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Join or Die FlagThe Gadsen Flag seems pretty popular these days – the flag with a coiled snake and the “don’t tread on me” caption. It has become the symbol of the individual, the independent “me.” There was another flag with a snake on it during the American Revolution, one with the snake divided and the caption, “join or die.” Ben Franklin even said, “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall hang separately.” The individual as a separate self is a distinctly Western concept. But how does it stand up to empirical evidence? Aristotle once postulated that men had more teeth than women, but he did not look in people’s mouths to count to see if his hypothesis actually was correct. In Zen, there is an exercise in which you look deeply into your plate of food and you are able to see all the interconnections back to before the beginning. I use a sheet of plain paper when I do that exercise with people. You could even do it with the screen you are looking at. What is there? There are letters and words, but also whatever the surface is made from, whatever is powering it, all the people who made, sold, shipped, mined material, assembled parts and more to make it, those who worked to feed them, those who grew the food, and on and on back to star dust. Nothing and no one exists independently and all and everything are connected to some degree. Any action you take ripples out like the waves from a pebble tossed into a pond for better or worse with consequences intended and unintended.

Louis Cozolino’s book, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain, is an extensive and remarkable overview of how our brains work, particularly with attachments. Within the first few pages he says, “individual neurons or single human brains do not exist in nature. Without mutually stimulating interactions, people and neurons wither and die.” He goes on to discuss psychopathy in chapter 20 and includes the following:

Think about the characteristics that make for a “good citizen.” We expect each member of society to be aware of and adjust to the needs of others, recognize and conform to shared values, and live by the rules. In most instances, the needs of individuals are weighed against the needs of others and negotiations are established to create the most good for the most people. Antisocial individuals, on the other hand, are a society of one who adhere to the more primitive mandate of individual survival. It is as if they have passed over the eons of social evolution that have selected cooperation, emotional attunement, and being part of a group mind. While thinkers such as Nietsche, Machiavelli, and Rand have extolled the virtues of the Ubermensch (superman) and society even lionizes those who gain prominence and success, selfish behavior has not proved to be a successful overall strategy for group survival. For humans and other social animals, noncooperation and a sole focus on personal survival does not correlate with evolutionary success. (page 339)

I think a more positive and constructive way to function is by showing respect for ourselves and also respect for others and the relationships we all share, and respect for our responsibilities. And unlike Aristotle, we need to count the teeth. We need to look for the empirical evidence and not rely on a paid pundit whether from talk TV, radio, Internet or elsewhere. Researchers found after 9/11 that those who watched less cable news were more resilient and less depressed. Do yourself a favor and turn off those playing to emotions to increase ratings to make sales. You can read about it here and here.

Cozolino’s work is a well researched and well written book that I hope will be widely read. It speaks to all of us on our relationships in this world. [It is also an excellent resource on how attachment theory works on a neurological level, and how we develop secure and insecure attachments.] One concept I have struggled with is the Buddhist concept of “no self.” Mark Epstein’s talk about the spatial versus the temporal self makes a lot of sense to me. We experience ourselves as spatial beings even though we are moving through time and the “self  I was a moment ago is different from the self in this moment. We are constantly changing.  Cozolino takes it further. In order to function in the world, first our brains constructed the concept of “other” and then the concept of “self.” Those constructs enable cooperation, but also competition and egos that fight for supremacy when we lose sight that we all are one and that the “self” is a constructed illusion.  I remember coming across studies in graduate school about how resources last much longer when people cooperate, but when they compete, resources are much more rapidly depleted. One person competing destroys group cooperation, and all are forced to compete to survive, but ultimately, the survival of all is jeopardized and ultimately doomed by that self-centered competition for resources. There is an inherent paradox in those concepts of self and other. We cooperate with those in our tribe and those we perceive to be like us, and compete with those we deem to be different and of another tribe. We tend to forget we are all one tribe and are all in this together. Sensei Corky Quakenbush has written an interesting post on facing conflict with love using the principles of aikido. You can read it here.

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I was recently asked the questions below about male friendships, particularly older male friendships.  I am always hesitant to put people into categories, though I know that is how we are wired. We classify things to simplify our lives. But things don’t fit into neat boxes. There are generally more differences within groups than between groups. When you classify, you get a good idea of the outliers but you miss the rich textures of the variability within groups. There was one thing I forgot to mention when I responded. (A thunderstorm came up so I hit send on the email and shut down quickly, and the person asking the questions was on a deadline, so I had to get them in yesterday.) As we get older, we use both frontal lobes when making decisions rather than one, and we tend to get better at picking our battles. Deciding what is worth arguing about can go a long way in saving any friendship.

 1.  Life, work and family can demand a lot of a man’s time. How important is it for men to maintain a social network?

We are social beings. Friends give us support and comfort when we are hurting, celebrate with us when things go well, and teach us how to get along in the world. They give us someone to talk to and to listen to and accept us for who we are, and can help us get better – and we give the same in return. There are many studies on the benefits of friendships for mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. There are studies that show the increased health problems of all types for those who are isolated and lonely – depression and suicide, cardiovascular disease and stroke, increased stress levels, decreased memory and learning, antisocial behavior, memory loss, etc.

2.  Are there any distinct benefits for men regarding maintaining healthy friendships that should serve as an inspiration or reason for men to put more effort into their friendships?

