Stewart Hotston

Hope, Anger and Writing




Or how to make friends with your average man

Men and friendships are quite strange. I’ve been through periods in my life where I’ve struggled to maintain meaningful friendships. Part of this is because many male friendships are based on belonging or taking part in themed activities where the theme is the point, not the friendship.

Consider supporting a football club or golf or Rotary. Think about more rarified clubs like those who do ultramarathons or martial arts or belong to a reading group. Much of the time the nature of the people in the club doesn’t matter – they can be ‘a character’ or stand-offish or aloof or awkward but it doesn’t matter (thankfully) because we’re all here to do the same activity.

This is good because these clubs and social activities give us a route to making social connections we would otherwise not have. And loneliness among men is a chronic problem – and only grows worse as we get older sadly.

For me though, belonging to a club has never quite delivered the kind of relationships I want. The reason? I want to talk deep stuff, want to talk about how I’m feeling. I want to share where I’m scared and where I’m nervous and I want to hear about that for others. I don’t really, always, want to fix stuff even if that’s my go to mechanism in the way society has taught me to feel useful.

This is a problem because society, the way we teach men to be in relationships, strongly suggests that men need to not talk about their feelings and to try to conform to what the majority want. (I’m not saying this is unique to men, just that it’s a design feature of our cultural conditioning here in the UK).

Becoming a father has taught me as much about my relationships as it has about what I want from them. I have thought long and hard about what kind of relationships I wanted with my children and how to foster those and, largely, that’s what I’ve been fortunate enough to develop. I wanted relationships where I could be honest, where I would explicitly trust them and where they could, in return, risk trusting me. I’ve also thought about how I rolemodel other ways of being a man to both of them. For them both I’ve wanted them to understand men can be affectionate, prepared to admit they’re wrong, open about failure and success and capable of being openly excited. This has required me to change how I am as a person and, honestly, it’s been a strange but completely satisfying experience.

I’ve also explicitly set out not to fix every problem. I’ve set out to be someone who they can talk to, can ask for help from but also who will be there as they experiment with the clear message that failure is a normal part of life and, when it happens, we should talk about it, how we feel about it and how we respond both to the failure but also those feelings.

If this sounds sappy…well I don’t think it is. It’s been a hard process to choose that and then live it.

It’s also informed my other friendships. As one of my best friends commented a while back ‘you’re one of the most buttoned up people I know’. They meant, I think, that I keep my feelings to myself.

They are right. I do it because i fear people don’t want to know how I feel, that they see worth in me being capable not in being vulnerable. I fear that I am less likeable if I am expressive of my feelings. All these things are lies I believe in my soul. They are lies I’ve been taught throughout my life and that I see men being taught every day by each other, by women and by society through the stories we consume and the narratives we see across work, politics and daily life.

Of course I want to be indispensable. Of course I want to be a hero to others, to be respected and loved and seen as a pillar. But I’ve also got to reject these things because the way they’re defined is too alone, to much focused on what I do, not who I am in my community.

I’ve talked a lot about community recently as anyone who heard me speak at EasterCon could probably testify. The more I think about what I want from life the more I know it’s community where together we make great things, where together we live a good life and where together we understand our human frailties and accept one another completely.

I’m not losing my individuality but I think that I’m really only me when I’m also part of a community and that is why loneliness is so damaging. Sure, people come in flavours and many love alone time but none of us are uplifted by loneliness.

The cure to loneliness is belonging to a club in the same way that the the solution to being hungry isn’t going shopping. It’s part of it but it isn’t the whole thing. In philosophical terms it’s necessary but it isn’t sufficient.

Belonging is crucial. But belonging is so much more than doing something with someone else.

What I have found is that, largely, when I’ve taken the risk of talking about my feelings and my desires and my hopes and failures with others they talk about those things too. There’s some permission here that we’re all looking for but we too rarely offer one another.

If you have the chance today…try it with someone and see what comes back. It is the first step to building proper friendships.

Men and Anger

This is my second attempt at writing this. The first was a long tedious exploration of my growing up and was getting out of hand. Suffice to say I’m someone who’s been angry for most of their life. Like a simmering background discontent that, very occasionally, gets out of hand completely.

In other words, you don’t need to know all the guff about my childhood – basically like many of those who count themselves as men I’ve experienced the rage inside my own head for a long time now.

I want to start with some truths about (my) anger.

  1. It’s always there. I’m always kind of angry.
  2. Part of me is always ready to take offence
  3. I hate it
  4. I love it
  5. I experience the world as one which thinks anger is evil by definition (the tone policing exemplified by Star Wars of all things (anger leads to hate etc.) just highlights how taboo anger is for our society)
  6. I experience the world as one which has no idea how to safely handle anger
  7. What I get angry it can be both profound and ridiculous at the same time
  8. People fear my anger (not in a good way)
  9. I hate the idea of people being scared of me
  10. For me, anger is often part of an emotional bundle that includes grief, feelings of powerlessness, despair, anxiety and disappointment.

