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How My Toxic Stoicism Helped Me Cope with Brain Cancer

Under normal circumstances—e.g. in a time when the American Psychological Association (APA) has not released guidelines questioning whether norms associated with “traditional masculinity” (e.g. stoicism) are harmful to the mental health of men, and a shaving commercial is not being run that criticizes “toxic masculinity”—I would be reluctant to publicly share a story of personal adversity that, as a sometime aficionado of existentialist philosophy, I know I must ultimately face alone.

But in the spirit of opening up, here goes.

I have brain cancer. Not the kind that killed John McCain, Ted Kennedy, or Beau Biden. At least not yet. I am afflicted with a low-grade glioma (specifically, a grade-2 infiltrative astrocytoma). My neurosurgeon informs me that experts do not distinguish between benign and malignant brain tumors. Instead, they distinguish between low-grade and high-grade tumors, the point being that all brain tumors naturally progress to death. There is no cure. High-grade simply gets you there faster. In the words of one study, “all low grade gliomas eventually progress to high grade glioma and death.” In short, barring some unforeseen circumstance like a plane crash or another mortal illness, I will die of brain cancer. It’s only a matter of time, unless researchers suddenly discover a cure. It could be one year. Two years. Five years. Twenty years. But according to this study, the average life span of someone with a low-grade glioma is seven years.

Of course, few people know when they are going to die. But for many, a diagnosis of brain cancer understandably comes as a devastating shock. A gut punch, a first step on a long walk into deep, dark depression. In this predicament, good news is learning that you have a few more years to live, not that you have been cured. News like this is not easy to live with. It does have the advantage of forcing you to take stock of your life and not waste time. But it comes with the overriding disadvantage that death is ever present in your mind. You know it’s coming. It’s no longer an abstraction lurking somewhere in the far-off future. It’s real, and it’s coming sooner than you’d like.

Yet, when I first received the call from the neurologist, my immediate reaction was to congratulate her. A few months earlier, I went into the emergency room with flu-like symptoms and seizure-like spasms. A CT scan revealed a lesion in my brain. The doctors diagnosed it as an “old stroke” but they could not figure out why a man under 40 with low blood pressure and low cholesterol, who had no loss of speech and full muscular control over both sides of his body, had suffered a stroke. Several tests revealed inconclusive results. I went to see a second neurologist a few weeks later. She also ordered a battery of tests that revealed inconclusive results. Perplexed, she suggested that I get regular MRIs to monitor my brain and be on the lookout for any developments.

When the results from the first MRI came in, she was able to determine, after consulting with the radiologist, that the lesion was a low-grade brain tumor. She called me immediately, only an hour or two after the MRI, leaving an urgent message on my voicemail, telling me to interrupt any meeting she was in. I called back when I got to work and settled into my seat. The receptionist connected me.

“Make sure you’re sitting down for this,” she said, and informed me that I had a brain tumor.

I received the news calmly. I felt no panic.

“Congratulations,” I said. After months of inconclusive tests, she had figured out the cause of the lesion.

I subsequently saw a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Two weeks later, I went under the knife and was fortunate to undergo a successful surgery. By successful, however, I mean the surgeon achieved a “nearly full” resection. That is, he got as much of it as he could. As noted, the specific tumor was diagnosed as a grade 2 infiltrative astrocytoma, meaning that the cancerous cells have long synaptic connections that extend into healthy tissue. As the neuro-oncologist informed me during a post-surgical consultation about a month or so later, it’s impossible to remove every cancerous cell.

Now I go in for a routine MRI every three months. The first MRI revealed an area of hyper-intensity that was concerning, but a subsequent MRI two months later revealed that nothing had changed. I’m okay for now. I await the next MRI.

* * *

During this ordeal, not once have I cried. Not once have I felt depressed, anxious, or out of sorts. Not once have I felt a need to seek therapeutic help. On the morning of surgery, I worried more about losing cognitive abilities if the surgery went awry than I did about death. One of my sisters commented that I was so calm she thought the doctors must have given me a Valium. I was, in a word, stoic. I think about Hamlet in Act 5, exhibiting a quietist, contemplative air, inclined to philosophize with a gravedigger and marvel at poor Yorick’s skull as the gravedigger breezily went about his morbid business. Indeed, a friend from high school, now a professional psychiatrist who I had dinner with two nights before my surgery, remarked how impressed he was with my “anxiety management” and “philosophical” attitude.

In sum, I confronted adversity with the kind of attitude that now seems to have come under scrutiny, even criticism, in the APA’s new guidance document, which cites research suggesting that “the study of men need[s] the same gender-aware approach” that has been applied to the study of women, and that “[t]he main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.”

