Work Your Heart to the Bone: Reimagining Masculine Labour

How hard men work often forms a core part of our self-identity, from modern-day corporate overtime culture to the protestant work ethic of the 17th century. Joan C Williams, founding director of the Center of WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings, wrote in her article Why Men Work So Many Hours, Not only is work devotion a ‘class act’ — a way of enacting class status — it’s also a certain way of being a ‘real’ man. Working long hours is seen as a ‘heroic activity’.”

This overriding focus on work can be a serious problem for men. An extreme example can be found in Japan, where hundreds of deaths each year are attributed to ‘karoshi,’ or death from overwork. A culture of overwork isn’t only problematic for men, though. Closer to home, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in 2009 that men are still doing half as much domestic work as women. Which means that the masculine ethos of commitment to work outside the home could be coming at the expense of other family labour.

Is it heroic, or even useful for, men’s self-worth to be so closely linked to career status and physical endurance?

What is it about a man working to the point of exhaustion, and in some cases death, that we deem heroic? Perhaps it’s the threat to physical safety inherent in this arrangement. As in the image of the knight bravely protecting the princess from a dragon, the archetype of the hero seems to be tightly wound together with personal risk. To be truly heroic the risky behaviour is also usually performed to benefit somebody else. But what if our work efforts are hurting more than they’re helping?

Is it heroic, or even useful, for men’s self-worth to be so closely linked to career status and physical endurance? Perhaps we could reframe our view of difficult but beneficial activity to include not only physical endurance but also emotional vulnerability, re-attributing the qualities of heroism and admirable effort, within the context of masculinity, to include a focus on three different kinds of labour: emotional, intimate and relational work.

1. The work of dealing with our emotions.

From my late teens to my mid-twenties I was plagued with anxiety. It was bad. It led to a whole host of related mental health problems. These problems escalated to the point that I needed to be hospitalised fairly regularly. As far as jobs go, dealing with anxiety was certainly one of the most difficult I’ve ever had.

While not all men will have had the same experience I had with mental illness, we all experience the emotional turmoil of attachment, loss, grief, anxiety, desire and wounded pride. We all have to deal with ups and downs. But engaging consciously with them isn’t something that is prioritised by most societies as a worthwhile or masculine endeavour.

I don’t necessarily have a lot of control over what I feel. But I do have a choice regarding how I react to that feeling.

For all the pain it caused me, my anxiety was also a gift, because it taught me a lot about my own mind. Chiefly it taught me that my feelings aren’t as real as they may seem. During my times of greatest anxiety there wasn’t anything threatening my physical safety, yet every fibre of my being was telling me that hiding away from the world was the smart thing to do. But if I wanted to have something resembling a functional life, I had to keep living despite the fear. And that’s when I realised that the anxiety wasn’t a reflection of reality. As difficult as it was, I could choose how I reacted to the fear. The feeling and my reaction to the feeling didn’t have to be locked in place.

It’s easy to believe that an event that affects us, our emotional response and the way we react are inextricably linked. It’s common to believe that the reaction, in particular, is unavoidable. For example, if I ask a girl out on a date and she rebuffs me, I might feel hurt or humiliated. I don’t necessarily have a lot of control over what I feel. But I do have a choice regarding how I react to that feeling.

When you start to see feelings like that, you can imagine them like cars that you watch drive past you—there’s a blue ute of sadness, there’s a red sedan of anger, there’s a yellow taxi of joy. You’re going to hear those cars whizz past, choke on their fumes, be affected by them, but you don’t need to jump inside every one and go for a ride.

Being aware of our emotions in this way, and learning to pause before we react, is difficult. It takes a lot of practise and awareness and it forces us to face up to aspects of ourselves that we might not like. There isn’t just one way to view emotions or one framework through which to process them, but however you explore your interior life, you’re going to be challenged.

Whether we think of our inner landscape in this way, or we instead choose to sublimate our emotions with sex, react to them with aggression or mute them with alcohol, I think most men already know that dealing with emotion is hard work. Engaging consciously with them and practising the labour of emotional awareness is a worthwhile aspect of a healthy masculinity—and one heroic act of work.