I don’t know why I’m always angry. It’s not the knock someone’s teeth out kind of anger in the same way that being optimistic doesn’t mean I think I’m going to win the lottery. It simply means I’m kind of ready to express anger in the same way I’m ready to see the best in a situation.

I am a bundle of insecurities about belonging, competence, being safe and loved. As such I have a number of pressure points that when pressed result in a tendency for an automatic response involving anger regardless of whether that is ‘reasonable’. Anger is not necessarily an outburst. For some it’s likely to be a shutting down, for others fleeing. For me it’s expressed as resistance, justifying myself, trying to fix a situation and, possibly, looking at how someone else got it wrong.

So I’d say we need to think about anger as something other than shouting and ranting and violence. Public debate has distilled ‘fury’ into meaning just that. We need to reject that narrative if we want to have a useful conversation about anger. Anger is more than that – it’s an emotion that frequently is about protecting boundaries, defensive in its origination even if that drives an offensive response.

I hate my anger because too often defence is where i go first. I’d rather go to understanding, to wise old perspective, but instead I start with being defensive. I hate it because it can stifle a conversation and a relationship, because it can mean people aren’t honest because they fear the consequences. It can mean we literally can’t hear the other person. It can mean we assume the worst of someone who, if we stopped to think about what we knew of them, we’d know the situation was more complex and we needed to be just as nuanced ourselves.

Too often I respond in a binary fashion because I can’t handle the emotions I’m feeling NOT because the situation warrants it.

I also love my anger. Anger drives me to do things. It drives me to protect myself from abuse, from aggression and from bullies. When issues arise that demand a robust response, anger about injustice moves me more than eloquent reasoning.

Capitalism polices anger because it makes it easier to manage people if they’re docile. Anger moves people to reject what doesn’t work for them, makes protests more likely, makes the rich rightly fear (more than they already do). Capitalism works hard to suppress avenues for the expression of anger and dissent. Capitalism HATES dissent which can’t be co-opted into profit.

Politics should be our answer to that – except when it becomes the tool of the powerful. If you want to change a system then a constant low level of anger is better than any other motivator. Anger can be a hunger for justice.

Anger can be good and I love it for that. I’ve acted well numerous times because I was angry. Anger does not obviate reason and nor does it have to be blind. Anger can give us clarity and hope and power as much as it can make us stupid and cruel and dangerous.

The biggest problem I encounter is that there is no space to talk about anger (or other emotions). Angry men are seen as a problem. Angry women just as much to be honest but they’re dealt with by society very differently even if the outcome is the same – isolation, silencing and exclusion.

Partly this is because we’ve let anger become defined by extreme tropes – fury at this and fury at that. We’ve allowed representations of anger to become one dimensional tropes about men violently beating those who cross them. And let’s not even start on how society tries to suggest women can’t feel anger as if a good woman is always placid. Argh.

That is not a debate, that is what suppression looks like.

The biggest challenge for me is expressing anger safely – if such an idea isn’t an oxymoron. When I’m angry I have to find a way to process that emotion. I have to have a way of dealing with it that helps me address what caused it, what I can do about it and then allows me to move on. That moving on might look like dealing with the inciting incident (for example an act of injustice I’m on the end of or have observed).

Not to express my anger is potentially more damaging than expressing it. This is really important to me because the short term expression of anger via rants or attacks can feel devastating to those involved – but I truly believe anger can be expressed without it being damaging. The challenge is in finding space where that can be the case and in building relationships where that can be true.

I’ve absolutely been in relationships where any kind of criticism at all is responded to with anger, denial and an immediate breakdown in the relationship. You can’t legislate for that, only for your own forms of expression.

What does a safe expression of anger look like? Sometimes it’s taking a little time before you talk about it, others it’s about having friends with whom you can express your emotional self who will both listen without judgement and then call you out where you’re being a fool. Friends who can’t be honest with you are not friends and they’re not protecting you, they’re actively harming you. Good friends are mirrors to one another, for support and for challenge.

Safe expression means talking about it until you have the words that express how you feel and why. The first set of reasons and words we get are often not the ones where we settle. Time is crucial here. So is talking and talking and talking.

I think that safe expression about anger is being able to rant when necessary, probably with someone not involved who will let you get it out of your system before you then work with that anger to drive a constructive response.

Finally i think safe expression of anger is about being active. Addressing the situation and making a change.

I’m no psychologist. I’m barely au fait with my own motivations and triggers. But I know that anger left unexpressed is dangerous because it grows and festers and becomes something toxic. That toxicity can become a pattern of behaviour is it very hard to unlearn, especially if learned as a younger person.
I know that anger as talked about in wider society isn’t what i recognise in my own feelings.
I also recognise that anger as talked about in wider society is easy to be scared of and, honestly, it’s the kind of expression too many people have experienced and are, rightly, worried about.

I don’t want to under play the damage that toxic expressions of anger cause. Men do so much damage because they can and it’s not good enough. It’s never been good enough.

