Listen For The Helpful Voices

Another popular artist, this time Chester Bennington of Linkin Park has been lost to death by suicide. Whenever there is news of a death by suicide of a highly successful celebrity a voice in my head impulsively says, “How can someone so rich, successful, and creative, do this? What do they have to be so unhappy about?”

I am aware how this minimizes the tragic loss of human life their story tells; how the comparison of my life to that of the celebrity stirs resentment and fear instead of compassion. I see a lot of this in the social media frenzy that tends to follow these stories. The focus is more on the celebrity than the illness that caused their death; the one linked to the other in absurd ways. These aren’t stories about celebrities, not necessarily, but of human beings who suffered a terrible illness that claimed their lives. We make more out of the celebrity status than is helpful in discussions about the mental illness their untimely death provokes. 

I myself have suffered immense sadness, have endured bouts of spirit-crushing depression. It is frightening to think that death by suicide is where it may one day lead. This is why, in the face of such tragic news, there’s an impulse to harbour ideas that attempt to explain and rationalize away these senseless deaths. On self-reflection, it strikes me as a way to distance myself from the fear, and the reality of just how harrowing the human condition can become, especially when its ebbs-and-flows are intensified by mental illness. 

None of us is immune, despite our collective efforts to posit and reinforce ideas about how success equals happiness, which we seem to need as a shield to the possibility of psychological defeat in the face of countless threats in the human experience. I don’t think any of us is any more or less vulnerable to this illness given the right circumstances. When a celebrity dies by suicide, it is an affront to our childish ideas about happiness, and shines a revealing light on how stridently we deny and repress the realities of mental illness. It also shines a bright light on the true harshness of the human experience. 

In this respect the tragic death by suicide of Robin Williams is illustrative. Many fans and admirers were genuinely saddened at his death. Many more could not help but betray a profound fear at what it said about “happiness”, their comments expressing the sentiment “if he is vulnerable, what does that say about me?” That is it exactly. 

This is why I stop that voice of resentment in its tracks, why I don’t express “shock” that another human being has succumbed to the West’s silent killer, just because they were a celebrity. Celebrities are human just like you and I, no matter how hard we try to put them on a pedestal to satiate our psychological need for a panacea to human woe. Denial is unhealthy in the face of tragedies that warrant compassion, not just for those who have died, but for ourselves and others in our life who are struggling right now. 

It is dangerous to plaster ill-conceived ideas about why celebrities shouldn’t be mentally ill, or why suicide is “selfish”, either on social media feeds or comment walls wherever news of these deaths is published. Why? Because people who are surviving with mental illness are reading those threads. To deny the humanity of the celebrity who succumbed is to deny the humanity of the anonymous who struggle day by day to survive, but may yet still die by suicide. For anyone who has mental illness despite outward appearances of success, however shallow and feckless our society measures it, this is the last thing they need to hear. It is a refrain that surely risks causing more guilt or shame for their illness. 

Our society already does a stellar job of shaming and stigmatizing those with mental illness, without also having the occasion of another death increasing their burden. When mental illness claims another life, the last thing a person with the same illness needs to hear is assertions about how their illness is a figment of their imagination that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – exist, just because they are successful or have an ostensibly charmed life. 

As a person with ADD, I know how hurtful it is to hear how every arm-chair, ignoramus shrink with a PhD from Twitter-Internet College believes the condition that has nearly ruined my life, that is at times the bane of my existence, is “a conspiracy invented by drug companies.” No, it is bloody well not and I know because I live my life despite it. It is a condition that afflicts my brain, and is manifest by dysregulating the balance and flow of certain neurotransmitters needed to propel functional thoughts and behaviours. In that way, my ADD shares a biological antecedent similar to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or other neuro-psychological conditions. Just because science does not yet know how or why, does not make it any less true. 

To those who knew and loved Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, I am truly sorry for your loss. My heart aches and my spirit weeps for those who have lost someone they cherish to suicide. It is sad, on a profound, metaphysical level, that these lives ended in one of the most tragic ways imaginable for a human being. I am sorry for the legions who suffer this wicked mental illness and for the pain they have to live with every day. I am sorry the illness made it too difficult for those who ultimately succumbed to have seen another way; one that would have kept them alive. 

For others out there struggling, no matter how society may tell you your illness is “all in your head” or makes you feel it is cured by an “attitude adjustment”, know that these notions are false and you should not heed those voices.  Mental illness is real, it is biologically-rooted, and it doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, famous or living in ignominy. It does not care what ignorant falsehoods our mindless society clings to about mental illness. There are professionals and other helpers who know better and are trained and eager to help. Turn your focus to them and, at the very least, listen to those whose knowledge about mental illness is real. Cover your eyes and ears to the foolish voices who say things to appease their own fear and shock; who are well intentioned but extremely unhelpful in their clumsiness. 

