Over the last few years my life has changed significantly. I no longer run agencies and instead shape culture within large businesses. I no longer work within a hierarchical organisation but am part of a collective of like-minded people. And this change goes far beyond how I earn my money, rather it has forced me to constantly reflect on who I am both as a man and as a person.
For a long time, I believed that the spark for this change was when I found myself as a 'Token Man' at an all-female dinner organised by a friend. For the first time in my life I experienced what it felt like to be in the out-group (which reflects my privilege) and I hated it. I lost my confidence, I was cut off mid-speech and there were conversations happening around me that I had no affinity to. It made me question who I am.
However, after recently re-reading the pre-wedding book my wife, Tina, gave me, I realised that my journey began back on 16th February 2011.
This was the day that Andrea, my kind and loving brother, died of a brain tumour.
In this book, Tina had written, ‘2011 was our annus horribilis. You have always shown strength and I’ve always admired that about you, but I had never seen your vulnerable side. It doesn’t come out very often. All I wanted to do was look after you.’
For my whole life, I had never dared to be vulnerable. Why? Because I am a man and from an early age this has been drummed into me (not by my parents I must add, but rather by society). Robert Webb summed it up well in his book ‘How not to be a Boy’ when he said, ‘When we tell a boy to act “like a man”, we’re effectively saying, ‘stop expressing your feelings.’ And if the boy hears that enough, it starts to sound uncannily like: "Stop feeling those feelings”.’
I see it the whole time with my male friends. It is amazing how seldom we talk about the stuff that really matters and it is clear to see the impact that it is having on society, where men feel safer taking their own lives than acknowledging pain- recent statistics state that 84 men die by suicide every week in the UK.
I truly believe that the best way to make a more equal and a far kinder world would be to totally reframe vulnerability and recognise it for what it is, courage.
Like the courage it took me to do my wedding speech. I can’t tell you how much I was dreading sharing with those people closest to me how much I was missing my brother that day. However, that just made me more determined to make it perfect. By my wedding day I knew every word of my speech and I stepped up to the podium, confident that I would not need the notes I held, except for perhaps at the end when I talked about my brother.
It only took the utterance of a single word, ‘Dear’, for me to breakdown. And when I say break down I mean properly break down – chest sobbing and all. For at least two minutes, I found it impossible to utter another single word. But with physical support from Tina, and a sympathetic audience, I managed to cry myself through reading my speech.
Nobody judged me the day of the wedding.
It made me realise that it is harmful to keep feelings bottled up inside, which is why I still find myself crying quite regularly (and yes, I am crying writing this). There are triggers of course – a song (two songs in particular in fact, Snow Patrol’s ‘Chasing Cars’ and Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’), certain films (e.g. Lion, Earl and the Dying Girl, Wonder, Me before You and did I say Lion?…. wow that one hit me hard) or just running and having time to think (its why even on a cloudy day you will see me running with sunglasses on).
At first, I was crying out of guilt – of not being able to save him (as his big brother that was my job after all), of not spending more time with him while he was going through his treatment and of not telling him enough how much I loved him. Now I just cry because I miss him dearly and wish I could just have one more hug.
Crying has been a fundamental part of my grieving process as well as getting more in touch with my emotions. As with James in his lovely piece (in an earlier post on this blog), grief had humbled me and softened me. And I too like to think it has made me kinder, more living and more generous.
And I am not saying it is easy to be more vulnerable. It’s not, especially as it often means letting the pain in. As a business, we run a session for corporates which is designed to get people to open themselves up from the outset and to be vulnerable in front of colleagues as well as strangers. The way we kick this off is by me telling my brother’s story and how it has inspired me to do what I do. I dread doing it every time and find I still find it emotionally demanding. I still have to check myself before I can speak to stop myself crying and I have still not been able to finish my story with a photo of my brother and I still on the screen (I have to flick back after showing it). But by showing my vulnerability, I can see what an impact it has on those around me and it is amazing to have so many people come up to me and thank me for giving them the courage to open themselves up.
And in no way, do I think I am the finished article. Even writing this has got me to reflect on how I have maybe not been as generous as I should have been in understanding the impact grief can have on others. For too long I have been angry at my Dad for not getting over his grief and for ‘feeling sorry for himself’, when what I should have been doing is supporting him and helping him move through the change curve from depression, through to experimentation, acceptance and ultimately finding ways to move forward positively. And so, today, on this Sunday, I will be visiting him and telling him how sorry I am for not being there for him and simply asking him how I can help.
My brother’s gift to me was in understanding how being more vulnerable has made me a far better person as well as the impact is can have in delivering a better society in which ‘he’ and ‘she’ and ‘they’ can thrive equally. My hope in sharing my story is that it inspires more men to have deeper, richer, more meaningful conversations about vulnerability and to understand the value in opening up, owning your emotions and to start learning something new; because it should not take someone that you cared about most in the world to die for you to understand that being a man is having the courage to share your vulnerabilities.
Should you need help or support Samaritans can be contacted by calling UK & IRE 116 123