Walk a mile in my shoes

On my walk to work this morning I spotted this very uniquely decorated van. I’ve never been much of a fan of Elvis but the song lyrics displayed in the window really grabbed my attention.

“Walk a mile in my shoes
Just walk a mile in my shoes
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Then walk a mile in my shoes”

As I stood there on the pavement reading those words they seemed to me to be a powerful call to empathy and compassion, an invitation to withhold judgement until we’ve really considered things from other people’s perspective. I immediately Googled the lyrics and found this fantastic video of Elvis performing the song live in Las Vegas in 1970.

Upon watching the video, I was immediately curious and moved by the words Elvis shares before the music starts, so I Googled them too, and discovered that they’re from a Hank Williams song.

“You never stood in that man’s shoes or saw things through his eyes or stood and watched with helpless hands while the heart inside you dies. So help your brother along the way, no matter where he starts, for the same God that made you, made him too, these men with broken hearts.”

I found the full version of the Hank Williams song on YouTube and was moved once again by this stark reminder of the destitute place that many broken-hearted men eventually end up.

This version performed by Johnny Cash is also really worth watching.

According to the Autumn 2018 rough sleeping statistics produced by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, a shocking 84% of rough sleepers in the UK are men.

I’m strongly reminded of the work I do with A Band of Brothers, mentoring young men who are in or close to being in the criminal justice system. Many of these young men have never had any experience of a positive male role model and do not know how to help themselves escape from the difficult life situations and self-destructive patterns they’re stuck in.

These men may not be broken-hearted yet but many of them are just clinging on, only a hair’s breadth away from being swallowed up by a system that will either break them or make hardened criminals out of them.

Today I feel strangely connected to a lineage of men, including Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash (who famously performed in Folsom Prison where the remarkable 2017 documentary The Work is also set), who feel a great empathy for their fellow men, their brothers, knowing that while in many ways the scales of our society are tipped in the favour of men, in other ways they really are not.

When loneliness becomes a sickness

I was inspired to write this post by the recent BBC3 documentary Inside The Secret World Of Incels and an accompanying article by one of the men who featured in the documentary, “I used to be an incel”. I was deeply moved by both the documentary and the article and was prompted to reflect on my counselling work with men.

An incel is an Involuntary Celibate, someone who, despite a desire to be in a relationship and/or have sex, is unable to attract partners. People who describe themselves as incels are predominantly heterosexual men, and as the documentary explores, there is a whole spectrum of different types of incel, from thoughtful and sensitive Kissless, Handholdless, Hugless Virgins (KHHVs) who have never been kissed, held hands with or hugged anyone, to those convinced that making themselves more physically attractive will make them more attractive to women (known as looks maxxing), to those driven to stalking and shaming women for their perceived superficiality in only being interested in superficial, physically attractive men.

At the darkest end of the spectrum, “incel ideology” has been linked to four mass shootings in America, and the glorification and deification of the perpetrator of the first of these, Elliot Rodger. Incels meet and support one another in online forums, and there are many of these forums, reflecting the different levels of “inceldom”. The toxicity of the online forums in which openly misogynistic incels hang out is, as one would imagine, profound, as is the way they act as an echo chamber, reinforcing and amplifying the angry and confused ideas and beliefs of the desperate, lonely, alienated men who frequent them.

It would be easy to write this off as a sub-culture of men obsessed with sex and seething with rage because of their failure in this area of their lives. However, this would ignore the complexity of the issue, the way it is driven by digital technology and intersects in complex ways with with both feminism and what radical feminist author bell hooks describes as “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”, a system underpinned by powerful cultural narratives about both male and female identity which is being challenged more and more as gender roles and identities become increasingly fluid.

In my case, writing these men off as sex-obsessed misogynists would fail to acknowledge the deep empathy I feel for men in this desperate position, even those at the more extreme and frightening end of the incel spectrum. I do not condone their behaviour on any level and yet I recognise in them a part of myself, a psychic wound that for most of my life I did not know I had, a wound obscured by the layers of privilege I have taken for granted as a white, middle-class, heterosexual man. As a “new man” I have worked hard to avoid engaging in oppressive behaviour of any kind. However, for a long time I was only dimly aware of the extent to which I was oppressing myself, shaming myself, directing inward a potent but twisted aspect of my masculinity. Beneath this pathological self-control resentment bubbled and boiled.

It seems almost paradoxical that the way out of this dead end was to begin owning my power, my potency and my capacity to take control, to become harder rather than softer, more overtly masculine rather than less, but this has been my experience. First though I had to own my feelings – all of them, not only my resentment, my anger and my rage but also my fear, grief and despair, including my fear of being oppressed, dominated and controlled by women, a fear which I believes wholly underpins misogyny.

Many men may continue to assume the position of “top dog” in our culture, consciously or unconsciously, and defend this position vociferously, but this is only because they’re often protecting a deep sense of shame and a feeling of being the “underdog”. This psychological split is what drives both the male “winners” in our culture and the “losers”. It is only by finding ways to reclaim our healthy, balanced masculinity, one which runs deep enough to connect with these wounded parts in order to integrate them so superficial displays of power and control are no longer necessary, that men will find our true power.

Further reading