As a former undergraduate philosophy major, I have studied my fair share of Freud, whose theory of psychoanalysis, according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, is partly responsible for the “folk theory” that repressing emotions is bad and expressing them is good, one of the two “dogmas” Pinker identifies as underlying the new APA guidelines. As a professional economist and CFA charter-holder, I have also studied my fair share of behavioral economics, which has fruitfully incorporated insights from psychology into the study of economic decision-making. Nonetheless, I am not a psychologist. Thus, it is not my place to provide a professional assessment of the state of psychological research on “traditional” masculinity.

Yet I find myself disheartened by this new APA report. As one Twitter thread argued, the report implies: “Biology doesn’t matter. Neuroscience doesn’t matter. Thousands of years of evolution doesn’t matter. Everything gets reduced down to gender ideology: Power, privilege, & sexism. These are the defining problems of men, especially traditional men.” Indeed, social justice ideology infuses the report. Aside from using typical social justice buzzwords such as privilege, oppression, cisgender, gender bias, patriarchal, heteronormative, intersectionality, and micro-aggressions, it begins by noting that “[i]n the past 30 years, researchers and theorists have placed greater emphasis on ecological and sociological factors influencing the psychology of boys and men, culminating in what has been termed the New Psychology of Men,” so that, for example, “socialization for conforming to traditional masculinity ideology has been shown to limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict.” The very first guideline leads with the headline: “Psychologists strive to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural, and contextual norms.”

The guidelines do acknowledge that they may not be applicable to every professional and clinical situation” and that they “are not definitive and are designed to respect the decision-making judgment of individual professional psychologists.” Nonetheless, I worry that the social justice movement has imbued “traditional” masculinity with an ideological taint that focuses on social-cultural-historical “constructs” as sources of oppression and marginalization (as the Catholic school kids from Covington, Kentucky learned this past weekend).

But when I think about how I have managed to develop a healthy perspective about brain cancer, which has helped me continue to live a happy and productive life and not succumb to anxiety and depression, I have stoicism to thank. I touched on this before in an essay on why I am a man who chooses not to cry. I argued that emotional restraint is not the same as emotional repression, a distinction that seems lost in the emergence of “toxic masculinity” as a prominent theme in the culture wars of the 21st century (as we see in the controversial Gillette commercial and the new APA guidelines, but also in social media memes, in therapy sessions, in lecture halls, in university seminars and workshops, and in a freshmen orientation session at Gettysburg College).

Loosely speaking, “toxic masculinity” refers to a specific assortment of conventional attitudes, behaviors, and taboos associated with masculinity that are deemed toxic to the relations between men and women, and also detrimental to the mental health of men. But as with many ideas that gain traction in the social justice movement, “toxic masculinity” can be hard to define, particularly as the notion gets commandeered by new-wave feminist movements. Its definition can vary depending on the purpose or agenda it serves (even origins can be hard to trace—did it originate as part of a men’s organization modeled on the 12-step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous or as part of the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement?). But without encountering too much disagreement, one can begin by defining it as an outward display of competitiveness and aggressiveness in male social behavior that goes beyond healthy competition and assertiveness, and that such cutthroat aggression stems from emotional repression.

Indeed, the APA’s guidelines explicitly associate “traditional masculinity” with stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression. But is emotional restraint toxic? Not necessarily. The Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece equated virtue with a mastery of emotion in the belief that passions cloud reason and undermine the mind’s pursuit of logos, or universal reason. For the Stoics, a good life is inseparable from a vigorous and successful effort to restrain the play of emotions. Self-control is fundamental to happiness, where happiness is a kind of equanimity in the face of life’s adversities. This is not unlike the ethical view of 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who argued for a conception of human happiness that depends crucially on the restraint of emotion (properly conceived). But there was nothing inherently male-centric in the Greek Stoics and Spinoza’s ethics. Though they lived in male-centered societies, one would be hard-pressed to argue that stoic equanimity is a virtue that is only available to men.

* * *

In my essay on choosing not to cry, I point out that the Gettysburg College orientation session treats freshmen to a documentary titled ‘The Mask You Live In.’ A trailer for the documentary begins with former coach and NFL football player Joe Ehrman saying that the “three most destructive words that every man receives when he is a boy is when he’s told to be a man.” In sketching out what it means to “be a man” in our culture, the trailer shows a clip from an interview in which a boy says that “if you never cry, then you have all these feelings stuffed up inside of you and then you can’t get them out.” The trailer immediately cuts to a segment in which a psychologist and educator named Dr. Niobe Way claims that boys have “bought into a culture” that doesn’t value certain behaviors because they have been “feminized,” and that a culture that doesn’t value relationships, empathy, or caring will generate a society of boys and girls who go “crazy.”

