Poetry Review: Eight Four: Poems on male suicide, vulnerability, grief and hope

Screenshot 2019-05-29 at 06.00.27If you love men (or even just one man) or you have an interest in male suicide, male depression, male vulnerability, sacrificial masculinity, toxic masculinity or just good poetry, I really think you should pick up a copy of the poetry anthology Eight Four: Poems on male suicide, vulnerability, grief and hope.

Poet, critic, and university lecturer Helen Calcutt launched and curated the anthology after losing her brother to suicide. Verve Poetry Press published the anthology with proceeds benefiting the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).

Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. The title of the anthology reflects the staggering statistic that suicide takes 84 men each week in the UK. The causes of suicide are many and varied, and you surely have your own opinions about prevention, but one paragraph from Helen Calcutt’s introduction stuck out for me:

“Women cry, men do not. Men hit women, women don’t hit men. Both examples of what we would consider a socially accepted norm, denies either party their natural complexity. Women do hit men, and though a violent and harmful act, it also highlights a particular type of vulnerability (perhaps a trauma too) that needs addressing. Men weep. It’s probably one of the deepest, moving sounds I have ever heard. Denying this as a normal attribute to male behavior, almost refuses them the bog-standard right to grieve, to shed a skin—to let it out.”

In the end, this is a book about grief but also hope. Many of the poems are from people who have experienced loss to suicide, some from those who experience or at least describe the feelings that lead to suicide, and some are about the possibilities for better lives and better approaches to male vitality.

I don’t want to quote or describe the poems as I think it takes from their power for the reader, but this book is not only for a great cause, it is great poetry. If you love poetry, you are likely to see names you recognise, but you may also be delighted to discover fresh talent. As you would expect, the poems are moving, but never maudlin or overly sentimental.

Uses and Abuses of Autonomy

If you’ve studied bioethics, you know that the principles of bioethics are autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice. You also know that autonomy, especially in the early days, got most of the press. I was one of the people who saw bioethics and autonomyethics generally, really, as a matter of respecting autonomy. And I still think it is typically wrong to do things to people that they wouldn’t reasonably want done.

As it often happens when changing points of view, I first began to question the value of autonomy in the most extreme cases—those where someone had no autonomy at all. How do you show the proper respect to a cadaver for example? How should we go about respecting the autonomy of someone who is no longer conscious and may never regain consciousness? It seems that showing respect for a person’s life may not always mean respecting the person’s autonomy.

Even in those cases, though, we still try to preserve the notion of autonomy by calculating what would have been correct for that person if that person were a conscious being with autonomy. To what would a rational person want or be entitled? And here is a bit of muddy water already. Kant described respect for autonomy as respect for universal laws, not respect for individual wishes, for respecting someone’s wishes might only be to help them use themselves as a means (see: physician-assisted suicide). For Kant, respect for autonomy would mean that no one could morally choose to die, so certainly no one could morally help someone to die.

But we don’t adhere to Kant so closely, do we? So, respecting someone’s autonomy has come to mean respecting that person’s wishes by getting their consent before doing anything to them or not doing anything to them, as the case may be. But even having someone’s full-throated consent does not make it okay to do whatever we please, and we mostly recognize that. We have laws against doing things to children, for example, or to people with limited cognitive abilities because we recognize that some people are extremely vulnerable to exploitation.

We spend a lot of time trying to identify vulnerable populations, but my problem comes with trying to figure out who might not be subject to exploitation. It seems to me that even the most mature and intelligent people in the world are subject to exploitation at least some of the time. I can think of many examples, but one example is certainly whenever anyone gets sick.

I would say that anyone with even a minor illness has lost a degree of freedom. If I have something as simple as a stuffy nose, I will make decisions I would otherwise not make. You know, I may decide to give money to some stranger who promises that some chemical or other might make my breathing easier. If I will give away my money to avoid slightly congested breathing that will likely correct itself in a short time, what might I do to avoid rapidly approaching death?

If I’m frightened enough of dying, and most of us do want to avoid an early death, I might agree to almost any treatment dangled in front of me, and I might go to extreme measures to procure the treatment. Getting my consent to give me my only chance of relief seems a little strange, which is why neither healthcare providers nor their clients pay much attention to the whole informed consent process in routine cases. We generally go to healthcare providers with the intention of making use of the services they provide.

Yes, I know patients do need the information that makes up the “informed” part of informed consent, and sometimes genuine decisions must be made in collaboration with the doctor or other caregiver. Even in those cases where decisions must be made, most patients assume the doctor is in a better position to know what choice is best. Which is why so many of us respond with, “What would you do, Doctor?”

What we don’t say, though, is, “No, I don’t want any treatment. I only came in because I had a bit of free time and thought I’d spend it in an examining room.” It is only suffering, whether minor or extreme, that drives us to see a doctor. And it is that suffering that makes us vulnerable to exploitation, and that vulnerability renders the concept of free consent or undiminished autonomy questionable.

So I don’t think autonomy can shoulder the moral burden it is expected to carry. In fact, autonomy may not mean anything useful at all. Respecting a person’s wishes, especially in situations where wishes are so easily manipulated, may not be of any moral value at all.

