Go to your room, and think about what you did.
I smiled the other day when I heard this interpretation of the Covid19 crisis — Mother Earth is sending us all to our rooms to think about what we did.
It’s a plausible reading; there are certainly environmental causes and effects of the pandemic. And it’s funny to think of all 7.8 billion of us being reduced, for a moment, to a couple of toddlers who need a timeout.
But why stop at our treatment of animals and the environment? The injunction to “think about what we did” is an opportunity for broader reflection.
I credit the writer Eve Ensler, randomly, for waking me up to the power of apology. I heard her being interviewed by podcaster Marc Maron about her latest book, The Apology.
You don’t have to go listen to the entire interview. (And as a trigger warning, the childhood abuse she recounts is intense and disturbing.) But I’ll say this much, the interview changed my life.
Ensler was the first person who explained to me the concept of “toxic masculinity” in a comprehensive, nuanced, sincere, non-judgmental way which allowed me to place myself quite easily along its spectrum. I had previously dismissed “toxic masculinity” as drunk frat boys, or a football player accused of rape, or demeaning comments about women online.
Ensler alerted me to less dramatic features, some of which landed instantly — and uncomfortably — in my own understanding of myself and my past.
One was, boys starting to cut off from their emotions either before or during adolescence. Another was the need always to be right, always to have an answer or solution. Still another was the taboo against showing weakness or vulnerability.
All three applied to me, without question.
And, just as clearly, there were consequences.
Not knowing my own emotions, not being willing to admit vulnerability or the need for help, not knowing fundamentally who I was or what I truly cared about … this state of affairs, from a young age onward, caused actual pain not just for me, but for people I loved.
I’m not going to identify the people who were hurt. They can look forward to apologies next time we meet up or correspond. I’m guessing apologies are best done privately.
But I can point out that the overall combined effect of the Ensler interview and the Covid19 hiatus — and frankly the midlife ruminations of a 51-year-old Mr. Mom whose kids are growing up and starting to move on — it all had the effect of making these last two months a good opportunity to go to my room and think about what I did.
I was never religious. If I had been, maybe I would have done confession and atonement earlier. I did dabble in 12-step recovery, but with the emphasis on “dabble.” I stayed sober a long time, but never made a searching and fearless moral inventory. I never made amends.
It’s okay. I’m 51, not 81. There’s time, probably.
And it’s not all sackcloth and ashes. The process of stopping to think about people I hurt or let down doesn’t have to be uniformly grim, debasing, or embarrassing as fuck. What I’ve found so far, even just from early tentative efforts, is the opposite. There’s humor and joy on the other side. There’s a lightness of being which comes from the act, no matter how the apology is received.
After all, the point of the apology is not to earn immediate forgiveness. How the listener responds is ultimately up to that person. But apologizing also frees me. Maybe it’s a mode of masculinity I can actually believe in and aspire to.
I have written before about my favorite Mark Twain quote — “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.”
I never knew why this line appealed to me so much, apart from it just being funny.
Now I see it addresses one of the toxic components Ensler delineated — the need always to know, always to have an answer.
In daily life, I can’t always remember the Twain quote correctly, so for my shortened version — which I use when the kids ask me something about English literature or U.S. history, or about almost anything really — comes from another hero of mine, my father Tom Troyer.
He is 86 now, still living with my mom in Maryland, where I grew up. He was always delightfully, energetically, eloquently profane in his household communications on any topic.
Nowadays, when my wife or kids come to me for an answer I don’t have, I channel my dad. I tell them frankly and honestly, Beats the living shit out of me.
That too is a model of masculinity I can sign up for.