Her comments are interspersed with headlines of stories about acts of homophobia and bullying, as if to imply that the alleged disparagement of “feminized” behaviors like empathy and caring directly leads to destructive social outcomes. The video cuts to segments in which boys talk about being prone to violence or suicide because of unresolved anger issues. In their telling, to “man up” and not cry, or even to not talk about emotions, is regarded as harmful and contributes to a host of social problems like suicide and homicide. In short, to “be a man” in our culture is to be a victim of “toxic masculinity,” and none of it is good for men or society.

But if a boy does cry, is he less likely to get into trouble later in life? Is he less prone to depression or suicide? Of course not. There are multiple factors in the long causal chain that can lead to a dysfunctional life. These factors depend on the specific genetic endowments, personalities, and environmental circumstances of each individual man. Dysfunction is a feature of both sex (the biological reality of being born a male) and gender (cultural attitudes about what it means to be a man). It also reflects the relentless interplay between genetic predispositions and social, cultural, political, and economic influences. For example, as I have written about here, here, and here, the last half-century has seen a material decline in labor force participation by prime-age men, which raises an important question of whether the declining mental health of males in the 21st century is a function of “toxic masculinity” or larger economic forces.

The point remains, however, that crying does not eliminate a congenital reticence or moodiness that may be molded and reinforced by an unstable upbringing (or structural changes in the economy). Moreover, trying to alter a congenital reticence may hinder an introverted boy’s quest to discover and accept who he is, or inadvertently cast a value judgment on the more laconic culture of a place like New England. In each case, a boy who is less inclined to be emotionally expressive may be made to feel guilty when instead he should be proud of his biological or cultural identity. It is possible that some boys conditioned by congenital introversion or a more reserved culture may benefit from intervention by mental health professionals who may encourage more emotional expression. But it does not necessarily follow that these boys have been conditioned to devalue emotional expression because they have been exposed to a masculine social construct. Some boys are reticent by nature, and some cultures may not be as expressive as others. Tolerance for emotional expression should not be accompanied by intolerance for emotional restraint.

As a man who believes wholeheartedly that mental health is a serious and under-appreciated discipline, I fully support the effort of any man, or woman, to come to terms with anxieties, complexes, traumas, and other emotional vulnerabilities, either with family, friends, or mental health professionals. At the same time, I would emphasize again that restraining emotion is not the same as repressing emotion.

Like the Stoics or Spinoza, I view the passions as a distraction from the rational quest for equanimity in the face of life’s adversities. In my experience, I feel worse after crying. The same hardships remain. Crying amounts to little more than a stormy emotional interlude that delays resolution of a conflict. The emotions pour out in a massive heap of confusion without the pilot of a rational mind to steer the ship and point in the direction of clarity and understanding. I think it’s possible that a social stigma against crying can give rise to emotional repression, and that may undermine some men’s psychological health. However, I also think it’s possible that crying can be as traumatic for some as it may be cathartic for others. Telling one man it’s okay to cry may make him feel better, but telling another may make him feel worse.

The APA’s new guidelines claim that “traditional masculinity ideology discourages men from being intimate with others and is the primary reason men tend to have fewer close friends than women.” This is news to me as someone who can count about a dozen “close friends.” All of those friends, and others, offered a great deal of emotional support when they learned I had brain cancer. But I invariably told them not to worry. For me, a healthy and happy life is one of emotional restraint in the face of life’s adversities. Dealing with brain cancer has been no different.

 

Jonathan Church is an economist and and writer. His publications can be found at www.jonathandavidchurch.com and you can follow him on Twitter @jondavidchurch.

73 Comments

    • Daniel says

      Dear Jonathan,

      I know you haven’t written this article in order to elicit reader sympathy, so I will just say my sympathy goes to us all because everybody at this or that time, to this or that degree suffers in this mortal coil.

      Second, your story is a textbook example for the personality trait that research psychologists call Resilience. Everybody has an Anxiety/Defense “center” in our brains and in some people it triggers less easily, less severely, and less often (Resilience); in others it triggers more often and/or it last longer (Neuroticism). In the very unlucky people the anxiety circuit and its biological trigger is such that it gets frequently stuck in the On position – those are the people who have various Anxiety Disorders.

      Personality research supports the view that the type of anxiety trigger one has is largely hardware determined. We shape and form our software around this and because the hardware is persistent our core software (Personality) is also something quite persistent. (No amount of talk therapy will change your personality but a stroke might and that is indeed what is observed).

      For someone like you who is high on Resilience, Stoicism can be enough. You may have no need for (other) coping behaviors. Someone high on Neuroticism cannot help but develop a variety of strategies and antidotes for their anxiety. Which coping behaviors works best for them will depend on their other hardware traits. For some, crying is a great antidote to low mood and anxiety – it makes them immediately feel better. Others get a boost from socializing, or often combination of the two.