He isn’t being vulnerable, he’s crying

As a child, I grew up in a culture defined by rampant sexism, racism, and homophobia. While I now realize many of the people around me were gay, they were invisible to me at the time. At least, their sexuality was invisible to me. As a teenager, I made an intellectual decision that everyone had a right to equal dignity and expression. Living in a seemingly homogeneous society, though, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience my own implicit biases until later.

I strongly defended the rights of gay people to live, work, love, and express their lovepublicly, but my reaction to actual gay lives was untested. I was probably a bit too comfortable with myself and my choice for equality, for the first time I saw two men kissing, I was horrified to find that I looked away with feelings of discomfort and perhaps even disgust. I was then filled with shame for the latent feelings I obviously had, but I did my best to not turn away.

Over time, I was lucky enough to find many gay friends and to experience their love and affection in ways that seemed perfectly natural because they were perfectly natural. I’m sure I still have many implicit biases, and I keep trying to overcome them all, but at least now I can usually deal with people kissing with no internal conflict. (As I age, I have become painfully aware that many young people feel the same disgust when they see older people kissing.)

Unfortunately, many people react to a man crying in the same way I initially reacted to men kissing men—they turn away in discomfort or even disgust. It is widely assumed that it is men who are disgusted by other men crying (and I’m sure some are), but famed vulnerability researcher Brene Brown found that it is more often women who can’t accept men’s vulnerability. Obviously, being vulnerable means much more than just crying, but I would like to say that I think crying is really the single behavior that sets people stomachs to churning.

We find crying so shameful, in fact, that we often call it “being vulnerable” in order to avoid saying the word “crying.” I don’t mean this to be a criticism of researchers’ use of the word “vulnerability” while they discuss men’s emotional health. Rather, I mean to suggest that the rest of us have adopted the word “vulnerability” as a way of avoiding discussion of crying. Often we will only say that a man “was vulnerable,” because to say that he was “openly sobbing” would be to rob him of his dignity and bring shame to him. Paradoxically, by trying to protect him from judgment, we reinforce the judgment that all men face for being weak, sad, or emotional.

I should qualify that last statement. We don’t judge men so much for being emotional as we judge them for what particular emotions they express. Crying is acceptable for women and girls, but anger is reserved for boys and men. If a man loses his son or father, for example, he may seek revenge in various ways, and he is often honored for doing so, especially if the death was caused by malice or negligence.

Historically, revenge frequently took the form of actual violence, and vengeful violence has certainly not disappeared, but revenge can also take the form of lawsuits, public shaming campaigns, and other legal and socially acceptable forms. But the man who falls into a deep depression or cries uncontrollably for an extended period will face criticism. I once talked to a father who was told he needed to “get it together” at his own son’s funeral.

We pretend that men aren’t in touch with their feelings or that men are incapable of expressing their feelings. If these things are true, it is only because we have conditioned men to suppress their feelings through our own reactions of disgust. Boys are taught in their first months out of the womb that crying is unacceptable. The result is that men must either destroy themselves or destroy those around them in order to process their own feelings.

The price we pay is that the men we are around are emotionally drained, stressed to the breaking point, and prone to anger and destruction over empathy and connection. Of course, this is an oversimplification and is an exaggerated statement of what happens. We all know well-balanced men who are nurturing and emotionally connected. Some men are lucky that their lives have not burdened them with too much grief and sadness. Other men have, in spite of social programming, been lucky to find people who accept them and their emotions. And, finally, some men have the fortitude to find effective means of self-care.

Still, we can and should work to remove the shame and stigma from male weakness, and that begins with removing disgust from the sight of male tears. How do we do it?

  1. Don’t turn away. If a man is crying in your presence, do not avert your gaze. Continue to look at him and let him know that you are with him, free from judgment.
  2. If you are a man, openly discuss your own tears with both women and men. When we remove our own shame, the disgust of others cannot affect us.
  3. Stop saying, “boys don’t cry” to anyone, especially a child. Boys hear this almost as soon as people start talking to them. Support the full emotional range of boys.
  4. Stop mocking male tears. Some feminists seem to feel that making fun of male emotions is an acceptable response to centuries of male tyranny, but mocking male tears is a sure way to help perpetuate misogyny and the oppression of women.
  5. Create safe spaces for men. Men need opportunities to talk to other men about crying and weakness. Men need to let one another know that crying is not weakness. You can take care of your family, be a protector, or be a warrior and still take time to cry.
  6. Recognize the varied experiences of men. Adult men are often victims of childhood abuse whether it be physical, emotional, or sexual. Men are victims of domestic violence and abuse. While physical violence is a reality for many men, emotional battery is even more common. The victimization of men is not a joke, so please stop laughing at it.

Many men will reject my suggestions as being absurd and will suggest I should just “man up.” I ask those men to remember those words the next time, and it will happen, they are struggling to force back the knot forming in their throats as they build a dam against the tears threatening to break forth. Whether we choke the tears back successfully or not, the damage is done. We still feel the shame and disgust. We feel devalued and demoralized by our own natural emotions. We can be free and we can be whole. We just have to come out and be honest about what and who we are.

Business man blowing his nose