by Paul Elam
Men are more than breadwinners. Much more.
|Seeing his reflection in the lives of all the lonely men who reach for anything they can to keep from going home.
Joe Bob searches his home futilely for a place to store a box of baseball cards he‘s collected since childhood. Everywhere he looks is already packed to the edges with something else. The bedroom closets, all four of them, are choked with enough clothing and shoes to start an EBay business. The ones in the hallway are equally spoken for, stacked chin level with cardboard boxes much like the one he‘s holding, except they haven’t been opened in a generation.
With a sigh he lumbers to the garage and wedges the box in a corner, feeling the sides buckle a little as he forces it between his fishing gear and some power tools. Back inside, something starts to claw at him somewhere in the pit of his stomach, like talons sinking into a small animal. It was the trip to the garage. It was a little too…familiar.
There were two things that all his closets had in common. One, as you know, they were all full. Two, almost none of that stuff was Joe Bob’s. Between wife and kids his home was fully occupied. And it wasn’t just the closets. Everything from bathroom counters to bookshelves to basement was the terrain of others. What remained for him was trying to squeeze in what little he had around the property of those considered to actually live there.
Joe Bob’s heart sank with an intractable sense of the walls closing in around him. It was as though he had become the baseball cards, stuffed into a cardboard coffin and shoved in the corner with no room to breathe. It wasn’t just a shortage of square feet. It was something much more personal; more important.
He thought about the fishing gear. If he were to actually use it again he’d have to replace all the line. By now it was brittle with age and neglect. Somewhere along the way, exactly when long forgotten, the fishing trips just ended. They had been shelved with other childish things that interfered with his duties to provide for a family. His wife was instrumental in helping this along. Any mention he made of fishing, or any personal enjoyment, was met with cold disapproval and not so subtle questioning of his priorities. The few times he didn’t cave in to that he paid for with guilt being tied around his neck like a noose. Eventually he got the point. He might go fishing, but he wasn’t going to be allowed to enjoy it.
As time passed by, so did life in a way. Friends slipped away, personal interests and hobbies became memories. The lack of personal space became a lack of personal identity. Somewhere between the early days and where he stood now his life had morphed into something defined only by automated compliance with the needs, and frequently whims, of others. Eventually he reached a place where he could barely remember that he liked fishing to begin with. He wasn’t sure he could remember liking anything at all.
Not that there wasn’t an abundance of rewards from taking care of his family. He loved his family; would lay down in traffic for them. In the end, though, robotic care taking leaves a lot to be desired. Ask any woman. Rebelling from it is inviting a firestorm into your home. Ask any man.
As you probably know, Joe Bob is an imaginary friend. Rather he is a composite of a lot of men I have known. And while the character is fictional, his story is not. It’s a story not often told, much less in mixed company.
Contrary to popular worldview, men feel. They feel as deeply and profoundly as any woman. If you peel back a mans skin, you find flesh and blood, not gears and wires. Men have wants, needs, desires and dreams outside their role as protectors and providers. They are not whole without these things and yet they all too often surrender them without so much as a struggle.
Many men are Joe Bob; working to provide, complaining little about their lot in life and sacrificing much for the sake of those they love. But sooner or later something gives. It always does.
Joe Bob is average as far as men go. Likely as not he can’t really identify and articulate why the world seems like it is closing in around him. It just is. He doesn’t know that standing up to his wife and insisting she support his taking time for his own interests might solve the problem, or at least lessen it. If he thinks of it at all, he knows such an effort would only result in heated conflict and fishing gear gathering more dust in the corner of his garage.
So he reaches for stuff. He does it without exactly knowing why. A bottle, drugs, violence, even another woman. Anything to feel alive again. He is reaching for the wrong things for the right reasons.
I am not excusing Joe Bob, or trying to say that this explains the worst to be found in some men. What I am saying is that it might indeed explain some of it. And it surely needs explanation. For when all the things Joe Bob reaches for ultimately fail him, he sometimes reaches for a gun. This isn’t a blanket explanation of suicide. Nor would any one thing explain it so simply. But I do know this: People who take their own lives often feel like they are alone.
Joe Bob doesn’t feel like he is alone, he is unshakably certain of it.