Nobody is Perfect: We men must keep trying

On the morning of Thursday 21 January 2021 in Australia I sat and watched transfixed on the television in awe as somebody spoke to and for all of humanity. That person described themself as “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” who now knew it is possible that they might be President. As tears formed in my eyes all I could see was a brilliant and beautiful young woman who possessed the rare ability to change the world.

Amanda Gorman became my first hero of 2021!

In the days since the inauguration of President Biden, Ms. Gorman has never been far from my mind, her evocative words deeply enmeshed in my neural synapses already. I recall reading about how the aim of repetitive advertising is to link emotion with brands so that when we drink branded cola, for example, our brain fires up all of the neurons associated with emotions such as fun and excitement, not just taste.

When the stage is huge, and the timing momentous, just one brief moment is enough to embed and link those emotions forever. I will never forget the day I heard Amanda Gorman recite her “The Hill We Climb”, and it is for that reason that I will never forget President Biden’s inauguration.

That, I suspect, is exactly why she stole the show – she was meant to – and gee did she stand up with the courage she exalts from all of us to provide all of the youthful optimism tinged with mature (beyond her 22 years) realism that perfectly encapsulated the times.

The only problem for me as a writer is that her brilliance only proved to me my own inadequacy, for I have lamented this past year my inability to reach my contemporaries with my words. Then my own realism sets in and I know that Ms. Gorman is an exceptionally rare talent, and I find comfort in pondering on how we share such a similar view of the world and what our future must be. 

I also appreciated the use of the imagery of the bridge in this passage, “If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made”, immediately recognising the echo in my own writing in “The Great Reset: Building the bridge“.

I have also been reflecting upon my belief in my own writing, and something that I have understood intuitively since I was 16 years of age based on how my sister loved receiving my (admittedly rare) letters from home while she was at university. That I, as a male, have always had a rare ability to connect with my emotions and to express it in a clear – if typically “unconcise” – manner. For some reason I was a male who realised that he was emotionally “deep”, as my sister again recognised and described me as such to a friend when I was in my early 20s, and was proud of it.

When I was younger my innate shyness – that I can now observe with mature eyes as it is mirrored in my first-born – prevented me from sharing that depth of emotion and insight with others outside of my family, and even within my home I was often criticised for being “too sensitive”. Maturity and confidence, along with other opportunities to understand the world from studying for my PhD, strengthened my voice. 

As I explained in “How I Remade Myself After A Breakdown“, even though I was very muscular and fresh off the family farm as a lad, I was never a man’s man, or a blokey bloke, or however you might wish to express machismo. One of the sharpest reflections on that came at my brother’s buck’s (bachelor’s) night when everyone was crowded around the typical stripper’s performance cheering and, while not wishing to be singled out as being disinterested (out of fear of it being confused for being of ambiguous sexual orientation), I gathered with everybody looking upon the performance but all the while was wanting for it to be finished as soon as possible. Thankfully, an over-excited mate of my father rushed forward towards the performer bringing an end to the performance. When it was my turn for a buck’s night the one thing my mates knew for certain was off the table on the night was a stripper.

I dislike being within large groups of emotionally charged men. I feel uncomfortable with the unpredictability of over-excited testosterone. Perhaps it is one of the many consequences, together with post-traumatic disorder, of needing to bravely step up on a traumatic night at home when I was 15 years of age to take my father’s gun from his hand when he was overwhelmed with emotions – anger, hurt, confusion – at fear of loss of our family farm through foreclosure. The ambiguity of his intentions in that moment of rage has never left me, neither the image in my head of those 6 bullets sitting atop our fridge, as he left them that night, looking down upon our family table as we ate every meal for seemingly years.

None of that makes me less of a man than any other. It took me some time to realise it, but if the old stereotype that bravery is the reserve of real men, then confronting real emotions is the ultimate in masculine expression.

Of course the expression of courage is not just reserved for real men, but I use this to highlight just how cowardly are many men who fear emotion and so bottle it up, often to release, sadly, on those significantly less physically strong than them in women, children and youth.

