The Known and The Un-Known

Sure, men are pack animals. But life among the pack is not as simple or one-dimensional as it would appear.

Illustration by Kurt McRobert

So, what are you afraid of telling me?”

I was sitting in a hotel dining room, having breakfast with a friend, and his question had silenced me. He is a man who made money and got famous creating a television show about men who live complex, complicated, compartmentalized lives and all too often end up feeling alone and lonely. Then, seeking to suppress that loneliness, or desperate to crush the realization that they are not truly known, they take evasive, destructive actions.

I stared at my eggs. Runny and tasteless, going cold.

I started to do those things I do when I feel something gets too close to the bone: deflect. Engage in evasive actions. I mumble. Move my hands in tight circles while I speak. A man seemingly trying to pull the words from his mouth, appearing instead to anyone in the dining room like a thirsty man trying to reel a rusty bucket up from a well. A well that’s dark and dry.

My friend had asked me how I was doing. A simple question.

On the surface.

But I stumbled. I stumbled because I caught myself doing that thing — decades into my life — that I still believe I’m not supposed to do in conversation with other guys: go below the surface. To answer honestly. With depth. I stopped myself because… well, because I’ve too often thought one of two things:

  1. Telling the truth about how I am is really just a trap to get me to expose my weaknesses.
  2. Even if it’s not a trap, the question is just a space-filler; he doesn’t really give a crap about how I am.

Here’s what I wanted to tell him: Truth be told, I’m in a bit of a rough patch.

Here’s what I wanted to tell him: truths. Truths that I believed would make me vulnerable.

My friend was right: My fear kept me from telling him the truth. Yet what I knew at the same time is this: telling my truths would allow me to be known.

If it were only that easy.

Look: I don’t purport to speak for the planet’s contingent of XY chromosomes. I can only talk about my own f’d-upedness, the mess that is me. And that starts with this: We all long to be known. To have someone — just one person — truly know us. Too often, though, when that moment, that opportunity presents itself, I recoil. That old maxim, “To know me is to love me” — I always wanted to re-write it: “To know me is to know how to defeat me.”

So, when presented with the chance to be known, I often… stumble. Evade. Shut the door.

Genius.

Do most men lead lives of quiet desperation? I couldn’t tell you. That would mean the majority of guys I talk to share their desperation, fears, and anxieties; talk about dreams deferred; about dreams dissipating. So: quiet desperation? Maybe. But like I say, all I’m qualified to talk about here is me. And for me it’s less a life of quiet desperation than too often one of quiet isolation. It’s not that I feel alone in a crowd; it’s more like I’m feel alone in a pack.

I’ve spent more hours than I can count pondering the pack and its ways. I still don’t fully understand it. And I say this as a guy who has existed for a great stretch of his professional life in the packiest of packs: various male-dominated offices. Part of the reason I held myself back from telling truths to my friend that morning is because there are times, all these decades in, where I still mistake a friend’s one-to-one conversation for just another moment with the pack. Don’t get me wrong. Time with the pack is a blast: a bunch of guys gathering to howl and yap. When it’s great, there’s nothing better. But you have to know the rules: it’s verbal jousting. It’s performative. In short, a caring-and-sharing space it ain’t.

Of course I blame my mother.

Sort of.

I was a boy when my father died, and as a result I was raised in a matriarchy of my mother and grandmother. I got much more comfortable talking with women than with men. If there’s a wiring that is more feminine than masculine, maybe I have it: listening over talking; community over self. And being a man raised in a matriarchy, to this day I feel often that I don’t belong fully in either world; I’m always toggling between two worlds, two ways of thinking and being. Between the matriarchy and the pack. Half the time, I feel I am a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing; the other half of the time, I’m a sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing. And then I end up as I did at that breakfast: not sure if by allowing this other man to truly know me I am going to find companionship or competition. If I will find community (as in a matriarchy) or be perceived by a member of the pack as weak; one more stumbler to be culled, to be cut down.

I found my way through the breakfast. I turned the conversation back to books, back to writing. My friend and I found ourselves talking about what it takes to revise a story. Talking about an exhibit at the Morgan Library, where anyone can behold the disaster that is the first 20 or so handwritten-pages of The Sun Also Rises—the opening two chapters of entirely-forgettable, sounds-like-everyone-else’s crap-voice that the writer eventually cut when he realized he was avoiding what he needed to get to. What he needed to say clean and clear.

“They are awful,” my friend said later. “Inspiringly awful.” He told me, too, that the pages are a reminder that we have to always be on guard for evasive maneuvers.

We — writers, I asked?

“We, friends. Men.”