Nobody who suffers an illness – be it cancer, ALS, or Parkinson’s – is to blame for their affliction. Mental illness is not the fault of those afflicted, and it does not have to be a lonely struggle. If you are living with mental illness, seek out the experts to provide the help and supports you need to continue living a fruitful life; to help you cope despite the illness; to ensure you are a survivor. 

Peace and love to you. You are not alone. 

The Struggle is Real, The Effort Worthwhile


It’s summertime up here in the Northern Hemisphere. Despite the countless joys that arrive with the season, for many of my female friends it is a mixed blessing. Their eagerness to bring out those light, cute, and comfortable outfits ready-made for the warm weather, or to sun bathe in a swimsuit at the beach is tempered by the frequency they are subjected to creepy, unwanted advances from sexually aroused males. The worst of these are the drive-by catcalls from men who can’t help but enthusiastically let a woman know she is the apple of their eye, telling her as much by imploring her to sit on their face or shake her tits.   

This sort of male misbehaviour is rooted in the belief that women are always signalling the degree of sexual attention they want from men. By outwardly, enthusiastically showing their arousal, so it goes, these men are fulfilling their role, which is to flatter the woman for a job well-done. In the not-too-distant past, this “taunt and react” dynamic was touted as a normal, functional way of mediating sexual relations. In reality, it led to legions of women being sexually assaulted and raped by men socialized to believe their entitlement to sex was affirmed by the clothes a woman wore. 

In the eighties, when I came of age, there were cultural memes predicated on packs of guys “cruising” in cars with the top down on a Saturday night howling and jeering as they drove past a throng of gals. For their part, the women would bat their lashes in response to the ape-like affections of the men, which were sought after and desired. Thanks to popular culture, which depicted every encounter between men and women as a spar with a sexual sub-text, there are generations of men conditioned to believe the only reason women wear clothes, or do anything for that matter, is to attract the sexual attentions of a man. At the heart of these outmoded ideas is an obsession with what women wear. The old assumption is that women who wear provocative clothing are revealing something meaningful about their sexual inclinations. It is a sad, lingering relic of a bygone era.

I won’t deny it. Because I am a flesh and blood heterosexual man with a functioning set of eyes, when an attractive woman wearing clothing that flatters her impressive features passes my gaze, there is an instant, biologically-predetermined reaction. It hails from a relatively primitive part of our evolutionary brain – the limbic system. There’s an instinctive part of me that instantly craves to ogle, to leer, or to fuck, urges which I am aware conflict with the ardent feminist I aspire to be. 

That insight arises in the blink of an eye, rousing my pre-frontal cortex, which kicks in and subsumes the urge to beat my chest – or beat something else – beneath the thought, “Ahem, your leering and your thoughts are verging on the ungentlemanly. Cut it out.” Most days this tack works. When it doesn’t instantly kick in, and I catch myself leering maybe a little longer than I consider to be civilized, I say a metaphysical “Sorry ladies,” and implore myself to keep my head in the game. 

Thankfully, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is synthesizing these ethical intentions into a set of guidelines to help me conduct myself in a civilized way. The PFC is the part of our brains that distinguishes humans as the most intelligent beings on the planet, despite certain striking instances to the contrary. In the throes of a carnal response to the physical presence of an attractive woman, the PFC stirs me to behave as if I really believed a woman ought to be treated like a human being, rather than as a living, breathing wank machine. When my limbic system protests against the PFC’s civilizing dictates, the PFC overrules it. 

The important thing to note is the emotional interplay between the two parts of the brain arising from the same sexual impulse. This reality refutes those who posit that men’s sexual behaviour is pre-determined as residing in one part of the brain versus the other. That is false. There is a dynamic between the parts of the brain which males must gain mastery of if they intend to behave in sexually appropriate ways. The lynchpin here is to have the intention to behave appropriately in the first place. 

Assuming the good intention exists, the key to the PFC gaining primacy in this inner conflict is to ensure a conscious effort to impart the lessons about appropriate standards of behaviour towards women routinely occurs. The curriculum to which males appeal to shape their values in these matters is significantly influenced by the culture. Unfortunately, if the culture harbours unhealthy sexual norms, then society teaches, reinforces, and perpetuates sexually unhealthy behaviours among its men. Depending on the culture, the curriculum by which boys are taught to become men may be dreadfully flawed. If a culture lacks the ethical intention to treat women as equals, the motivation to evolve commensurate behaviours is not instilled in individual males.  

We may say we live in an “individualistic” society, but in truth, how men behave towards women is greatly influenced by the culture in which they live. Through sexist media and social structures our culture is constantly modelling for boys and young men a particularly sexist way of relating to girls and women. On the other hand, there is an expectation that men become individuals who behave differently than the culture that reared them in their private sexual interactions with women. It’s a sociological fact that the transmission of feminist cultural ideals must actually be observed in the culture if the aim is to ensure they are adopted and exemplified by a society’s males. A sexist culture creates sexist individuals. It’s an axiom we cannot ignore if we want men to do the right thing in their private encounters with women.  