The strength that I admire most is emotional strength, as embodied in Mandela’s definition of courage as being able to summon the strength to act even when scared, and that is in no way reserved for men. Off the top of my head some of the most courageous people to my mind are Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg. And yes, Amanda Gorman, who stood on the brightest stage mere mortals have and courageously said that she knows the way forward if only humanity has the courage to be it.

Western society in general does now seem to be moving in the right direction with the challenging of gender stereotypes, and here, after being critical of the Australia education system over racism, I need to say that I have long been singing the praises for early educators for teaching a level of emotional vocabulary and intelligence that remains elusive to many adults. At least in the (public) schools that my children have attended, the level of conflict in the school grounds has been orders of magnitude less than I witnessed in my schooling several decades ago and much of that must rest not only with parents but with teachers.

The changing societal view of male gender identity, however, is something middle-aged men especially seem to be struggling with, and elected male politicians in Western nations have recognised there is significant advantage in appealing to the imagery around what it is to be a real (white) man.

That is especially true in my home country of Australia where the idolised image of masculinity is so tightly tied to “the bush” or “outback” in characters such as 19th century Bush Rangers and especially Ned Kelly, the fictional Crocodile Mick Dundee, or in many stories of the “larrikin” soldiers fighting in Gallipoli.

My role as a stay at home Dad has provided an opportunity for rare insights into Australian male identity. Early on I witnessed my father struggling to accept my new role which seemed so alien him – on occasions he introduced me to friends in an intentionally derogatory manner by describing me as a “house wife” – which drew us into argument where I told him that he needed to get over his own embarrassment about the role that I had chosen to play for my family. 

In wider society there were also challenges. I have found being a male home parent to be incredibly isolating as women in the primary caretaker role, and with free time to build connections within the school environment, were reluctant to develop closer relationships with males. 

Moreover, as a male frequently in the school environment, around young children, I felt extra pressure to always be exemplary and never place myself in a position where people might develop the slightest suspicion of improper behaviour on my part (in the early years, still very much recovering from a breakdown, that added extra anxiety). As one example both of my sons in Prep loved that I volunteered to assist in their swimming classes and liked me being on hand in the dressing room to help them. But I felt awkward going into the dressing room, recognising the risks to perceptions of me, and only did so briefly and for the first few weeks even though mothers frequently went into both male and female change rooms regardless of the gender of their own children. 

Still I accepted that this is the nature of current society, and it is preferable that people be alert to the risks of children being hurt rather than underplaying the risks and disbelieving hurt children as occurred in the past.

The truth is that the identity of the Australian male has been confused for decades with rural-urban migration conflicting with the popularised version of the fun and care-free knock-about Aussie man. Nothing exemplifies that more to me than the angry young men tearing around our cities in their rarely off-road 4×4 tradies utes, such as the one I discussed in “The Great Reset: Teaching what we left behind“.

Given that the rural-urban migration pattern is far from unique to Australia, such conflicting identity especially for less socially-adaptable men is likely an issue in many societies.

It is hardly any wonder, then, that many male politicians go to great lengths to contrive a “rugged” masculinity into their carefully crafted public image, which necessitates a rejection of vulnerability and sensitivity. That is how you arrive at a PM who infers that people, and especially men, anxious about the risks of contracting COVID-19 in the most severe global pandemic in a century, are “whimps” lacking the courage to “come out from under their doonas”. 

That is the definition of toxic masculinity, and the current Australian PM is especially prone to it as was another recent conservative Australian PM in Tony Abbott.

Even Mr. Morrison, though, came to understand that building such a persona comes with significant risks when interacting with authentic rural Australians, especially when emotionally fragile such as the people of Cobargo who suffered greatly in the fires last Summer.  

I have to admit that I consider having had a breakdown to be an advantage in developing a strong sense of self and emotional awareness. Whilst never a high testosterone man’s man my self awareness was poor. Much of that was a coping mechanism to deal with the pressure I lived under as a boy and lad, and through my recovery I realised it is characteristic of my family, but that flaw in my life skills stayed with me well into adulthood.

