here are a few encouraging words from the quote above: worthy, adventures, courage, daring, show up, be seen.
Brown has a more extended version of her essay on her website.
Okay, even if we believe this stuff, are we about to throw off the armor just like that and declare that we've outgrown it? Not too likely.
Here are a couple of real-world examples of armor-cracking that I've run into:
Shell Oil Company embarked on a program to get its workers to open up, be vulnerable, ask for help, admit when they didn't know something. The accident rate companywide declined 84 percent. Productivity and efficiency increased beyond benchmarks. (This was reported on NPR and in the Harvard Business Review.)
The details: In 1997 Shell was about to embark on construction of Ursa, a deepwater platform that would be the world's deepest offshore well.
Shell's Ursa Platform
Leaders were concerned about safety, sensing that the workers' culture of working under unsafe conditions, not complaining, not asking questions, and not asking for help, could be a recipe for disaster.
The consultant they hired didn't want to hear about technical matters. She pointed to the real problem: fear. In the "rig code," a man's fear of admitting he didn't know something. Fear of what the other workers would think of him. Fear of looking vulnerable.
This rig code extended to home life, and some men had uneasy relationships with their families.
So during the year and a half while the new rig was being built, Shell put more than 100 rig workers through a program designed to "open them up." Many of the men couldn't see how the exercises - focused on family and feelings - could have anything to do with what happens on an oil field.
Out came stories of alcoholic parents. Failed relationships. Childhood poverty. Terminally ill children.
Then there were face-to-face conversations among the men: How do I listen? Do I talk rather than listen? How do I need to change?
And, according to the writers of the Harvard Business Review article, the men altered "their sense of who they were and could be as men."
These were men who were still tough-as-nails oil field workers. But their newfound sense of vulnerability led to one of the key elements of both their home life and safety on the job: communication. Admitting mistakes. Asking for help. Willingness to learn.
And after this process was implemented across the whole company, the company-wide accident rate fell 84 percent.
The oil rig men had truly experienced the "courage and daring," as Brown mentions, to throw off the old armor and assert "who they were and could be as men."
Closer to Home
"Men's work" may seem like an ironic term, but men's gatherings have for a couple of decades explored and fostered a kind of strong masculinity that included the courageous act of exposing our feelings - the hurts, the doubts, the joys, the love - that have crept in around the edges of our armor and gotten trapped inside. We've found that this work actually enhances the strong, steady male qualities that serve our families and communities.
The process may be similar to or quite different from what happened at Shell Oil. I know that some of the activities described in the NPR article sound familiar.
One obvious difference was that the Shell program was top-down, driven by managers concerned for safety and its effect on the bottom line, and conducted by outside consultants.
Men's gatherings are self-selecting. We sign up because we want to, and because we feel a need deep inside ourselves. In my 20-plus years of experience with men's gatherings, I've found that most are not run by paid consultants but by other men who have gone through the same trials and struggles as all of us have, to break out of the armor.
The common theme running through all of the men's work I've done is that men come out of it stronger and more confident men. We learn how to be caring and non-judgmental with each other; how to be steady and strong for each other; how to take responsibility for our actions and expect the same of others; how to admit when we're wrong; how to ask for help; how to be gentle or assertive when needed. And we carry those qualities, embedded in and strengthening our own innate masculinity, back to our families and communities.
It can take a long time, sometimes a lifetime, as we live and learn and love, to become fully the men we're meant to be. The gathering is a starting point, an initiation, and an ongoing process.
The armor we shed is, in a way, the stereotype of how society views men. True men (some might say men on the way to initiation) are struggling to get out.
So the universe will come calling with its message: Hang up your weapons. Hang up your shield. Stow your armor. Honor them, if you wish, as valued relics of the past.
We can choose to ignore the message. We can put it off. We can fight against it. We can try to sharpen the weapons, to patch up and fortify the shield and armor.
But the universe is relentless. If we're lucky, we'll discover that whatever weapons and armor we have left behind were once useful, maybe necessary, but now is made up mostly of fear and old habits. And that the world both outside and inside the armor is, ultimately, much less scary and much more fulfilling.
Let the adventure begin.
Hot Links - I Am NOT Black…
Richard Williams, an American spoken word artist known by his stage name as Prince Ea, posted this video in 2015. It is a compelling look at how we perceive names and labels rather than individuals. I thought it was pertinent in the midst of recent events.
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