      For someone like me for whom socializing doesn’t give a boost, anger is a great antidote. I feel 10x better when I’m angry and in a low mood then just in a low mood (Just ask Henry Rollins).

      Thinking is another coping strategy that I use. When my attention is fully in the thinking side of the brain, I lose track of my anxiety and depression. There is no attention in that part of the brain that generates that low mood. It’s not perfect but I have a little temporary escape.

      To concluded my thoughts in reaction to your article, if APA is saying that coping strategies preferred by certain personality types are better (for whom?) then the strategies employed by other personality types, what they are saying is bad: They are, in effect, saying this personality type is better than that personality type.

      However, if what they are saying is: Listen, Mother Nature does not treat her children equally, we all fall somewhere on the bell curve(s). For those men and boys who are NOT endowed with high Resilience, non-traditionally male coping skills should be added to the mix. Everybody regardless of their other hardware features (e.g. gender) should feel free to choose the best mix of software for their unique hardware.

      If APA said that I would be 100% behind them.

      And thanks, Jonathan, for sharing your story. We need to study our differences and how these important brain mechanisms work (so we can eventually hack them and improve them)! If you haven’t done so please consider sequencing your DNA and donating your data for research purposes. (I’ve done this myself – Harvard PGP).

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, I recently lost a sister in law to brain cancer, under a socialist,European, health system, she had to wait 3 weeks for an appointment with a GP in order to get referrals to the hospital, 6 months for the referral to get to a brain scan, and when a specialist finally got to see her, the diagnosis was, if we caught it sooner, we could have operated, but it’s too late now, you only have 6 months to live.

      She was very stoic for the sake of her husband, children and grandchildren. I genuinely think some people of both genders have been raised with values the intersectional Marxists seek to destroy the people who are decent. For the moment they will defend those who cannot bear the sound of clapping hands?

      As the grandma of five little grandsons I constantly fear for their future. I will pray for you and your recovery, for your bravery, for your peace and everlasting life xxx.

  1. Ginger says

    The APA guidelines sound more like polemic/editorial than an exercise in evidence based medicine. And even supposed evidence-based psychology is in crisis due to poor replicability of well-known psych studies. To maintain credibility as a discipline, psychologists should demand that the APA avoid involving itself in modern social activist rhetoric and return its focus to serious scholarship and evidence-based ways to improve people’s lives, such as via CBT.

    Thanks for the article, and I hope you get well.

  2. Daath says

    Rigid adherence to extreme forms of traditional masculinity is undoubtedly harmful, but so is being rigid and extreme about anything. Moreover, mood disorders are more common in women, and although men kill themselves more often, women lead in attempted suicides. The idea that men would be better off by dealing with their emotions in a feminine way is rather dubious. I have no issue with people advocating for that hypothesis, but it’s a whole different story when they attempt to hammer it down as a dogma.

    Then they lament about how people don’t trust experts anymore. I’d actually prefer if they did, but being granted trust carries with it a heavy responsibility not to abuse it. Right now, these ideologues are abusing it, and badly.

    • “Rigid adherence to extreme forms of traditional masculinity is undoubtedly harmful”

      Why???

    • Angelo Deboni says

      Well said. I think in general there’s been an effort to “subdue” men. Repressing things like anger, aggression and pride. All subtle, but the Gillette ad and Hollywood are being more overt about it.

  3. Megan says

    Thank you for this article.

    “…For the Stoics, a good life is inseparable from a vigorous and successful effort to restrain the play of emotions. Self-control is fundamental to happiness, where happiness is a kind of equanimity in the face of life’s adversities…”

    I am female and have recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Having pondered these questions myself, I have arrived at the exact same conclusions.

    And although social norms regarding expression of emotion are different for women, I believe we can all benefit from exercising emotional restraint when the circumstances require it.

    Emotions can be misleading. You can’t – and shouldn’t – always trust your feelings. And you can definitely learn to control and restrain your response to them.

    I wish you the best of health and lots of courage for your treatment. Thank you.

    • People seem to forget that anger is also an emotion. Men tend in general to direct anger outwardly whilst women direct inwardly. So that male ‘aggression’ and violence they slag is actually a failure to restrain one’s emotions. Not that logical consistency can be expected from these people.

      Strong emotions actually hijack the reasoning side of the brain. Flight or fight trumps conscious behavior and panicking nearly always makes a person’s situation worse. I’d say that emotional restraint is more needed than ever.

      And to both you and the author of this articles, my sympathies, and I hope you win your battles vs cancer.

      • @DM
        By your reasoning, with which I concur, male emotions are more valuable than female emotions.