Having a breakdown stripped me bare emotionally and was frightening and confronting. But it did provide me with the opportunity, through absolute necessity, to rebuild myself with a far stronger foundation based on much introspection of myself and of the formative events and relationships in my life. Necessity, that is, if I was to achieve a good quality of life again and be the father and husband I aimed to be.

Still I would not recommend a breakdown to anybody and there is nobody happier than me that this period of my life is behind me.

Few have the ability to make major changes in the way they interact in and with society without first suffering a major shock or unless their incentives/reward system is seriously altered.

That is precisely why men need good role models in society, including our elected male politicians, who are able to authentically show their true self rather than attempting to cobble together a public image encompassing the improbable trinity of an urban man with the knock-about likeability of Mick Dundee who in diplomatic circles is smooth, sure-footed and worldly enough to chart a safe course for the nation in an increasingly fractious geopolity.

I would note, also, that in “The Great Reset: A letter to my Father and ‘Sliding Doors’ self” I stated that “an open mind is not dependent on the possession of a passport but on an open heart”. That is precisely why the much-loved Australian fictional character Mick Dundee was so relatable – his nature appealed to our better selves – but the ironies abound, not least of which is the lack of genuine openness in Australia, particularly in rural Australia, especially around race.

I am proud that I have come a long way in my life, but I know that I am not perfect – far from it. I am not any longer so ignorant to suggest that in the hypothetical survey that I put forward in “Racism and Political Correctness” I could honestly select the best level for diversity and inclusion attitudes no matter how much I may want to believe I could. I am aware that the faulty thinking that I learned from the overt racism I witnessed and participated in as a child right through to my early adulthood, and then the systemic racism to which we are passively exposed still daily, has impacted my thinking so that I undoubtedly am affected by unconscious bias towards all sorts of groupings within humanity.

In truth, in our global humanity at the commencement of the 21st century, I honestly doubt that very many people would be truly free from these unconscious biases. That is why I firmly believe that artificial intelligence technology must be employed within workplaces, for instance, along with quotas and other active measures, to address diversity and inclusion in an anti-prejudice program.

For me, Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas, completely missing the point at the 2020 AGM that a truly diverse company had not been achieved just because they had a gay man as the CEO and several female board members demonstrates this point amply.

My experience, however, does suggest to me that belonging to, or becoming a part of, a minority is an advantage to understanding and becoming sensitive to issues surrounding diversity and inclusion.

The irony of racist attitudes, as I alluded to above, is that many of the most strongly racist and prejudicial people are likely to overstate, through ignorance, their acceptance of diversity and inclusion, while those less extreme on the spectrum are likely to be capable of a far more realistic self assessment.

A breakdown gave me an understanding of what it is to acutely and confrontingly address my identity. An unconfident young man, with a weak voice at expressing my views and my own identity, my confidence grew as I excelled as a research scientist and increasingly become identified as Australia’s expert in my field (as I was introduced at the World Aquaculture Society Symposium in Sydney in 2000) and as an emerging world leader (as was frequently being stated to me in person). With the clicking of the “send” button on the email announcing my retirement, all that was gone. A very key aspect of my identity was removed as if it were erased because it would have zero relevance to my life from that point onward.

Few people understand better what identity means to us as human beings as those who have had a breakdown due to an abrupt end to their career. Since my breakdown I have heard sports people, venerated within society especially when still competing, increasingly speak about their struggles with the challenges of retiring especially when done prematurely.

I have always remembered a line in an interview with Brett Kenny, who probably would have been considered one of Australia’s best ever rugby league five-eighths if not for a guy by the name of Wally Lewis, when someone in a bar asked him “didn’t you use to be Brett Kenny?” For me that sums it up so perfectly!

Male identity, wrapped up in testosterone and its byproducts of aggression and power, is vulnerable. Yet that is the one thing that is seen as emasculating to admit.

Male leaders who continue with this ridiculous cultivation of an urban or rural Mick Dundee identity for Australian men do a disservice to themselves and to Australian boys. 

But nobody can say all of this better than Amanda Gorman:

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy 

and change, our children’s birthright.

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021

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