2. The work of loving.

I grew up wanting the fairy tale. I thought that when I found the right person we would both fall in love and we would know we were with the right person because our love would be so strong, and that love would be all we needed to be happy forever.

What I found is that I “fell in love” pretty easily. I fell in love with almost any woman who kissed me. And I found that most girls I fell in love with believed in this romantic idea of love as well. So if we did fall in love and had these intense feelings of attachment and desire for each other, then we didn’t want to think about any other person that either of us had been with in the past.

I now see love as primarily something you do, rather than something you feel.

And the flipside of falling in love with people was how fast you could fall out of love. The idea of love that I grew up with was one that was almost entirely predicated on feelings, fleeting and volatile. Love was supposed to be easy, when things got hard it meant that that person wasn’t ‘the right one.’ So you broke up and each kept looking for that romantic nirvana to which we believe we’re all entitled.

Over the years I’ve grown to see love in a radically different way. I now see love as primarily something you do, rather than something you feel. Sure, I feel a lot of love for my partner. Sometimes I look at her and I’m overcome by lust or admiration or by romantic feelings of attachment. There are other times, though, when I don’t feel affectionate at all. There are times when I’m so frustrated with my girlfriend that I want to pull my hair out and scream. The constant in our relationship isn’t a feeling that either of us have that’s always there. The constant is the decision to love—and to be loving.

That decision to love is a choice I’m committed to, and one I make on a daily, sometimes moment by moment basis. I choose to consider the needs of my partner, to respond to her with kindness, to find ways to reconnect with her if we’ve fought or found ourselves somehow disconnected. Love is a verb, it’s an action.

This work of love is something that men can apply themselves to as an act of labour, endurance and strength. It’s a different kind of work that can shift the focus from earning material resources to developing inner ones. This work requires vulnerability and growth. That seems a heroic work to me, the toil of love.

3. The work of relating.

We tend to take other people’s words and actions personally, but everyone is the centre of their own experiential universe. If I pause to consider their experiences as something unique, something beyond my realm of understanding and even influence, I can relate to that person in a totally different way.

It might seem like it’s all about me, but at the end of the day, that’s their feeling to deal with.

For one thing, when someone responds to me in anger, it’s their anger. It might seem like it’s all about me, but at the end of the day, that’s their feeling to deal with. Looking at things this way helps me respond to situations less defensively. When I let myself be carried away by a feeling of righteousness, the problem or argument that I’m caught up in drags on a lot longer and ends up being more painful for all those involved, friends and partners alike. If I don’t feel a need to defend myself constantly, or to assert my rightness, it leaves more space for me to be curious about what’s going on and connect more openly with other people.

This idea that being right is less important than it feels is just one—potentially counter-intuitive—idea about how we can better relate to each other. Of course, this attitude doesn’t always come naturally. I have to remind myself daily to watch my emotions rather than blindly react to them. I can easily fall back into selfish patterns in my relationship with my partner. Likewise, it’s easy to relate to other people in a knee-jerk, self-centred way. The only way to have a different experience is to practise, practise, practise.

But it’s this practise that I believe could be included in a new healthier concept of maleness and its relationship to work. How would our idea of manhood change if it included dedication to the inner work of relating to ourselves and other people?

One example of how my life (and the lives of people around me) has improved with this kind of inner labour, is the benefits that have flowed to me from working with a therapist, in particular on how to respond differently to difficult emotions. The act of making myself vulnerable to another person, talking about my thoughts and feelings and really examining the way these habitual patterns of relating to the world have helped shape my life has not been easy—it’s hard work. But by engaging in this dialogue, I’ve acquired and developed better skills for relating to myself and to other people. It’s made me happier and stronger, and helps me live a richer, more connected life.

There are many ways to be involved with inner work, and therapy might not be right for everyone. But whichever way we do it, our experience of masculinity could change for the better if we expand our concept of ‘heroic activity’ beyond physical endurance to the realms of emotional resilience and conscious engagement in the work of our relationships.

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