Men Done Got The Blues

This month’s issue of GQ had a fascinating but very depressing article on the fate of men in the military. Not just enlisted men but the average Joes that were in the National Guard. These men were firefighters, cops and non-professional soldiers who were sent off to war. Those who were not killed came home to face unforgiving spouse who, in some case, left their men 90 minutes after their return. Men have it very tough these days.

No matter how good you have it and no matter how lucky you are, you always think you deserve better. It is a curse. A philosopher once asked whether one would rather be a happy idiot or a tortured genius. It is clear to me at this stage of my life that it is better to be a happy idiot. The pangs of self-awareness carry with them the knowledge of one’s mortality and the sad thought that literally nothing we do and nothing we say, and no matter what life we lead none of it matters in the least.

The men fighting for our freedom certainly think they are doing something that matters, and they are in a general sense. But what is their reward? Pain, mental illness, divorce.

What does it mean to say that we, as individuals, “matter?” We delude ourselves into thinking that our lives are significant, no matter what the evidence is against us. We watch It’s a Wonderful Life and console ourselves with the thought that we mattered to a lot of people, and that many people’s lives would be different if we did not exist.

This is self-delusion. Many people may be better off, but many may not. And no matter how hard we try to get an identity, for the most part we fail. We spend our whole lives deluding ourselves that our lives matter. We don’t. Your spouse would have married someone else, had children with someone else and their lives would have gone on blissfully, but slightly different, had we never existed.

In the movie About Schmidt, which contains Jack Nicholson’s best acting performance bar none, there is a scene near the beginning of the movie after Schmidt has retired. He is leaving the office for the last time, having served a veritable lifetime at the company, having given his life for his work. Did it matter? As he is walking out of his office, having come from his retirement party, he sees all of the stuff he has worked on already stuffed in a pile in a corner of a storage room. His whole life, his whole career, was essentially a pile of paper that his company could not get rid of fast enough.

Thoreau said that men lead live of quiet desperation. Did he purposely refer to “men” rather than “mankind”? Yes, in my opinion. Men have it peculiarly bad in today’s world. As boys we grow up in school, where many of us are over-medicated, misdiagnosed as having some attention disorder and are virtually ignored. We are sacrificed at the altar of political correctness, even in our younger days. We are cops, firefighters and soldiers that are doing right for the world and right for society. But there is little reward and often a lot of pain for their good deeds.

For our troubles men get stigmatized. We get movies that routinely have men as villains. We die ten years earlier than our female counterparts. We get completely hosed in divorce proceedings. We are told that we have to sacrifice our lives, our youth and our manhood for our families. We have very few outlets within which to alleviate our quiet desperation. We have sports and we have activities such as bowling and cigar smoking that are unabashedly male-oriented but also marginalized by society.

And how sad is it that we have to root for a logo or for laundry worn by our sports teams in order to avoid facing our true destiny. How utterly depressing that a game won by men we do not even know and who will not even be on the team in a few years is cause for joy? Yet we have to live vicariously through these men who were blessed in ways that we cannot imagine and who we envy. Why do we even care if Derek Jeter hits a home run? Because it is better to think about that than to think about our general state of affairs.

Do we even matter? That is a question that is left for the universe. In my office I have a picture of Earth as photographed by the Voyager spacecraft as it passed Pluto. Carl Sagan pointed out how small and insignificant we are. He described it as the “little blue dot.” He may as well have called it the infinitesimal blue dot.

No matter how important we think we are and no matter the fate of mankind, the world will go on and as a species we will have mattered almost nothing to the entire universe. We have fought wars, murdered innocent babies and nascent human lives. We have subjugated our equals, and for what? To have a bigger piece of something that is so small as to be like an atom as compared to infinity? So that we can feel better about ourselves at the expense of our neighbors? So that we can at least think to ourselves, “sure, my life is one of quiet desperation, but at least I have it better than my neighbor?”

We should be angry men.

Our work lives are boring, uninteresting, mind-numbing and completely without purpose or meaning in 99% of cases. Yet we are told that we should appreciate the good side of it. What is that, exactly? Money? The ability to have nice, material things? To do better than the Joneses? Is that what our life’s work is as men on this pale, blue dot? Why would anyone care at all about material things? It can only be so that I can feel better about myself in comparison to others. And those of you who wear Rolexes and expensive watches know damn well that it is only so that you can show it off; to make yourself feel better by comparison.

The opening scene to Chaplin’s Modern Times sums it up best. In the opening scene we see a herd of sheep. The herd morphs into a mass of men going down into the NYC Subways at rush hour. Work, commuting and the whole structure of our daily lives is dehumanizing. Those fleeting things that we hold dear; those fleeting branches we grasp for in desperation as we careen down the raging river of life, hoping to grasp some meaning are dehumanizing. As Chaplin so rightly analogized, we are sheep and completely dehumanized by the world and the pressures placed on men.

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