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The mid-life male

11 November 1991

Published in the Byron Echo


Nothing is more common in the wee hours of an Australian party than for a man roughly at the mid-point between his birth and his death, with an outwardly successful career and marriage, to corner one and confess that "it's all become so meaningless these last few years".


The mind which once brimmed with youthful promise now seems bogged down in tasks; the career seems like a shell; he no longer has any "real friends"; his marriage has lost animation; and his relationship with his children - for whom so much pained love is felt - has been somehow drained of its empathy.
 
Tears may begin to flow. So, often, will the alcohol needed to ease such a comprehensive confession of failure.
 
Sometimes he will give voice to alternatives - potential ways out of the deepening impasse: "I'll throw in the career and buy a yacht/opeÌn a plant nursery/learn to meditate/move to the bush/write a novel/take up the guitar again."
 
When fear of wife, poverty or cultural disfavour is uppermost, these and other options are canvassed, repressed, then tremulously re-considered solely within the tortured recesses of his own mind: by day a denizen of the modern world, by night a fitful neurotic.
 
When it is fear of change which prevails, we may see a slow descent into the whiskey bottle, or the tawdry joys of bimbo-bonking.
 
What lies at the root of these climacteric blues? They seem to have plagued few of the victims' fathers: yet today they are the topic of interminable, circular conversation. They are the heaviest aftershock of the baby boom.
 
To understand the sadness of many Australian middle-aged men, we need, first of all, to look at the environment in which they were nurtured. The child (Wordsworth said) is father to the man.
 
The Sterile Lake
 
In most cultures, from the primitive to the medieval, adolescent boys have been taken out of the orbit of their parents and "re-born" into the tribe or culture as a whole - a process symbolically begun in initiation ceremonies: the rites of passage.
 
In twentieth century Australia these ceremonies have vanished. The probable reason is that "the tribe" itself - suburb, city, state, nation - is rarely more than an abstraction. It is big beyond imagination; and is almost invariably organised in ways which discourage "society" of the kind our forebears knew. There is no longer anything tangible into which to be re-born.
 
When this alien landscape arose is academic - even "this century" would not satisfy everyone. But few would argue that since World War Two it has grown exponentially.
 
What can be defined with more certainty are the general characteristics of its inhabitants. Very broadly, they have a deteriorating sense of their relation to others; and are increasingly out of contact of their own humanity - as defined by the ubiquity of television; burgeoning mental illness, suicides and now mass-murders; the defeat of nature; a fragmentary, or reductionist, system of education; massive population growth; the demise of meaningful work; and money replacing time as the currency of parental love.
 
One day - before the lake of modern society had become sterile, but when certain bad algae were beginning to proliferate - there emerged a strange, mutant creature known as "youth culture". Post-War teenagers, knowing that the time for parental hegemony was over, but seeing no tribe to entrust their souls to, had found themselves with only one tenuous, gloriously inadequate refuge: each other.
 
There was no record of such a beast appearing before. When it first broke the surface it terrified onlookers every bit as much as its contemporary, the Creature From the Black Lagoon.
 
What started as a tendency presently became a revolution. By the late 1960s human instinct was in full rebellion against the hideous values of the modern state and corporation.
 
This was the culture - whether they identified with it or not - in which most of today's men in mid-life forged their first independent values.
 
By the 1970s mainstream capitalism learned how to appropriate, and market, the symbols of this new, counter culture. Although it could not appropriate its substance  (without poisoning itself), the distinction was blurred sufficiently to disorient the revolution, and indeed reap handsome profits from it. (Its most potent symbol - its music - was emasculated by the ingenious means of financing it. "If you want to defeat your enemy," said the Souix Indians, "sing his song.")
 
As the youth revolution fragmented, despair preoccupied one faction, crime another. But a third option attracted the majority: surrender and conformity. Surrender to the raison d'etre, and driving force, of the modern city - consumerism. Conformity to the bleak architecture of the modern soul.
 
The alienation of the midlife Australian male cannot, of course, be blamed on the failure of this revolution in values. That that revolution existed, however, suggests that man had grown away, over a very long period, from the experiences which psychically sustained his ancestors. In substituting sex for intimacy, drugs for spirituality, and so on, the revolution of the Sixties was but a flawed attempt to find paths back to those experiences.
 
The message which this defeat delivered to the Western psyche should not be under-rated. This message - "conform to the prevailing myth, or be driven to the margins" - have been re-confirmed with every passing year. Such a phenomenon as the rise of the environment movement would, on the surface, seem to contradict such a gloomy diagnosis. In fact it is emblematic of it. In the decade in which "environmentalism" garnered its highest ever public support, the global environment was raped and poisoned as never before.
 
The efforts we make to slow the destruction - noble though they are - are the metaphorical equivalent of firing an air-rifle at the USS Stark. Nearly every study, πand every new set of figures, confirms the worst. And the environment is only one problem, which links into a dozen more of equal significance.
 
It is partially because Western man's outer options are literally dying before his eyes, that attention is being directed, to an extent not seen since the Middle Ages, to his inner life.


