Confidence is killing men. The national numbers and statistics on male suicide, show us that we are dealing with a health crisis and have been some time. In the shadow of an even more widespread pandemic, it’s likely that these numbers are being obscured, while mounting responsibility and reduced resources further contribute to the number of those (male and female) who are experience feelings of hopelessness and emotions linked to suicide.
For guys, It seems that we are often at a battle front with ourselves. More restricted domestic situations seem to make us more violent and by nearly any metric increased stress is making us more sick.
While advice is forthcoming, it can often seem outdated or out of step with a radically changed environment in which many contemporary men, find themselves struggling to function and flourish. It seems that the outstanding work of many organisations doing extraordinary work, is not always able to find it’s way to as wide an audience as it should. Considering this I came across a pretty legitimately — ancient piece of wisdom from an unlikely source that gave me pause for thought.
The Art of War is a Chinese text dating back to roughly 5th century BC. The work, as best we know was written in large by to the military strategist Sun Tzu (wiki). These days it more often crops up as recommended literature for those on ambitious business and commerce courses. Aimed at developing “entrepreneurial thinking”. A bit like “How to Win Friends an Influence People” but with aspirational world concurring over tones. So, not really the first place you might of expected to find much nuanced thinking about contemporary male coping and mental health. But you might recognise the particular citation that caught my attention:
“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
It’s a classic of insta-pirational quotes, usually tending to pop up (a little confusingly) in conjunction with an image of a Samurai on enough steroids to make Kurosawa shudder. I can see why upon first read, at best this probably seems like just another (all be-it more ancient and elaborate) way of saying “man up”. At worse it might seem like calculated deception. That’s what I thought too, until I stopped to consider what happened if you changed the setting of the advice, if in a contemporary context it could be a much more helpful way to revaluate some classically male character traits.
To do so I’ve broken it down to look at it’s two main parts, first lets talk about being “weak when you are strong” . Remembering that this text has been wrung at the hands of thousands of years of translation already (so saying it’s open to interpretation is nearly literally the understatement of several centuries) what happens if we substitute a more contemporary term such as ‘humble’ instead of weak here? Rather than the implication that we should appear inferior for the sake of lulling those around you into false security- suddenly we can see a suggestion that we use that “weak” appearance to help share our confidence or security.
Let’s take an example, as a modern guy, there are plenty of every day pit falls, but there are also likely some social situations in which you may feel pretty confident. Indeed thanks to social conditioning there will be those in which you have an out and out upper hand in. Whether at the gym, a yoga glass or at a dinner party you should be mindful and utilise it. Everybody likes to be the charismatic centre of conversation — there’s no harm in that so long as you put it to good use.
Just benched a new record weight? Or pulled off your first back flip? Impressive, most impressive. You’re likely to get lots of conversation flowing on that topic, a lot of it may sound a bit like this: “ Wow — I suck at back flips”, or “I’d never be able to bench that”. Rather than allow the flow of that conversation to sit with you take the opportunity to shift the focus. “You’re training too? That’s great! What kind of things do you do?” At first the example might seem a little forced, or indeed could feel insincere but it’s not. We all struggle with those same issues, recognising them isn’t always easy for ourselves, let alone for another person. In fact, a lot of social cues we’re used to don’t really allow for it. Taking a moment to recognise that insecurity in others and meeting it, is a skill and one all of us could do with more time honing.
While we’re on the topic of dinner parties (of which, nobody is getting invited to any given the current climate, so you’ve got plenty of time to practice in the bathroom mirror) for the love-of-the-gods, let’s stop spending all our effort attempting to get to know people by talking about what they do for work. Instead of asking “what do you do?” Ask “what do you enjoy doing?” It’s a subtle shift, and one that leads us away from a conversation that is for a great many of us is boring and inevitable anyway. Why choose to start there?
Which brings us to the second half of Sun Tzu’s sage suggestion. “…strong when you are weak”. Applying the same logic here, let’s assume our objective is not subterfuge, but to try and appropriately and openly display our more fragile selves to others. We all often feel insecure, or anxious about something — own up to it. “A problem shared is a problem halved” may not be much of by way of mathematically accountability, but I think it’s a reasonable start. Once others recognise that you are nervous, or worried they’ll likely feel more empathetic (no one is aiming for sympathy) and be likely help you to help you out — leaving you with an opportunity to return the favour later.
This idea plays into our concept of sharing confidence when you have it. By learning to share your insecurity appropriately, we prevent it from consuming us, while obtaining first-hand experience of how it feels to have that emotional need respected and recognised. A vital experience if we are to continue to aspire toward doing the same for others when the opportunity occurs. The net result is to make us a more balanced, actively empathetic person.
It’s a small step, but one that has large implications. In the face of what can be feel like truly overwhelming odds, taking a moment to stand back and address our thinking, is an invaluable tactic which can us help continue to move forward one battle at a time.
The information provided here is intended to promote thought and compassionate consideration of the topics included. If any of them have or continue to affect you, it is important to know that there are a wide variety of resources and help available:
The following links come as personal recommendations for those who would like a little extra help reaching out, or indeed who want to aid in assisting others.
C.A.L.M [Campaign Against Living Miserably] https://www.thecalmzone.net/
Mental Health Foundation https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work
Further Reading & Reference
Grayson Perry Descent of man, Allen Lane (2016)
Status Anxiety — Alan De Botton, Penguin (2005)
In the Pockets of Small Gods — Anis Mojgani, Write Bloody publishing (2018)