        Eg. A man will lose his temper and physically protect his wife and children. A woman will blame herself, seek therapy and remain in danger along with her children.

        • Iayana Rael says

          I’m a heterosexual woman. I behave the way you say men behave. Many women do. Generalizations are generalizations. Thanks.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Taken too far, though, and you end up with Ted Bundy and his belief that feeling guilty (for clear wrongs he did to others) is a weakness.
      Feelings are what humans do; some are very sensitive to them, others hardly at all. Emotions can be misleading, but they can also bring ecstasy, joy and triumph. The reality is the stoic feels the same emotions, just reacts differently to them.

      • Iayana says

        Feeling an emotion is not the same thing as being in touch with that emotion in a healthy way. I have known people who felt being in touch with their emotions would be a weakness, and who acted in kind, protective, loving ways.
        I didn’t know there were “male” and “female” emotions.

    • Angelo Deboni says

      I’m sorry to hear about your diagnosis. I would agree with you, my wife is very stoic although I’m sure she’s never heard the philosophy behind it. She gives me strength by her pragmatic and stoic approach to difficult issues. I think what this allows is that we pass through difficulties with our sense of self and our pride intact. This seems essential to learn from, and move on from difficulties. You would want to come out better (mentally) on the other side, not worse.

  4. Sean S says

    Just someone argues about left or right, it is the left who is evil right now, and historically as well. Look at the history of Democrat party.

  5. George says

    I always thought crying was more about drawing attention to yourself, rather than a release of emotion. i.e. a symptom of narcissism, the opposite of stoicism, maybe not the appropriate example I’m thinking of. I have always experienced that sometimes controlling ones emotions amongst the company of others was difficult, however, step into a private room, and then expressing ones emotions became difficult, and the need to disappears.

    • Emotional outbursts are often a way to deliberately manipulate others. Similar to a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. Actually, it is easier to express one’s emotions once they are under control because then you are allowing the reasoning and verbal part of your brain to function.

    • Kim Farry says

      Crying over the joy of your first born or your daughter’s marriage. Maybe a hard worked success.I cryed in war and when I can home from war. The tragic loss of a loved one.

      “Crying amounts to little more than a stormy emotional interlude that delays resolution of a conflict.”

      Live with your Stoicism.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Wailing or public crying almost always is an act of virtual signaling or wanting others to attend to you.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      So you all think crying is a sign of weakness and a manipulative play for sympathy? Wow. And you boneheads somehow cannot understand why people think your behavior is toxic.

      You probably think all women secretly like to be objectified and bullying makes boys tough.

      • Diana says

        Women do like to be objectified. Do you think we would be concerned with looking good or wearing revealing clothes if all men were blind?!

      • A comment completely devoid of empathy, strangely enough.

      • Paul Peterson says

        I believe he means to show that there is individuality in showing emotions that should be understood and accepted. Everybody deals with their personal crises in life differently. Stoicism is his. To him emotions are not as important as they might be for others as i believe is the case he is trying to make.

    • Angelo Deboni says

      Very true. I found I felt weaker after crying. Especially in front of people. I’ve had girlfriends who later used that weakness to hurt me. You can’t assume the people you cry in front of have only good intentions. At the end you need to overcome things, alone.

  6. E. Olson says

    Great article that could not have been written by a person given the disappointing news about a brain tumor who consequently goes to pieces crying about the unfairness of life. Most explorers didn’t find anything or didn’t return, most entrepreneurs and inventors fail, most athletes never win a championship, most musicians never have a gold record, and most children will never be president, chairman of the board, or CEO, but “toxic” masculinity is what keeps mostly males striving for great successes that frequently provide societal benefits despite long odds and potentially catastrophic personal reputation failure, physical/mental injury, or even death. Similarly, I want a stoic Larry Bird to shoot a potentially game winning 3 pointer, and I would certainly want a stoic doctor doing surgery on my brain. Best of luck in your continued treatment and thank you for your stoic contribution.

  7. Morgan Foster says

    After years of watching groups of women interact with each other, I find it striking how often a woman will use tears to manipulate her peers in order to gain advantages for herself.

    Do women really want men to use this same behavior against them?

    • El Uro says

      @Morgan Foster, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Both sexes have their weapons. Men use aggression, women use manipulation. Get used to live with it.

      • Morgan Foster says

        @El Uro

        So helpful when someone advises me to get used to something. Thanks.

    • We say sometimes the child is the father of the man. Equally true is each gender is the definer of the other. It’s just subtle and difficult to view from within each gender’s world view.