That Emptiness Inside
 
Like his biology, man's psychic structure is inherited from his forebears. "Because" they could not have withstood extreme temperatures, or survived more than three days without water, or digested plastic, neither can we. Because they could not have thrived without a dialogue with nature, and meaningful work, the daily support of a group, constant communion with childrenfl, and a place in the universe, neither are we thriving.
 
"The concrete Nothing blunders on" (to quote Bruce Dawe), and nature is reeling. But the psyche is also part of nature, and as an early victim of the disease of the twentieth century, it furnished some of the first clues to the character of the affliction.
 
To understand the affliction at all, these clues need to be examined. This is difficult for the Western male, for the symptoms of his alienation have become a gigantic snowball. He can no longer establish a point-of-view: for his real self lies buried deep within the juggernaut.
 
The appreciation of paradox has become obsolete in an age permeated by it (perhaps a paradox which is unsurpassable). One of the more eminent paradoxes is that the Western male, who rules the Earth, has become a slave to the tyrannies of his own unconscious: its unmanning moods; the absurd phobias it forces on him; the addiction to work; his fears and obsessions regarding sex; the blind ambition which takes him he knows not where; and an over-riding difficulty with "relationship".
 
"I have reached the conclusion," said David Bowie, one of the wealthiest and most influential people in 1970s Western culture, "that half the time I haven't the faintest idea of what I am doing."
 
Pour a few drinks into many a contemporary male and you will hear a similar tale. The reason for his aimlessness, his psychological "deadness" and his suffering will often be simple enough. When a pancreas swells to three times its normal size other organs are impaired, and the whole constitution suffers. So when the ego grows beyond the role intended for it, it will displace and impair the other constituents of the psyche: which is then thrown into imbalance. Modern society makes this process of ego-inflation unavoidable and inexorable: for the higher our man rises toward the top of the scrap-heap, the more he is compelled to place self-interest before his historic psychic mainstays.
 
Perhaps it is best to let Bob Hawke speak for the few who actually reach  the top. During his first year in the job he told an interviewer that attaining the Prime Ministership conferred nothing so much as a sense of "emptiness." My experiences of Hawke, both before and during his Prime Ministership, certainly suggest that he feels less "himself" since 1983. Subsuming his personality to that expected of a Prime Minister, and tailoring his natural inclinations according to the exigencies and dangers of the job, appear to have done little for his peace of mind. Unlike the Hawke of the 1970s he is, by turns, rehearsed, defensive, tense, predictable.
 
All of this is not to dismiss making one's way in the material world, which is both natural and necessary. However for more than 40,000 years the psyche has had at least  equal status, and equal time, with "the world". To deny this is to adopt a churlish attitude to history.
 
To even divide the two is typical of the relatively modern art of rational thought: the psyche and the world have, until recently, been part of the same process. For most of history, when a man felled an animal or sowed a crop it was as much a part of his religion as tending his magic. And when he prayed to or meditated upon his God or gods - the sources of his fulfilment and wholeness - it was as central to his survival as chopping wood or fetching water.
 
Now that the inner sources are being neglected en masse, their functions are being largely replaced by drugs, 'communications media', gadgets and government agencies. Surrogacy on such a scale will inevitably create a society where the individual is alienated from the group and himself - a society like our own.
 
And what is neglected always seems to reappear in perverted form. For example the loss, in man, of values to do with "relationship" and natural functions (such as procreation) - both of which once had a religious dimension - may be what has led to the present proliferation of pornography. Sex has been enthroned as not only the central prize of the material life, but the apotheosis of human relations. It is an ethic which would mystify a medieval man, and cause an Amazonian Indian to roar with laughter.
 
The disappearance of the participation in the mystical has led to the rigid superficiality of "fundamentalism" and the credulous superficilaity of the New Age.


It is "midlife man" whom we often find ensnared by these things - these essential experiences which have irrupted into his consciousness: in twisted form because they are no longer integrated into everyday life.
 
It all adds up to a loss of volition - and thus a loss of power. Not because the capitalists, the socialists or some other Worldwide Conspiracy are denying us what we want: but because we no longer know  what we want.


We know all about the ideal of gain - indeed we've been steeped in it. Yet so much of what we gain seems to impoverish us. It is this the dichotomy between what we have been conditioned to want and what we do want which is causing today's widespread paralysis of will.


The Dragon
 
In abdicating all this power, we have conferred it on abstract entities - government, business, media - empowering them in much the same way a group of adolescents confers "volition" on a wineglass in the darkened room of a seance. Thus we should not be surprised when we receive a river of junk messages from all three.
 
First year law students are taught that a corporation may be defined as "an artificial person", and these entities have become artificial persons whose artificial appetites we labour to assuage. - not withstanding that, outside of filing cabinets and electronic impulses, they do not exist.
 
When I asked the then federal Treasurer, Paul Keating, about the satisfactions of controlling the system, he replied, most vehemently, "The system runs itself!" He repeated the phrase twice. Most of our apparent movers and shakers would dismiss the notion that they as individuals exert real power outside of their little corners. Kerry Packer and Bob Hawke alike regard themselves as subject to forces much larger than themselves. They are every bit as suspicious of "the system" as we are.
 
