Sunday, June 17, 2012

Bob Welch and the quiet desperation of men

The recent suicide of former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Bob Welch was the saddest news I have heard in a long time. I always felt a special bond with his music, starting back when I would play his ethereal Future Games late at night as a college disc jockey, and continuing to the present day: I was just listening to his latest 2012 album Bob Welch Sings the Best Songs Ever Written a week before he died.

We will never really know what led Welch to end his life - that is personal and private. But according to news reports he had recently undergone spinal surgery, had been told he would never recover, and did not want his wife to care for an invalid, a fate that met his own father.

To me, this brings up a deeper point. Men often naturally define themselves around what they "do." It is a survival instinct that goes back thousands of years for us. When early man lost the ability to hunt and gather, it meant the end of his life. To this day, the end of our productive years is often one of the most bitter and lonely experiences men ever go through.

To be blunt, too many men I know have died or disappeared into isolation soon after watching their life's work fade into the sunset: family members, classmates, neighbors, and people in the community. Far too many to be a coincidence in my book. And I have tasted it myself. Leaving corporate life as I neared age 50 - knowing that at my age and salary, I was probably never coming back - was one of the most painful things I ever experienced. It is a deep, spiritual pain that doesn't go away easily, even as you recover financially and move on.

Thankfully I regained my own joy of living again. (I used to joke that the most powerful antidepressant I could take would be a book contract, and there was ultimately a lot of truth in that jest.) Nowadays I can actually thank this experience for what it taught me. Today I am fiercely proud of running a successful business for nearly a decade, and practically militant about the need for men to develop self-employment skills as they age. And when I eventually went back to school to become a therapist, it not only fulfilled a lifelong personal goal, it was in part to have a role into retirement that no one could take from me.

Whatever your gender, we now live in an unprecedented era that treats too many of us as being disposable as we age. I feel this hits men particularly hard, because we have such a long history of being providers. My response to this? Fight back. Understand your feelings and survival instincts. Let them lead you to new paths in life, to counselors who can help you, to the fellowship of others. Your intelligence and talents are often the very reasons you hurt so badly. Don't give up.

And finally, a few words for those who love the men in their lives. Don't gloss over what they are experiencing with pat answers or chirpy slogans. Don't wait impatiently for them to "get over it." And please don't tell them they should just learn to live in the moment like you do. We aren't wired that way. Listen to them and learn from them, and they will tell you what they need.

Rest in peace, Bob Welch.