The statistical risk of committing suicide among men in their late 40s to late 50s has increased almost 50% in the past decade. While the vast majority of men don't experience such serious despair that they consider harming themselves, the increasing number of them who, in what heretofore had often been considered to be the "prime of their lives," are struggling to find their way, is alarming. While there may be some aspects of the proverbial mid-life crisis (regrets or desire to shift career, relationships, family) at work here, at its heart, the increase is being driven by something much more fundamental.
In a recent article in the Telegraph, author Ms. Cavendish quotes a middle-aged friend:
The immediate reaction to divorce is to sink into a slump of despair, but then you turn into a teenager again - it's the false paradise of endless encounters with new women. Men lost their way when they stopped going out and killing the food or bringing in the bacon. I feel my generation of men inhabit a place that I call neutered uselessness. [We] become insular and inward-looking.
Another a self-described "traditional man" agrees that many men today are "lost," and believes men "need a stint in the Army following rules and discipline and turning into proper men." An interesting set of propositions.
Is there such a crisis of masculinity? Will a return to the traditional roots of manhood save men from despair? Are men confused by the messages, often mixed, sent by society of what is expected?
Psychologist Rory O'Connor, President-Elect of the International Academy for Suicide Research, suggests that:
[m]en currently in their midyears are caught between their traditional silent, strong and austere fathers who went to work and provided for their families, and the more progressive, open and individualistic generation of their sons. They do not know which of these two very different ways of life and masculine culture they should follow.
Terry Real, senior faculty member of the Family Institute of Cambridge, helpfully comments on one end of this spectrum, asserting that the historical masculine code which dictated that "men don't need relationships, men don't need to be connected, men don't need to be heartfelt" must be rejected because it falsely asserted that men could behave in an entitled, even obnoxious, manner with no consequences in their relationships. On the other end, however, we must not lose sight of the traditional masculine virtues (initiating, pragmatism, justice seeking, perseverance, analytic reasoning) that are a noble and necessary part of family life, flourishing marital relationships, and the raising of healthy sons and daughters.
Part of the solution to the dilemma confronting men in these years may be found in the lessons taught in Psych 101, Erickson's Stages of Psychosocial Development. What has been forgotten, or perhaps never learned, is the importance of what Erickson called generativity : "'making your mark' on the world, through caring for others, creating things (e.g. having and raising children) and accomplishing things that make the world a better place." Similarly, sociologist Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia Marriage Project suggests that men who are disconnected from society through loss of family and/or work are at highest risk. Modern (and perhaps especially post-modern) society has lost perspective on the abundant good that results from its men having this sort of higher calling , rather than seeing material success as simply a means to sate one's own appetites. The emptiness which follows the latter perspective naturally leads to a profound sadness, which obscures the ability to see through the difficulties of life that one is never too old to start doing good, or that one has never lost all chance at happiness.
One need not choose between manifesting the traditional goods of the prior generation and cultivating the more relational and open aspects of the modern era. The key is prudence - pursuing the right thing, at the right time, in the right place, for the right reason. At times, this means initiating and leading one's family, and persevering for the sake of greater justice. And at other times, this means listening, empathizing, and caring for the feelings and struggles of a loved one. At life's most challenging moments, this means doing both, simultaneously. A commitment to living a purpose-driven life opens worthy horizons ripe for exploration and calls each one of us to repair and preserve our most meaningful relationships - even in our darkest moments. The virtue of hope is its fruit, and the experience of joy, is hope's natural end.