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Saturday, 9 March 2013

Passages in Men’s Lives, by Gail Sheehy, Reviewed

I bought this book a short while after its publication (1998), when I was suddenly made redundant at the age of 51 and a few days before Xmas 1999. It was clear I faced some fundamental changes in life and the blurb on the cover promised me help at this difficult time. However, I didn’t actually read it. I found a new job, moved house and settled down to a new phase of life, forgetting the book. That, in retrospect, was a mistake. So, why have I extracted it from the shelves now?

In a few days, 13 to be precise, I will spend my last day at the office where I’ve worked, mostly part-time, for the past 13 years. I’m going to retire. It seemed a sensible approach to prepare myself for this major change and the book still appeared a worthwhile resource. I’m glad I read it. As it happens, my retirement, far from being the negative or fearful phase so many men dread, is for me a welcome event; something I’ve looked forward to for a number of years.

But this book, written largely for an America readership, has given this particular Brit insights into other phases of my life and shown me where I’ve made mistakes and where I’ve been more than averagely successful or fortunate in my life choices.

Gail Sheehy breaks down the passage of a man’s life into various stages. I find myself at the penultimate step she describes as the Influential Sixties. Much of what she says is encouraging and, whilst some of the research she relies on has been overtaken by new findings, her observations mostly remain valid. Men are notoriously reluctant to discuss personal aspects of life, unwilling to visit the doctor when ill, more inclined to bulldoze through difficulties than analyse them through discussion, and prepared to suffer great stress and pain rather than admit to some physical failing that might diminish them in the eyes of their peers or their partner.

Had I consulted this book at the time of that redundancy, when 14 of my fellow workers were also abruptly made the victims of poor company results that were entirely outside our control, I might have avoided the 10 years of ME/CFS that have plagued my last years of employment. The loss of self-esteem and reduction in self-confidence that assails a man under the imposed loss of work is not generally understood by those who’ve never experienced it. I know now that my reaction, submerged by the necessity of going out there and finding another means to support my family, was a period of low-level chronic depression. Untreated, because it was largely invisible to everyone, it ate at my auto-immune system and, with the typical onset of a viral infection, I fell prey to that much misunderstood condition of ME/CFS. Had I acknowledged my depression, had I even allowed it to surface enough to be recognised by my amazing and supportive wife, I might have accepted the need for treatment and spared myself the consequences of submerging my feelings and thereby attracting a debilitating illness. This much I have concluded from this book. And I make it clear and plain here for those men who read this review: Don’t do what I did. It’s not wise, it’s not big, it’s not clever and, more importantly, it’s not the best thing you can do for your dependents.

The author has worked in the field for many years, carried out a huge number of interviews, surveys, discussions and studies. Her words make sense. I found solace, gentle condemnation, understanding, hope and the promise of better things to come through the application of her wisdom. That I came to this advice late and therefore lost some positive experiences is secondary to the fact that I feel, now, much better prepared for the coming years. I was already looking forward to this new stage in my life; a chance to spend more quality time with my wife, an opportunity to really get down to the writing I’ve been engaged in only partially for the past thirty years, a return to my love of image making through photography and, perhaps, new for me, drawing and painting.

There’s advice here for the corporate man, the business tycoon, the blue collar worker, the single father, the professional, the creative man and, indeed, any and every type of man. If you’re still under 40, read it now, before you reach that particular watershed. If you’re past that point, read it now, before you waste more time and poorly-directed effort by going in the more destructive direction most men seem to take when faced with unexpected change. I don’t generally read self-improvement books, which are mostly written to improve the bank balance of their authors, but I’m damned glad I read this book. I can truly say that it has improved my prospects for the future.

I was looking forward to retirement, which Gail Sheehy so rightly says should be renamed ‘redirection’, before I picked up her book. But I now face that change with an improved sense of what I might achieve, discover, attempt and enjoy in the coming years. If you’re a man, I urge you to read this fascinating, insightful and wise piece of guidance to help you through those inevitable changes that occur throughout our lives as men. And, if you’re a woman, I urge you to read it so that you may gain a deeper understanding of what drives and influences a man during those Passages in Men’s Lives.

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