    • Angelo Deboni says

      From experience. NO. They might think a man is showing vulnerability in that moment and it taps a part of their maternal instinct to care for him, but when the difficulties inevitably come she’ll want a stoic, or resilient man who can stand up and face death head on. Sadly men seldom take time out to learn what they are capable of before settling down to start families. I’ve been convinced by this thread to pursue applied psychology and focus on men’s health because I’ve learnt these things for myself and see it in men around me who bumble along trying to satisfy others while they don’t know who, or what they are.

  8. Thank you for this article.
    Speaking as a female victim of cancer (identity politics, I know), I find that it is stoicism that provides the sunniest path forward. I have long felt the presence of a roman slave whispering “Remember you are mortal” and now here I am. Incidentally, I only cry when I want a day-long sinus headache.

  9. I’d give a lot to cry a little less. I cry at the slightest moving moment or thought. It’s embarrassing but seems to be hormonal. I saw an interview with a transgender who had started taking female hormones. He was surprised to find that he suddenly felt like crying all the time. I thought NOW you know a little of what it’s like to be a woman.

    Neither masculinity nor femininity are toxic.

    I wish all the luck in the world to the author – keep that chin up.

  10. kimberlyhopeco says

    Thank you for this article, I am female and also value Stoicism, finding more inner peace and strength there than in hysteria or emotional outbursts. Best wishes

    • We now have an entirely political movement and ideology based on hysteria.

  11. Good luck to you Jonathan… buying time is the name of the game now.

    If there’s one thing more powerful than political correctness, it would be humor. I would enjoy seeing a group of men form a band called “Toxic Masculinity” and dress in drag… maybe just what the psychiatrist ordered.

  12. As a cancer survivor I find most of us become stoic in the face of that diagnosis.

  13. Harrison Bergeron says

    “Go walk it off” That was the advice that my elementary PE teacher would give when inevetably someone would accidently get the wind knocked out of them or get hit in the testicles. Those four simple words had a lot of wisdom in them. They said that if you continue to stay doubled over in pain and feeling sorry for yourself then the pain will be worse and last longer. Accept that it happened. There is nothing you can do about it now and the sooner you started walking and moving around the sooner it would pass. And you know what? It always worked.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      But it doesn’t always work. It’s fine advice for little kids who get knocked in the nuts during dodgeball, but that advice had gotten athletes killed when they’ve ignored their bodies and played hurt or while suffering heatstroke or dehydration.

      We can exercise a little discretion here, you know. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Or do real men not change their minds about anything, ever?

      • Stoic Realist says

        @Nakatomi Plaza

        I am curious. When you were re-presenting some of the arguments in this comment section about crying (such as people pointing out that it can be and sometimes is used as a manipulation) you opted to paint the discussion as an absolute. Yet here you seem to be arguing for the existence of a more nuanced approach. Which one is your true feeling? I hope it is based on something more than choosing which one is more useful for the argument that you want to represent st the time.

    • Harrison Bergeron, nice post – Kurt Vonnegut is nodding in agreement somewhere far away 🙂

  14. The whole concept of mental illness needs re-examination. Since a cause is almost never known, the diagnosis is based on symptoms. Judging those symptoms is more a moral than a scientific issue. Whether restraint is good or bad depends on whether or not you value restraint over self-expression.

  15. Jonathan Church

    I’m glad you’ve maintained a stoic attitude though your hardship. Good job man. But as someone that has suffered through an extraordinary amount of horrific medical problems, please trust me when I warn you that depression and other negative emotions can creep into your life. It’s easy to think you’ve got this whole stoic thing figured out and that you’ve got your emotions under control. You don’t know how you’re going to react if things get really ugly. Make sure you seek help if your stoic armor starts to crack. You may not even be aware that you need help when the time comes. Have your friends and family keep a close eye on you. It needs to be their job to protect you from falling into terrible darkness. Tell them that is their job.

  16. David says

    Great article. I wonder if the author has read Anti-Cancer by Dr. David Servan-Schreiber who survived his glioblastoma for nearly 20 years by not following his nutritionist approved diet- eat anything just don’t lose weight- but instead ate foods with high amounts of anti-cancer phytonutrients. It’s a great book. There is an analogy between APA’s new guidelines and the advise of the ‘diet-dictocrats’; they are corrupted by the intersection of politics, money and science.

    Godspeed to you.

