Even men for whom middle age seems like a remote and abstract concept know that prostate cancer is something we’re all going to have to think about sooner or later, and while things like diabetes are may not be quite as well known, most will have some idea that the lifestyle we choose now is going to affect our health span. But Dr Graeme Washer says that the issue men still aren’t talking about isn’t as simple as a check-up.
As a species, we’ve pretty much dealt with the threat of large and hungry animals as a day-to-day menace – at least in the world’s more affluent societies. Yet, as with so many areas of the modern human experience, our ability to usurp evolution and shape the world we live in has far outpaced the brain structures that helped us get there in the first place. The ‘fight or flight’ response, and its related physiological and emotional side effects, is one example.
Washer says that the evolutionary echo of this hormonal threat response is by far the most debilitating ‘other’ men’s health issue he sees on a day-to-day basis. It’s an insidious modern disease that, because it so often stops short of acute and visible manifestation, is massively under-diagnosed, both by health professionals and sufferers.
“Stopping short of depression and suicide, which we know is a huge issue, pervasive anxiety in young men is a massive problem. For every young man who is clinically depressed or suicidal, there is a busload of young men out there struggling with low-grade anxiety – or sometimes not so low-grade and issues around that, and that’s an area that’s not talked about nearly enough.
“In so many cases, these young men haven’t been able to identify that what they’re suffering from is an anxiety problem. It can express itself as social phobia, for example, which can be incredibly paralysing. Some men cover it up with things like alcohol, which of course doesn’t work very well, and it gets in the way of their relationships; it gets in the way of their work and their enjoyment of life.”
Instant gratification a contributor
Washer pins the blame for this epidemic of men suffering through a fog of nervousness, tension, and non-specific worry on the society in which we live. He points to a culture of instant gratification, where we’re all expected to have achieved great things by yesterday, and we judge ourselves harshly when we fail to live up to Instagram expectations (as one aspect of this modern malaise).
The constant, grating dissonance between what we are and what we think we need to be triggers some of the same response mechanisms that put us on high alert when we heard a growl in the night thousands of years ago. The problem is that this modern, very judgemental sabre tooth tiger never seems to tire of hanging around our metaphorical cave.
“The world is an incredibly unsympathetic place for men who feel that they aren’t performing,” says Washer.
“I think modern masculinity is in chaos. I think that our fathers and our grandfathers modelled masculinity for us – role models and expectations were clear, and those generations just put their heads down and got on with it. I think the world these days is a much more challenging place, particularly for young men – it’s okay now to talk about masculinity, but nobody knows what that means. It’s come to mean a whole lot of different things to different people.
“There’s no guidebook anymore, and I think a lot of young men really struggle with what society expects of them, and what they expect of themselves, what they’re comfortable with, and what is truthful for them.”
How is ‘being a man’ changing?
The sheer pace of change in our world is compounding the conundrum of modern masculinity out of sight, says Washer. When trying to get a feel for the ways in which ‘being a man’ is changing, it’s not necessary to go beyond our own circles – that’s where ‘men’ are. For myself and my peers, approaching middle age, it’s tempting to think that we’re some sort of bridging generation – a link between the archaic ‘Marlborough man’ exemplar behind us, and the ‘woke’ generation of sleek chests and kale smoothies in front. Maybe it’s just so much poor-me gencentricity (it’s a word), but men of my age might sometimes feel as though they’re looked down on from the past and the future.
One of my own most cherished social circles is the sailing team/social club/Facebook banter group that is the crew of Prime Mover, a (highly competitive) boat in Wellington’s local weekend racing competition. I sat down with two of my crewmates to express our feelings (have a whinge) about our generational place in the masculine world, and our view of the changing shape of masculinity. It’s hard to say whether we’re a representative sample of men our age, but it turns out that in many respects, we all find a lot to admire in the idealised bloke of the past.
“Sorry, but when I see one of those shaven-chested young guys, I just think ‘try-hard’,” says jib trimmer, classic stubbies enthusiast and entrepreneur Nic Ammundsen, 37.
“I try my best not to, but I get frustrated with all of that. I definitely lean more toward the stoic ideal of the past, the guy who just gets the job done without complaining. With the exception of communication, I think – guys need to talk about stuff more – I aspire to that whole thing way more than I do the more modern masculine ideal.”
French immigré and tactician/NIWA fisheries scientist/liberal employer of mid-race insults à la française Yoann Ladroit leans the same way as Nic, but says that it’s not just the grumbling of a generation no longer leading the way – he sees it as an erosion of aspirational humility.
“When I see someone like that, I think: ‘Well, this guy is probably self-centred, he probably spends way too much time looking in the mirror’.”
British spinnaker trimmer, construction abseiler and punk rock survivor Matt Chalker, 47, stresses that he doesn’t want to be understood as hankering for some kind of retrograde gender dynamic.
“I don’t think it’s a slide toward femininity, I think it’s a slide toward egocentricity that we see, and that annoys us.”
Competitiveness adds to the mix
Perhaps because he has sons who are articulating their own ideas of manhood, Washer sees a lot more to like in the generation currently reaching physical maturity.
“I’m actually pretty hopeful. When I think of my father and my peers, and then I look at my millennial sons, I think they’re doing pretty well. My younger son is 26, and I think he and his ‘team’ are doing as well as they can do. They’re not accepting anything that’s a given, that’s been handed to them, they’re looking at the whole thing for themselves – ‘This is what we’re happy with, this is what’s true for us’.
“But men are still terrified of being judged by their peers, and we’ve got to learn how to talk to each other, in ways that we don’t end up judging each other. That competitiveness prohibits us from talking about what all of this means.”
Washer estimates that around 30 per cent of younger men have some degree of anxiety getting in the way of their lives. And of course, men being what they commonly are, that percentage is just those who have been able to give doctors some kind of clue as to what they’re going through, the tip of an iceberg.
“I saw a young man the other day; big strong healthy lad, has no problem talking to girls, he’s in demand socially. He told me that he’s too afraid to walk into a café and order a coffee. If he said that to his mates, they might be tempted to think, ‘Come on, you’ve got to be joking’, but it’s true. He operates at such a level of anxiety and social phobia that in groups of more than two or three he simply can’t cope. He can’t go to the pub, he can’t go to parties, he really can’t do much at all.
“It’s usually not as clear as something specifically traumatic that happened to [sufferers of anxiety], a particular event that you can trace it back to. It’s a pattern of thinking that your brain has learned in a maladaptive way, and what you really need is to understand what’s happening, and to train yourself out of it.”
Shutting off the negative chatter
“Men I know have done some incredible things with tools like mindfulness. Once you learn to shut off all of that negative chatter in your brain, that can resolve the anxiety. For some people who are deep in a big hole, it can take a lot of effort, but it’s doable.
“You say you’re too busy to introduce yet another thing into your life? We’re all doing more than we can reasonably be expected to do. Well, my first response is to sit down with you and say ‘Ok, tell me about your life, and let’s declutter it.”