Manhood and The Hero’s Journey is currently an e-book that examines why men are discontent, restless, disillusioned, depressed, anxious, and often suicidal. Below is the first chapter. For more information and to purchase a copy, click here.
Chapter One: The Walking Dead
“The life we’d planned on living seems a thousand miles away, and there’s no way to get there from here.”
Monster.com’s 1999 Super Bowl ad was brilliant. It featured kids talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up. But, they weren’t talking about how they aspired to do great things. Instead, they declared their dreams to “file all day” and to “claw [their] way up through middle management”. The wanted to “be a Yes Man”, and to “be replaced on a whim”. The ad was brilliant because it highlighted the truth that no one starts out hoping to be average. Each of us had dreams that involved greatness. Unfortunately, for too many, those dreams are long gone. They’ve been covered up by years of fear, procrastination, and the onslaught of life.
While we’ve heard that “life begins at 40”, we’re not optimistic that our dreams will ever become reality. We’re not sure that life will ever be more than average, mediocre, or mundane.
Life Begins at 40?
John Lennon captured this pessimism in his song “Life Begins at 40”, highlighting the baggage that many of us carry by age:
They say life begins at 40
Age is just a state of mind
If all that’s true
You know that I’ve been dead for 39
And if life begins at 40
Well, I hope it ain’t the same
It’s been tough enough without that stuff
I don’t wanna to be born again
Well, I tried to sweep the slate clean
With a new broom every day
If that don’t work
I’ll jerk around until my next birthday
Yeah, life begins at 40
Age is just a state of mind
Well, if all that’s true
You know that I’ve been dead for 39
L.E. (Ed) Sissman conveyed the same outlook even more succinctly in his poem, Men Past Forty:
Men past forty
Get up nights
And look out at city lights,
Wondering where they made the wrong turn
And why life is so long
To Lennon and Sissman, adulthood means that we still have many years left in a life of disappointment. Most of us don’t take our cynicism to that level. Still, in our more honest moments we acknowledge that our lives aren’t what we hoped that they’d be. What’s worse, we fear that they never will be. When we look at our lives, here’s what many of us see:
At this point in life, we’re past our physical primes. We’ll likely never run as fast, jump as high, lift as much, or throw as hard as we could at 21. We hope that Toby Keith got it right: “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once, as I ever was”. Our moments of glory are few and far between. Even the best athletes eventually learn that Father Time is undefeated. And for us mere mortals, that lesson often gets learned too early.
Even those of us who have accepted our diminished ability are not as active as we used to be. At our age, activity begins to get equated with injury. We have responsibilities that will not go away, even if we get injured. The benefits of being active don’t seem worth the risk of injury. As Nyquil told the world, moms and dads don’t get to take sick days. We don’t get to go on injured reserve. And, unless we’ve purchased disability insurance, many of us won’t get paid if we get injured and can’t work. So we’ve decided that the potential for injury makes sports and intense activities too much of a hassle.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us in a sedentary existence, spending our waking hours sitting at a desk, riding in a car, or lying on a couch. Then we go to bed. We spend almost every minute of that sedentary existence in a climate-controlled environment. We have heated homes, seats, steering wheels, mattresses, socks, blankets, and showers. We spend our best days sitting in a comfortable room looking at some type of screen. We don’t live; we consume information about the lives of others. Every aspect of our lives is automatic, automated, electronic, digital, or virtual. Our goal is to do anything we want as comfortably, quickly, and conveniently as possible.
We are the most technologically advanced society in history. But we’re also the weakest and softest generation that has ever walked the earth. In a society where everything you need to survive is available at the push of a button, who needs to be strong? For too many of us, “toughness” means not freaking out when the video we’re streaming buffers too long.
Additionally, and much more importantly to some, we generally don’t look as good as we used to. Our hair is a little thinner, a little grayer, and our hairlines are racing away from our faces. Our lack of activity means that our muscles are smaller, weaker, and covered by more fat. Many have 10, 20, 30, or 50 pounds that we’ve wanted to lose for years. Maybe we lost it once before. Or twice. Or three times. But it came back. It always seems to come back, and when it does, it brings more with it. It happens with such regularity that the “Dad Bod” has become a thing. Department stores now have “Dad Bod” mannequins. In our minds, we still look good, but the mirror tells a different tale. And it’s a bit depressing. So we start lowering our standard. “At least I don’t look like that guy, he’s really let himself go.”