  17. This is basically a strawman argument. It misrepresents what the APA guidelines say to imply that the guidelines have a blanket disapproval for people acting stoical.
    e.g. Take the APA’s own article on the guidelines:
    “It’s also important to encourage pro-social aspects of masculinity, says McDermott. In certain circumstances, traits like stoicism and self-sacrifice can be absolutely crucial, he says” https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/01/ce-corner.aspx

    In the guidelines themselves https://www.apa.org/about/policy/boys-men-practice-guidelines.pdf the word “stoicism” appears only twice and in neither case is a blanket condemnation of it. Once is in relation to difficulties SOME men have forming emotional bonds with other men: “Psychologists can discuss with boys and men the messages they have received about withholding affection from other males to help them understand how components of traditional masculinity such as emotional stoicism, homophobia, not showing vulnerability, self-reliance, and competitiveness might deter them from forming close relationships with male peers”

    And the other connects with a broader health issue of men not seeking care that they may need: “Psychologists also strive to reduce mental health stigma for men by acknowledging and challenging socialized messages related to men’s mental health stigma (e.g., male stoicism, self-reliance). ”

    Neither example relates to be being stoical in the face of medical diagnosis but rather social pressures that mean some men (no, not ALL men) don’t seek care that they need (including for physical ailments) because of a misguided belief that they have to battle through by themselves.

    The writer’s example is NOT an example of the case the APA guidelines were addressing. The writer sought out medical care, received a diagnosis and stuck with treatment. The writer self-described actions are the OPPOSITE of what the guidelines are discussing — they show a man taking their health seriously and SEEKING HELP. That’s good and healthy but many men aren’t doing that and as a consequence are dying of treatable diseases

    As guideline 8 points out:”For most leading causes of death in the United States and in every age group, males have higher death rates than females”
    At least some of this is due men not seeking out healthcare they need: “Between 2011 and 2013, men’s mortality rates for colorectal cancer, a generally preventable disease with regular screenings, were significantly higher than women’s, suggesting that many men do not engage in preventative care (American Cancer Society, 2015).”

    A stoical attitude need not be toxic but when misapplied/misunderstood or adopted out of a feeling of social obligation, it can take on a harmful form of thinking that you shouldn’t seek out help. I’m glad the writer’s stoicism was of the positive kind but the writer should perhaps also take greater care in researching what the APA guidelines had actually said.

    • derek says

      > but rather social pressures that mean some men (no, not ALL men) don’t seek care that they need (including for physical ailments) because of a misguided belief that they have to battle through by themselves.

      A friend who was seriously injured was told by his occupational therapist that close to 100% of the men in his situation experience marriage breakup.

      The social and professional pressure is for her to abandon him, with full legal support.

      If the situation is opposite, where the woman suffers the injury or sickness, she will have these professionals try to convince her that her husband is the cause, the problem. And every time he helps her get healthcare she will be taken aside and shown all the resources available to her to escape the relationship.

      The apa guidelines are writing down what has been common practice for decades. Through their ideological blindness they have been incapable of helping most men, with exceptions by skilled practitioners who ignore the ideological idiocy that permeates the field.

      This guideline is useful for men seeking care. Ask the practitioner what they think of the new guidelines. If they say they think it’s bs, you might get some help.

  18. augustine says

    Thank you for a beautifully written, thoughtful essay.

  19. Daniel says

    Dear Jonathan,

    I know you haven’t written this article in order to elicit reader sympathy, so I will just say my sympathy goes to us all because everybody at this or that time, to this or that degree suffers in this mortal coil.

    Second, your story is a textbook example for the personality trait that research psychologists call Resilience. We all have an anxiety “center” in our brains and in some people it triggers less easily and less often (Resilience); in others it triggers more often (Neuroticism). On the far end of Neuroticism side are the unlucky people whose anxiety circuit gets frequently stuck in the On position – those are the people who have various Anxiety Disorders.

    Personality research supports the view that the type of anxiety trigger one has is largely hardware determined. We shape and form our software around this and because the hardware is persistent our core software (Personality) is also something quite persistent. (No amount of talk therapy will change your personality but a stroke might and that indeed is what is observed).

    For someone like you who is high on Resilience end, Stoicism is enough. You have no need for (other) coping behaviors. Someone high on Neuroticism will need to develop coping behaviors or antidotes to their anxiety. Which coping behaviors works best for them will depend on their other hardware traits. For some, crying is a great antidote to low mood and anxiety – it makes them immediately feel better. For some like me, anger is a great antidote. It’s actually 10x better to be angry and in bad mood then just be in a bad mood (Just ask Henry Rollins).

    Thinking is another coping strategy that I use. When my attention is thinking side of the brain the less of my attention is in the feeling part of the brain, so it can be an escape of sorts for low mood.

    To concluded my thought in reaction to your article, if APA is saying that coping strategies preferred by certain personality types are better (for whom?) then the strategies employed by other personality types what they are saying is horrible: they are saying this personality type is better than that personality type.

    If what they are saying is: Listen, Mother Nature does not treat her children equally, we all fall somewhere on the bell curve. For those men and boys who do not fall high on the Resilience end, non-traditionally male coping skills are a better fit. Everybody regardless of their other hardware features (e.g. gender) should feel free to choose best software for their hardware.

