I have a confession to make: as I get older, taking care of myself becomes more and more of a chore. Additionally, as andropause continues to take its toll, bodily maintenance keeps looking more and more like an uphill (and losing) battle. Add that to the cultural expectations that tell us men that we’re not supposed to pay attention to things like our diet, health, fitness, looks, etc., and you’ve got a recipe for neglect. I don’t consider myself an old guy (yet), but I’m noticing certain habits and phenomena creeping in that, frankly, disturb me. Have you noticed that older men very often wear traces of their latest meal on their shirt-fronts? Is it because we’re paying less attention to what we’re doing, or is it that there’s more shirt-front there (and at a more obtuse angle) than there used to be?
There’s even another possibility I could consider: you know, I’ve done all this before, many, many, many times. How many times have you performed all those required bodily and social functions that you have to go through (nearly) every single day of your life? Don’t you get tired of the routine sometimes? I know I do. Even when I try deliberately to vary my daily schedule, it still seems boring: how many ways can you vary eating breakfast or brushing your teeth? I’ve already eaten over 22,000 breakfasts. After a while, it all gets sort of . . . well . . . redundant. I find it very hard to drum up enough willpower to convince myself that physical maintenance is all that critically important, compared to all the other issues that are fighting for my attention from day to day.
And yet, I know very well that the quality of my life in the months and years ahead depends almost entirely on how well I perform these simplest and most obvious of tasks. These days, I’m not doing as well as I used to, probably because, as time goes on, it takes more and more time, energy and attention to detail to achieve fewer and fewer results. We men already have a statistically shorter lifespan than women. Rather than living in a culture that supports or demands that men take their health issues more seriously, it often does just the opposite. As psychologist and author, Jed Diamond, reports in his book, The Whole Man Program, one of the cultural ‘commandments’ that men are taught – and expected – to live by is, “I must ignore my own health. ‘Real men’ are indestructible.” This applies to a wide variety of issues, like ignoring pain, injuries, and disease; eating, drinking, or doing anything to excess; getting sufficient rest; seeking medical advice or attention; and paying attention to proper diet and regular exercise.
Do men know how to take care of themselves? I would have to say ‘yes . . . but.’ Since we’ve been trained to ignore the body’s warning signals (telling ourselves, according to Jed Diamond, ‘I can never be weak,’ ‘to fail is to lose my sense of self,’ ‘I cannot express emotions’ – or even admit to having any, ‘I must not cry, complain, or ask for help,’ ‘if I’m sick or injured, I must play hurt’). Is it any wonder that the approach that many men take to midlife transition issues will be denial? My Lord, we’ve been trained and practiced in it from birth!
There’s another aspect to this issue of self-care that needs to be addressed (particularly for men). Valuing your quality of life and paying attention to life’s maintenance issues implies that you’ve established a life purpose for yourself that’s aligned with a sense of destiny. It’s really just the opposite of our culturally-supported male fatalism (for example: ‘Why should I quit smoking? We all have to die from something!’). Being aware of and aligned with your destiny implies having an active engagement with the spiritual dimension of your being. In a skeptical, materialistic age, this isn’t an easy leap to take: this leap of faith. Sometimes, this is exactly the gift that the midlife crisis bestows on us: it gives people, particularly men, an often-harsh wake-up call that forces them to look beyond the superficial world that exists in the balance between ‘success’ and ‘failure’ to something deeper: the human spirit itself.
Fortunately for the men who are reading this, our cultural expectations are changing. More men are coming out of the midlife transition with an active spirituality that helps them to put their concerns into a more reasonable perspective. What’s more, even younger men, who haven’t yet started the midlife transition, find themselves more open to life’s alternatives. They exhibit a capacity to be, at the same time, tough when the situation demands it, and also tender and even vulnerable at other times. The newer counter-culture actively opposes the prevailing culture of denial and seeks to foster a more realistic ‘whole man’ attitude without the fear that doing so will lower esteem either from self or others. I see this as a hugely positive movement based in a genuine spirituality. If broadly embraced, it’ll make the midlife transition – for men at least – so much easier and more productive.
In the meantime, how can we men confront the ever-increasing friction between our desire for a high-quality life well into the upper reaches of age, and our natural ennui or boredom or reticence that we experience around taking care of ourselves in the face of ever-growing obstacles? Like anything worth doing, it takes willpower. It takes deciding – maybe just for today – that doing whatever’s necessary to maintain our physical health is both a value and a goal. And, what’s more, it takes the willpower to accept a present discomfort and inconvenience for the sake of a long-term goal. Self-maintenance could be characterized as the ultimate in delayed gratification. Like all delayed gratification, it takes training and self-discipline to achieve it. So, what’s the problem? We’re men, right? We can take a little boredom, some pain, discomfort and inconvenience, can’t we? We know how to defer self-gratification to achieve something we really want, don’t we? Once what we really want is to live life to the fullest and we accept that it means getting in touch with our deeper sense of self, we can choose accordingly.