Some of us have been married for years and haven’t paid attention to our appearance. As a result, we don’t realize how poorly our clothes look and fit. We haven’t changed our hairstyle, bought a new suit, or updated our style in 20 years. Many of us are clinging to a few stray, wispy hairs that we ought to shave off. We’re still wearing double pleated everything. “Dad jeans” are now a common reference in popular culture, and it’s not a compliment. Unfortunately, our presentation tells people everything they need to know about what’s going on inside of us.
Unlike our looks and our physical abilities, our trips to the doctor and the pharmacy are at an all-time high. Our doctor visits are no longer brief check-ups every year or two that end with a clean bill of health. Instead, we visit because we’re sick or something won’t stop hurting. We usually leave with a prescription. We’re hearing the words “high blood pressure” and “high cholesterol” from our doctor. We begin to care about triglycerides. We have to learn what HDL and LDL actually stand for and to distinguish between them at a basic level. Our backs hurt, our knees ache, and we have shoulder problems. We find ourselves using words like “arthritis” in relation to our own bodies. And we think about buying a set of “readers”.
Nearly 75% of men are overweight or obese. Those men are three times more likely than women to die as a result of their obesity. Our diet consists of fast food that is high in fat, processed food that is high in carbs, or junk food that is high in sugar. What’s missing from our diets? The very macronutrient that has fueled men for millennia: protein. More specifically, protein from animals. Men have been browbeaten into avoiding red meat because of concerns about cholesterol and heart disease. They’ve embraced a diet that does undermines their testosterone and ability to build lean muscle.
Research has shown that men today have 20% less testosterone on average than a generation ago. In fact, testosterone levels have been dropping throughout the last century. The causes for this are complicated, but there is little doubt that obesity levels have played a role.
Some of us are well-established in our careers by this age. We’re no longer in school and we’re beyond our starter job. We’re making more money and have better insurance, benefits, and vacation time than at any point in our lives. Our retirement accounts and investments are better than ever before. This means that we also have more stuff than ever before. Everything is bigger and better: our house, mortgage, cars, furniture, appliances, gadgets, gear, and toys. There seems to be an unwritten law that we must fill our house to the point that it becomes too small for us.
While we may have advanced in our careers, men have never been less skills. Our economy is highly specialized. The average man no longer needs physical skills beyond pushing buttons. He doesn’t need to know how to build a house or to hunt, kill, butcher, and cook an animal. He doesn’t need to be able to fix his car or grow food from the ground. He is not required to navigate or survive in the outdoors, to use a gun, to use a knife, or to build a fire. Instead, he creates income by sitting in an office pushing buttons. He then pays people to build his house, generate his food, fix his car, heat his home, and provide protection for him.
That mode of operation is the norm in modern society, and it makes life very, very comfortable. But it has a very obvious side effect: there is an entire generation of men that can’t do anything but push buttons. Even skilled workers are often limited to that one specific skill required by their job. The result: we are the least-capable generation that has ever walked the face of the earth. And our psyches take notice.
The American Dream?
By this age, many of us have an established family life. Most have married, many for a second time. Yes, starter wives (and starter husbands) are a thing. We have children, and some have step-children.
We’ve achieved the American dream of spouses, kids, houses, cars, and stuff. As a result, our lives look pretty good on Facebook and Instagram. We “check in” to cool places on Facebook and post smiling pictures on Instagram. But reality often tells a different tale right after we hit “post”. There’s often a dark underbelly to this “dream” that we’ve accomplished. We have more responsibilities and are working harder and longer than ever before. Our discretionary time is full of “chores”:
- changing diapers
- coaching sports teams
- attending recitals
- meeting with teachers
- acting as a chauffeur
- folding laundry
- making meals
- cleaning dishes
We say we’re going to do better. We’re going to eat better. We’re going to make a budget and stick to it. We’re going to exercise more. But each day ends like the last. We fall asleep in front of the television, laptop, tablet, or phone, only to get up and do it all again the next day. Rinse and repeat, with most of us looking forward to the day that we can retire and do what we want.