Typically those with healthy friendships cope better with stress. They have lower levels of heart problems and immune system problems. I got an article in a newsletter today about how social supports mitigate some of the effects of ageism. Women may cope better than men, despite feeling more of the effects of ageism, because they have stronger social supports.  His is a synopsis of the article:

A new report examining attitudes towards ageing in Canada has been published. Revera Inc. and the International Federation on Ageing set out to examine the gender differences in ageing and experiences of ageism in the report titled “Revera Report on Ageism: A Look at Gender Differences.” Researchers surveyed male and females aged 66 and older. According to the findings, Canadian women are more optimistic about the ageing process compared to their male counterparts. Six in 10 women aged 60 years and older reported feeling optimistic about getting older whereas 5 in 10 men reporting feeling positive about the process. Compared to males, females were also more likely to agree with the statement “age is just a number” (47 percent for females, 33 percent for males). The report also examined Canadian older adult experiences of ageism. Interestingly, results revealed that women reported feeling they were treated differently because of their age. Women reported more often feeling ignored or invisible compared to men (46 percent for females, 32 percent for males) and that others have assumed they were incompetent (32 percent for females, 18 percent for males). Researchers suggested that the recorded findings might be connected to differences in social supports. The stronger social connections forged by females may help buffer against the damaging effect of exposure to ageism.

 AUTHOR: Misty Harris

SOURCE: Canada.com, July 3rd 2013

http://www.canada.com/life/Women+embrace+aging+despite+experiencing+ageism+more+deeply+than/8611996/story.html

3. Why do you think men often have trouble bonding with other men or creating close friendships/relationships?

There are a lot of reasons why any person can have difficulty creating friendships.  We learn from those who raise us, usually family, and from the culture we grow up in.  If the culture and/or family says that men are strong, don’t show emotion, are totally independent, must be competitive and win at all costs and trust no one – that doesn’t make for great relationships.  In addition to culture and familial gender roles, the number of variables that affect relationships is almost endless – the attachment style you learn as an infant, whether you trust that people will be there for you, your sense of self including self efficacy, how you define a friendship and what you look for, personal characteristics (like attractiveness, wealth, social status, substance use, communication styles, personality traits, etc.) whether you are more introverted or more extroverted.  I don’t mean shy by that. An introverted person can make friends, they just need more time alone to recharge their energy, while the extrovert may feel very uncomfortable alone for periods of time and get energy from the crowd.  Birth order can have an effect on whom you bond with, as well as your parents’ birth order. There is also the comfort level of friendships with persons of your own gender or with persons of the opposite sex and whatever complications that might arise from either.  There is also the effect of wanting things to stay the same. Friends will support positive change, and realize that at times friendships end or at least change. The need to win, to be one up in the hierarchy, can be very damaging. You may know people who lost friendships when they disagreed with a friend over a political issue (for example the Affordable Health Care Act has had some heated debate) or who lost a friend over religious differences. I think one reason men (or women for that matter) may have trouble bonding with their own gender is getting past the pecking order contest that sometimes ensues.  That can especially happen with the stereotypical male friends of not being able to just be together but to have to be doing something together. That can be great when they help each other get better at whatever it is, but when one decides he has to be the best and win, that leaves the other losing. That is not an act of friendship.  One thing I have noticed in working with fathers is that they sometimes worry about being respected. I remember one dad in particular telling me about the relationship with his son and his worry about not being respected. I asked about the relationship and found that they did things together like fishing and playing ball, they talked to each other pretty easily – the dad was teaching the kid discipline in a nice and gentle way. Turns out dad was worried because his dad taught him by beating him and he thought that was necessary for respect. Somewhere in all that for him fear and respect became synonymous when they are not. We all have unfinished stories, and until we get some kind of completion, we keep repeating them. I think one of the reasons men may have trouble with male relationships is that the first relationship they had with a man was a poor one. For some folks high school never ends and they continually repeat the types of relationships they had as adolescents both in friendships and the work place. Unresolved sexuality issues can have an effect. I sometimes work with gay people and transgender people and lack of acceptance and trust issues they face again affects relationships with others.  There are also issues of proximity. People move a fair amount these days. There are lots of ways to communicate online and by phone, and you can reconnect with people you haven’t seen in a long time. But there may not be the emotional intimacy and honesty that you have in a face to face relationship.

4. How would you encourage a man to branch out and meet new friends, OR how would you encourage a man to improve or build on existing friendships?

Each of us has our own story. I just try to work with the person in front of me and see what can help them to get to where they want to be.  The first friendship I encourage him to look at is the friendship with him self. How do you treat yourself as a friend?  How do you respect yourself as a friend?  What qualities do you look for in a healthy friendship? Do you have these qualities in your self?  In your friendships with others, is the relationship with the other person voluntary, mutual, equal and reciprocal, is there trust so that one can be vulnerable with emotions and still be accepted? Can a person leave the friendship if/when the time arises? Is there mutual respect and what does that mean to you? I would help the person decide which of those two choices in the question he wants to do.  He may even want to try to do both of those to some degree. We would look for whatever works for him, and be flexible and adaptable. And I would encourage him to work on his friendship with himself, for that is the only life long relationship he will have.

We might also look at how do disagree in a respectful way in a conversation. One factor in maintaining memory and cognitive function is to challenge your beliefs – to think critically. It is possible to have good healthy relationships with those who believe differently. That is one way to grow in this life. Part of that is looking at self talk as well. I think to have a good relationship with others, you need to have a good one with your self. And realize that it is always a work in progress.

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