My plea here is that there has to be a way to talk about how we’re feeling, and that anger is a normal emotion and should be recognised as such, not suppressed. Men owe it those around them as much as they do themselves to talk about their emotions, to find ways of expressing their anger so that they can do so and still be seen as safe, as loving and as someone who does good.

Anger can be a force for good but in our society it’s been rendered a force of evil and men told they aren’t allowed to express it in any form. Part of that is social conditioning, part of that is, as I say above, our form of capitalism moving to suppress dissent of all kinds; where damage to property is more important to the courts and those in power than the oppression of people.

lastly, an apology – the above doesn’t really feel all that coherent. I could have just written that we need to talk about anger more. I hope it at least shows that it’s a complex subject that we, as people who call ourselves men, need to be more aware of because anger isn’t evil and we have to find a way to accept it’s part of who we are. Central to this exploration are friendships where we have space to talk about our anger, where we can explore it, reflect on it and find ways to make it constructive. The starting point for so many is that anger is absent until it’s entirely uncontrollable, damaging, hurting and destroying.

Men need friends because they’re angry.

On male friendship – what even is it?

This is a tough one. Where do we begin talking about male friendship?

I’m going to try to talk about it candidly. I’m certainly not a guru or an expert which I suspect will come through quite clearly. There’ll be no neat categorisations (although I’ll probably manage to squeeze in a list or two). I also don’t have any idea if the things I want to talk about are things that feature for me alone or for others too. It may be that I get sidetracked here or write more than one post but this is a beginning.

I find friendship difficult. By that I mean that I find the concept of having and being friends one of my heart’s desires but I also don’t really know how to do that. I moved around a lot as a kid. I was also the only brown boy in school (and then at A-levels too).

I remember being told I wasn’t welcome at the only Asian club at University because I wasn’t a Hindu (brought up a good atheist by parents desperate, I think, to integrate).

All this means I don’t really have friends from school (there are a couple on Facebook) and I have a few friends from University but most of the friends I have now are those who I’ve met and built relationships with as an adult. In that sense I have no nostalgia for being younger. My school days were absolutely not the best of my life.

I open there partly because it colours how I see friends, especially as someone who identifies as male. I don’t like watching sport and I don’t like drinking beer. I am, in many ways, that weird nerd whose interests are almost entirely his own.

If friendship is built on shared experience I’m not one for doing the kinds of activities that build it. I love running, reading, movies and writing. I’ve been a good fencer (a sport, sure, but hardly a team one), I love cooking and thinking about things. I also love parties and dancing and eating out with friends.

My friends are all over the place – some are like me in some ways but many aren’t. I’m the kind of person who can, because being a social chameleon was absolutely vital growing up, adapt to most situations but I’m not sure I’m the person you think of first to invite to things, to ask if I’m ok or to include.

Since I’m writing about friendship this is what I want – people who I can pour my heart out to, who I can be silent with, who I can share my failures with and with whom I can laugh, find/offer support and feel safe.

In practical terms I’m fairly rubbish at all of the above. I worry that telling people how I feel will alienate them, I worry that being silent bores them. I am frightened of admitting my failures and because most of life has been one where having space to be me has been lacking…well you can see the direction here.

Add to this the toxic and strained conversation about what being male looks like in the public space and it makes sharing these kinds of experiences and desires challenging.

My experience of the representation of male relationships is that they’re functional or sexual. We work together or we relate to sexual partners too often via ownership language rather than partnership language. i.e. where we come together it’s nearly always in a way that then separates us again.

I remember one baffling conversation with a friend who insisted that the entirety of Frodo and Sam’s relationship should be read in a gay context. When I challenged this (let’s not even start to talk class, trauma, education and the hierarchy of armed forces) by suggesting that men could have relationships as close as Sam and Frodo without it being seen via primarily a sexualised lens they were baffled. I wanted to challenge this because, whatever my sexual attractions I also want to have friendships that are so very deep as they are there. I want to be able to tell my male friends that I love them and for that to be understood for what it means. English is rubbish in this regard. Classical Greek at least has different words for different types of love. That would be far more convenient.

This friend didn’t say they didn’t have male friends like this, but they also admitted they couldn’t imagine it for themselves. My heart dies a little when I have these kinds of conversations.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. I think the difficulties I experience in trying to be me with my friends are extremely complex. What is clear is that I don’t mean being me in the moment but I mean being me over the long term with people who grow to understand my rhythms; the threads which make me. I think these challenges are largely constructed (ie there’s nothing essentialist in them, they’re largely a product of the society I exist within) but that doesn’t make them any less constraining.

The life I’ve led also feeds right into the kinds of relationship I can sustain, the kinds I want and the kinds that threaten me.

So there’s a few subjects I’d like to think about at some other time.

  1. anger and safety
  2. belonging
  3. whether a lack of common identities means we struggle to build meaningful relationships
  4. loneliness among men
  5. transgression and forgiveness
  6. What it’s like being friends with someone who identifies as male
  7. Fatherhood and friendship
  8. rolemodels for friendship among and with male presenting people

This is rather confessional but I don’t think I can talk about these issues without being honest about myself. I hope that’s of some use.

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