Most of us had plenty of friends in high school. That number likely stayed roughly the same through college. It may have increased slightly. But once a man gets out of college, the number of his connections decreases significantly. Once he gets married, they decrease even further. And once he has kids, for most guys, it’s game over. We spend our days working to finance our families and our evenings and nights taking care of them.
While most of us have a few guys that we can get a drink or watch a ballgame with, here’s the cold, hard truth: very few of us have a circle of good friends. Few of us have people that really know what’s going on in our lives. Almost none of us has a circle of people that knows who we really are. No one knows our strengths and our weaknesses. They don’t know the things we care about deeply. They don’t know the things we want to achieve, the things that we’re scared of, and the things we need help on.
Research has shown that, between 1985 and 2004, social isolation grew tremendously. In 1985, the average person had three confidants, people with whom he could discuss things that were important to him. By 2004, that number had dropped to two. Here’s the scary thing: the modal number of confidants dropped from three to zero. Zero. None. Nada. Nobody. That means that most people reported that they have no one with whom they can confide. They are not closely connected to anyone. Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s the story of our generation.
Part of the reason for our lack of friendships is that we just feel so busy. In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the modern work week would go away. He predicted that his grandchildren would work no more than three hours a week, and most of that would be by choice. Technology would drastically reduce the time to complete tasks. Tasks that took hours to complete in 1930 would only take minutes to complete in 1980.
And he was partly right. Technology has allowed us to work much more efficiently. Yet, that efficiency hasn’t meant shorter work days. Instead, it’s meant lower costs and profit margins, but a higher level of expected production. The system is now such that we cannot slow down, because less production means less revenue. Less revenue would mean less profits, which is not an acceptable result. As a result, we’re busier than ever at work.
However, the numbers show that we actually work less hours than we did in the 1960’s. In addition, technology allows more people to work remotely. This means less time in the office or commuting. This means we have more discretionary time. But, the existence of smartphones and tablets has also resulted us being “on call” more than ever. We now check e-mail and taking calls for work long after our “workday” has officially ended. The line between when the workday and discretionary time has become blurred. Instead, we just kind of do it all, all the time. As a result, we feel busy all the time, whether we are or not.
Because salaries are higher than ever before, we feel the need to work more, as our time feels much more valuable. We become less content taking a walk or hanging out with friends. In our minds, we could (should?) spend that time earning more money. Tim Ferriss tells an illustrative story of setting up a conference for the world’s richest men. Every attendee was a billionaire. The problem was that almost none of them could find a free weekend; they were simply too busy. The irony, Ferriss points out, was striking: what’s the point in being a billionaire if you can’t get away for a weekend?
Not only are we busier at work, we’re busier than ever outside of work. As I’ve noted on my blog, the “youth sports industrial complex” is out of control. The boom of extracurricular events has enabled more kids to participate in activities. Unfortunately, it has also resulted in parents who have no free nights or weekends. The running joke among travel sports parents is that there is no more Herculean task than coordinating a birthday party for a travel ball player. It’s impossible to find a date that is not covered with activities for either the birthday child or his teammates.
Finally, “busy” has become a bit of a status symbol, a badge of honor, in our culture. While the tide may be changing on that issue in the last few years, it’s still largely true. Historically, leisure time indicated status. Being free for leisure meant that you weren’t stuck in a clock-punching job. It meant you were wealthy enough not to work. Today, it’s “busyness”, rather than leisure time, that indicates status. If you’re busy, it means you’re valued and needed by others and of a higher status than someone who has time to spare. As a result, we tend to busy ourselves, present ourselves as being busy, and think of ourselves as busy.
The Death of Our Dreams
So maybe it’s a good thing that feel busy. Otherwise, we might come face to face with a very difficult fact. It’s not that we’re losing our hair, that we’re pudgier, or that we can’t physically do the things we used to do. To some extent, we expect all that. It happens to most people. What we didn’t expect was that, despite our houses, cars, kids, and stuff, our dreams have never come true. Some of us would be forced to admit something even worse. We’d have to admit that we’ve accomplished our dreams and we’re still not content. There’s almost nothing worse than being unsatisfied despite getting everything you ever wanted.