In some cultures, awareness of the intense inner struggle between primal urges and moral conduct acts as a cautionary tale. A society’s males, seeking to conduct themselves with moral rectitude, become wary of the mere existence of these internal battles, which they sense can go either way. That fear fuels notions about how the struggle itself is the fault of women; it feeds the idea women must take ownership of the sexual animus they trigger in men. These ideas sustain cultural practices – usually in the form of religious codes – that dictate women dress and behave modestly. It’s a cultural sleight-of-hand that shifts the burden away from a society’s men so that women ultimately become responsible for moderating the degree of male sexual arousal in a society. 

This is a puerile resolution to the inner struggle of a society’s males, because it discourages each individual man from learning at an early age how to process and regulate their sexually-charged emotions. Our culture’s mixed signals about what constitutes sexually appropriate behaviour is a serious psycho-social issue that needs to be acknowledged and properly addressed. This will ensure there are fewer victims of sexual crimes by inculcating a culture of men with emotional intelligence, who are capable of exerting a degree self-control that discourages their sexual misconduct. 

In this respect, what does it say to young men that, despite the fact Americans were well aware that candidate Trump grabbed women’s pussies, he was elected US President? For all the young men grappling to control their sexual urges, are they learning from this that it’s as important to behave in sexually appropriate ways as it is to be rich and ambitious? To what ends are young men motivated to channel their cognitive energies: to that of learning how to respect women, or to that of amassing the wealth and power required to treat women however their carnal urges desire?  If we want to see appropriate sexual behaviours in men, we have to exemplify, reward, and teach the lessons consistent with that aim. 

As a man desperately trying to get beneath years of cultural conditioning where women were touted as objects of male gratification, I am aware the struggle to overcome sexual urges is very, very real. I engage in a lot of self reflection about this, certainly not because the predominant norms in my culture have compelled me to do so, but because I am aware that my responsibility to foster healthy sexual behaviours comes in the face of intense, biologically-determined cravings. Men have to acknowledge the presence of these primitive cravings, which exist in the same measure as they would have among our evolutionary forebears, despite how intellectually advanced our societies have otherwise become. It’s a strange paradox, and it requires we expend greater conscious efforts to the task of moderating these impulses so our behaviour is consistent with evolving norms about what it means to be civilized sexual beings. 

As men, we must decide which part of our brain we want to heed: the advanced part that sets us apart as human beings, or the a-moral, pre-evolutionary part we share with reptiles and other less intelligent animals. I choose to be a civilized human being. I have to make a conscious effort to establish in my PFC a benchmark of what it means to be respectful to a woman and act accordingly, despite the primitive urges that arise in her presence; despite the culture which continues to normalize a decidedly misogynist benchmark. The responsibility for regulating these urges when it matters is mine alone, and I wouldn’t put that on a woman. 

It would help if our culture didn’t keep telling young boys and men that women are sex objects and reinforcing unhealthy ideas about women that impede their learning of functional sexual behaviours. We are subjected to an unceasing barrage of images and ideas from mainstream culture that piques and reinforces our consumerist desires by sexualizing and objectifying women. This conflicts with, and undermines, efforts to instil norms of self-control in men. Regulating sexually-charged emotions is a cognitive process that must be learned like any other higher-order human function, because the desired behaviours hail from the pre-frontal cortex. When we expect these behaviours to kick in they are fending off the strong, anti-social impulses of the limbic system. Unfortunately, this part of our brain is constantly being titillated by a sexualized, stimulus-addicted culture, which makes it a formidable force to reckon with. 

That isn’t to make excuses for men, it is to say that it takes effort on our part to do what is right in respect of women. It is also to say that culture has a role to play in normalizing healthy attitudes and behaviours about how men relate to women at the office, at home, and in our bedrooms. The biggest first step however, is for men to recognize the struggle to control impulses within ourselves is real, it is natural, and women are not to blame for its existence. The responsibility for doing what it takes to resolve conflicting feelings and emotions is on us as individuals. 

It means that we cannot sit and wait for the mainstream culture to reflect modern values about gender, because we are ourselves arbiters and transmitters of those values. Young men look to how I and my peers conduct ourselves for their signals about what is and isn’t acceptable. I take that role very seriously and I urge my mid-life male peers to do the same. Our role as cultural agents compels us to pro-actively stir a cognitive shift when we recognize some of our attitudes and behaviours are rooted in sexist dogmas of our upbringing. We are key influencers in the culture to which the next generations of men will appeal for norms about how to behave with respect to women. I will cringe if, in thirty years’ time, a figure like Donald Trump is emblematic of my generation of men and is still winning society’s greatest rewards despite his retrograde, morally decrepit views about women. 

A concerted effort to avoid the ill-effects of misogyny from poisoning the behaviour of men will always be necessary. Nature has seen to that. The reasons to expend those energies – to secure a future where women are treated as equals instead of as objects or as victims – have never been more compelling, and makes the effort absolutely worthwhile.