The suspicion is well-placed, for the power over people once wielded by kings and priests is now vested in pieces of paper and the abstractions they represent.
 
Abstractions have always possessed power of course. But whereas once they were held to be divine, or at the very least ideal - and nearly always devised to satisfy the yearnings of the psyche - now they embody little more than the dominant aspects of a system few approve of, and which, like a virus, exists just to perpetuate itself.
 
The Battleground
 
If life is a battleground, midlife is undoubtedly its epicentre. Many of the aforementioned horrors can be ignored, even profited from, for a long time: the world can be a fabulous distraction for a boy. In midlife the demons surface.
 
It is sometimes only after friendships, marriages and careers collapse - the individual having over-reached himself - that time is put aside to examine the foundations.
 
Because these things are collapsing more frequently, and because the baby boom generation has the numbers, interest in the problems of male midlife is now running high. The spouses and friends of its victims are full of advice. Every week, it seems, an "American expert" visits to explain that midlife man is unhappy because he has failed to wrestle with other men in mud, or resolve difficulties with his mother, or meditate, or experiment with polygamy, or undergo his (the expert's) particular brand of therapy.
 
Naturally, the problem of midlife can never be resolved through a friend or spouse or therapist. Such people can be catalysts or guideposts - but one cannot (as it were) stand on the Hume Highway under the sign saying "Melbourne" and expect to be there. Just as we must leave the sign behind to get to Melbourne, we need, finally, to leave other people's solutions behind to find our own.
 
Even less helpful are the "prescriptions" which may be found in books, magazine articles and the like. The belief in uniform solutions is another of the massive misapprehensions we labour under. Uniform solutions are a marketing mirage: they may sell books, get governments elected, and keep alive the cult of consumerism - for all of these things require millions of people thinking the same way, at least briefly - but after a certain (quite early) point, the problem of midlife can only be unravelled by that fly in the ointment of the modern state, the individual.
 
There is, therefore, only a limited number of general things one can say about it.


The Weapons
 
Firstly, men are romantics. And so long as a man limits himself to an essentially romantic self-image (the powerful executive, the brilliant academic, the drunken writer, the heart-breaker) he will probably lack the energy to penetrate - as he must - the thickets of the unconscious: for all such personae require considerable energy to sustain.
 
Secondly, whilst buying out of the rat race in some way may be an important step, the ultimate solution to the problem of midlife will be internal (requiring one re-orientation) and illogical (requiring another). Whether the quest is framed in spiritual, psychological or some other terms hardly matters - the differences are only semantical - the road to wisdom has its own logic, which is only revealed once the journeÌy is underway. It cannot be assessed from the outside, or planned at the beginning.
 
This irrationality - or "unproveability" - is a stumbling block for many men, particularly those schooled in scientific reason. But all systems are open-ended. No scientist can convincingly explain what shape (if any) time took "before" the Big Bang, or why Newton's laws fall down at the sub-atomic level, or where the universe ends. And what of Stephen Hawking's "naked singularities" - edges to spacetime through which matter may enter the universe without prior physical causation - and a host of other discoveries which stymie science, causality and logic at their foundations?
 
Science and scientific reason have done us many favours - not the least being to deliver us from religious mumbo jumbo - but they constitute only the "north wing" of the building of human knowledge. This wing has gorgeous middle floors: but no foundations, upper storeys which cannot be apprehended, and an unreliable elevator. Scientists will rightly protest that, for all that, those middle floors function beautifully. And this is the point: so too do those of the "south wing" - or "the realm of the spirit", as it was once called.
 
The value to us of either system is determined, ultimately, by empirical experience: neither of them, at our present level of knowledge, could be described as comprehensive. But while the basement and upper storeys of the "south wing", too, are out of reach - only charlatans claim to know what or where the individual is before birth or after death - the middle storeys contain more than enough excitement for one lifetime; and in time reveal some breathtaking symmetry.
 
Finally, while making the few 'general' comments we can about resolving the difficulties of male midlife, it's necessary to touch on courage. Psychic growth is only for the brave. One alternative to it - hanging on grimly till the whole farce ends - requires the stubbornness of a mule, or a boundless capacity for pain. Suicide (a third option) requires a moment of great courage. But change requires hundreds and thousands of such moments.


Mostly these moments require us to let go of the ideas, ingrained like dirt under the fingernails, of who we are. Life itself seems to want us to let go of these ideas: that is what identity crises are all about. Progress would seem to consist of agreeing with it for once.
 
"Agreeing with it" often confers a moment of unearthly peace - before battle is joined. Our victim/hero - weary, at last, of the hypnotic call of the next project, the next day, and the next dollar; weary of pouring his woes into the dying embers of suburban parties; and weary of advice - lets go of the desires, the masks and the certainties which have brought him to the brink of ruin, and glimpses the unique method by which he will begin, with a thousand reservations, the return to the forgotten land of his instincts.


John Macgregor is an Adelaide journalist. He wrote this article in the days surrounding his fortieth birthday.


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