Neither realization is comforting. As Lennon and Sissman depicted, the excitement and optimism of our youth is long gone. Our dreams of greatness are gone as well. They were run over by years of 60-hour workweeks. They were crushed by years of rushing to give our kids the best and keep our families from sinking. We sold our dreams for stability, and many of us didn’t even get stability in return.
For some of us, our debt was more than we could deal with when the economy took a downward turn. We lost our homes, filed bankruptcy, or both. For others, the wonderful woman we married broke our hearts (or we broke hers). She took half of everything, perhaps more. Some of us have relationships hanging by a thread because we gave in to that cute girl that was attracted to us. We didn’t mean to hurt our spouse, but, man, it felt good to feel wanted again.
Our relationships with our kids have been difficult. We can’t seem to connect with them. They’re struggling, and we can’t seem to help them. We rarely have the right words for them. When we do, they push us away. With each passing day they’re relating more to their friends than to us. And it frustrates and saddens us.
Others of us accomplished everything we set out to do. We married the beautiful girl. Our kids are wonderful. They have normal issues and growing pains to deal with, but they’re generally on track. We got the job we wanted and have continued up the ladder. We may not be in the top one percent, but we’re making good money and are generally happy with our job. We got the house and the car and the vacations and the social life that comes along with it. But we know we haven’t reached our potential. We know that there’s more for us to do and be.
So we’re all on different levels, but we’re dealing with the same issues. For some, the life we’d planned on living seems a thousand miles away and there’s no way to get there from her. For others, we have everything we ever wanted and it has not brought the contentment that we’d sought. Some are miserable. Some are depressed. Some are generally happy. But none are content. No matter which group you’re in, you want more. For some, at this point in life, it seems hopeless and out of reach. We’re just biding time in a life that never seems to get much better. We are the walking dead.
Unfortunately, you’re not alone in that feeling. The numbers aren’t pretty. Approximately six million men suffer from depression. Millions more deal with anxiety issues. These are the reported numbers. The actual numbers are certainly much higher, as men are reluctant to admit to these issues.
Men are much more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than women. Nearly one-quarter of men binge drink more than five times per month. They average around eight drinks on each occasion.
Men account for 90% of the prison population. We commit the vast majority of violent crimes.
Together, these numbers paint an ugly picture of the modern man. Weak, overweight, depressed, anxious, angry, addicted, isolated, having declining testosterone and almost no skills. This scenario makes the next set of statistics quite believable, if not expected.
Suicide rates for men have been increasing since the year 2000. Men are almost four times more likely to commit suicide than women. For clarity, this means we account for almost 80 percent of the suicides committed. Men between the ages of 45-64 are more likely to commit suicide than any other age demographic. So, not only are we discontent and restless. Many of us are hopeless to the point that we do not believe life can ever get better.
I’m writing this book to let you know that there is a path forward. There is a life that brings satisfaction to the masculine soul, and it’s available to you. But it’s not easy. In fact, that’s the secret of the whole thing: choosing the harder path. Society is set up to give everyone the easiest possible road. That makes it normal to choose the easy path, the comfortable path. For men, that is the path that leads to depression, frustration, and meaninglessness.
If you’re looking to build a life of deep contentment, a life of accomplishment, a life that brings joy to your soul, buckle up. We’re going to take a look at how to build such a life.
I’ll leave you with the words of Sophie Tucker, which are a stark contrast from Lennon and Sissman:
I’ve often heard it said and sung
That life is sweetest when you’re young
And kids, sixteen to twenty-one
Think they’re having all the fun
I disagree, I say it isn’t so
And I’m one gal who ought to know
I started young and I’m still going strong
But I’ve learned as I’ve gone along…….
That life begins at forty
 Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades, American Sociological Review, 2006, Vol. 71 (June: 353-375).
 For those of us who have been out of school for too long and done our best to forget math, the mode is the number that appears the most in the group.