Your Deadly Assumptions

Have you ever been traveling from one city to another, and you're in the airport at the gate, waiting for your flight to load? You look out the wall of glass at the workers moving around on the ramp, unloading and loading baggage while the plane disgorges its complement of arriving passengers. You may have noticed one of the pilots descending the metal stairway from the jetway onto the tarmac and then taking a leisurely stroll around the body of the aircraft. It's the flight's first officer, and he's doing a preflight visual inspection of the fuselage to make sure that everything is properly secured and that there's no visible damage. It's all part of the extensive preflight checklist that all pilots must complete before both takeoffs and landings. Those checklists are there to make sure that no one leaves anything to chance when lives and property are at stake.

Pilots would be crazy to fly on assumptions. There's an old saying that says, "There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots." I'd like to take this occasion to remind you that you are the pilot-in-command of your own life, even when it doesn't feel like it. You'd think that, with your own life and property at stake as you face the prospect of turbulence during your midlife 'flight,' you'd want to be at least as careful piloting your daily existence as the fellows who have command of that jet you're about to take. Yet, I think that most guys take action - especially during the midlife transition - based on assumptions rather than on research, introspection, and careful deliberation. Chances are that those pilots that are prepping their plane for your trip know more about the condition of their aircraft than they do about their own lives.

One of the biggest assumptions that men cling to, and that can get them into the most trouble at midlife, is that they are what they do. It's extremely difficult for a man to separate himself in his own mind from his career, and the more responsible, sophisticated and high-paying that career is, the more that this is true: "Jane, let me introduce you to my friend Bill. He's a pilot." Men realize that they are free to change careers, especially when they see prospects for advancement coming along. So long as the guy's in the driver's seat, 'change' looks like 'challenge' and 'opportunity.' These prospects get the old adrenaline pumping and they stimulate the inner hunter-gatherer instincts. Meeting challenges and conquering adversaries to provide for himself and his family bring reassurance of the quality of his masculinity. And therein lies his Achilles' heel.

What happens when there's an economic downturn and he's laid off and unable to find work in his chosen field? How does he feel when, instead of surrendering his career for the sake of something better, he's driven out of it without a viable alternative? Just because he's no longer competitive, that doesn't mean that the inner hunter-gatherer is no longer alive and will within. When the hunter-gatherer can no longer protect and provide for his family, what value has he left? If you live by the assumption that you are what you do, and that your value as a man and as a human being rests entirely on how successful you are in your assumed role, when that's taken away from you, what's left? In fact, it's the unconscious maintenance of that false assumption that drives many men from midlife transition to midlife crisis. The way many men live their lives is less like a pilot who fails to do a walk-around because he assumes that everything is OK, and more like a pilot who takes off without fuel in his tanks because he assumes their filled.

The basic assumptions that underlie much of male attitudes and behaviors are just plain backwards. Somehow, women seem to 'get' this, and setbacks like layoffs and financial insecurity may upset them but they don't destroy their self-respect the way that very often happens with men. The truth of the matter remains that what a man does gains its value from who the man is, and not the other way around. This is the 21st Century, yet, for scores of centuries men have allowed their masculinity to be defined by their roles. For the first time in human history, that's changing. The transformation from hunter-gatherer to agrarian simply transferred the 'protect and provide' paradigm from one economy to another. The exact same thing happened during the industrial revolution: 'protect and provide' remained the male paradigm. Now, in the shift to a post-industrial global economy, the very roots of that ancient paradigm are crumbling. Clinging to an outdated 'protect and provide' paradigm is a sure route to eventual extinction.

What alternatives do the men of the 21st Century have? I believe that we're experiencing not only the midlife transition of the 'boomer generation, but also the midlife transition of humanity itself as a species. It's overdue for men to take out the checklist and do some serious (and fearless) introspection. We need to take stock of who we are, what we are capable of, and where we want to take it. We have to make room for the nurturer beside the protector and provider. We have to stop assuming that vulnerability is a threat to our existence as men. In point of fact, like so many other minorities in our world today, we men have to step away from our own proudly-proclaimed and reinforced stereotypes.

Here's the great irony that infuses the whole question of the redefinition of what it means to be a man: the essence of the hunter-gatherer mentality consists in a man's proving his courage in face of adversity. That has always worked so long as the adversary was on the exterior. When we men are faced with confronting the adversary within, we most often show a remarkable cowardice. Our survival depends on harnessing our masculine courage and turning it within, transforming our inner world with the same boldness and inventiveness with which we've transformed the outer world. And, we'll find, that when we properly care for ourselves, we'll also experience the need to take better care of our world, as well. The 'green' man begins with attention to detail in his own soulscape.

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