    If APA said that I would be 100% behind them.

    And thanks, Jonathan, for sharing your story. We need to study our differences and how these important brain mechanisms work (so we can eventually hack them and make them better)! If you haven’t done so please consider sequencing your DNA and donating your data for research purposes. (I’ve done this myself).

  20. Jon Aston says

    When I was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at 47 (and, yes, I’ve never smoked) my wife burst into tears, whilst I comforted her. I was philosophical for a few hours. Then went into a field and howled like an animal for about 10 minutes, and having got that out of my system, got on with my day. One hour later I was with my older son at his soccer practice. Next day I was back working.

    Not quite stoicism, but a basic rationalism carried me forward. Median 9 months to live – 2 years if exceptionally lucky. I got exercising to make sure my lung function would be as good as possible for as long as possible so I could stay as active as possible with my family. The focus of my thoughts moved almost entirely from my own death, to how old my children would be at the time, and how to make sure that I left my wife and them the best possible way forward. In other words, I got back to work – working hard and spending all the time I could with them in the best ways we could think of. My toxic masculinity, in fact my toxic paternal attitudes, putting the lives of those under my protection before my own, focused on my family, carried me forward in good cheer, and with a happy family as you could ever expect.

    Happiness is not a goal, is not something you need things to be happy “about”. It is a duty. It is something that you need things to be happy “for”. Having a family, and knowing that being with them in calm good cheer was good for them, gave me a reason to be happy.

    Post script. That was 2013. Wouldn’t you know it, I turn out to be a super-responder to a new class of drugs, and am 6 years on from diagnosis and doing well. Could have a decade or more yet, who knows. Ironically, I’ve met so many patients that maintain a positive/optimistic attitude, and have died earlier than they thought. I’ve been one of those rare “lucky” ones, who accepted the worst, but got much better.

  21. Pingback: The Right would rather men died than admit any flaws in masculinity | Camestros Felapton

  22. God bless, thank You for this article.
    Take a look at ketogenic diets in treatment of brain cancers. The literature is increasingly supportive. Many cancers are obligate glucose users and going to a ketogenic diet partially starves them of glucose.
    Best to you and your family,
    Rick

  23. Michael Jefferis says

    I am sorry Mr. Church about your diagnosis. There is an upside: your diagnosis has given you a time frame in which to round out your life in the time remaining. A massive heart attack, a stroke, a car accident… give us very short shrift. There is no time to say good bye, let alone finish things up. No time for one last big thing.

    I’m 72 and hear the clock ticking away. It tells me to “Get on with it!” So I try.

    Stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression… Really, where would we be without them? The world is an unsatisfactory place in many ways, and gentle tenderness is needed at times, but so is some toughness. Sometimes we just have to put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, because what is, is. Weeping and wailing won’t help much.

    I wish you every success in the time remaining. Seven years? One could do worse, and I hope you have more years than the predicted 7. Living as if we were going to die tomorrow seems ill-advised, but living as if next year was the last one seems more reasonable. In a year we might clarify our values and our objectives.

    Best wishes.

  24. Jezza says

    I want to say a word in praise of my wife. Cancer is a fearful word which makes many people uncomfortable. When she was diagnosed with bowel cancer she was down for a day or so. When she saw how frightened of the disease other people were she set about reassuring them and cheering them up. She told them it was just an inconvenience. Months of chemotherapy, radiation treatment, surgery, colostomy bags, more surgery to join everything up again and she never once complained or whimpered. She says God sends troubles so you know how to help others when the same sort of trouble comes to them. And bugger me, I’m crying writing this.

  25. Fickle Pickle says

    A very impressive description of what he went through, but in my opinion stoicism is nowhere near enough as a strategy for living life to the fullest.
    A much more integrated assessment of the situation for both men and women, but particularly men can be found on this site: http://robertmasters.com

    Very few American men have close intimate friends.Nor do they have the emotional and financial resources to deal with any kind of cancer diagnosis, or any serious disease.
    How many American men commit suicide in America every year?
    Isnt there also a plague of loneliness in America too the momentum and cultural consequences of which was described by Philip Slater in his 1970 book The Pursuit of Loneliness.

    And yes diet is very important in both causing and possibly curing cancer too and most of our most common diseases too including diabetes.
    I have been studying the topic for some time now. I recently came a most impressive well-researched book by Steven Gundry MD titled The Plant Paradox. He provides a very comprehensive critique of the SAD or the standard American diet.
    Chapter 4 titled Know Thy Enemy:The Seven Deadly Disruptors is very interesting – toxic chemicals all the way down.

    Prior to that I was most impressed with the book No Grain No Pain by Peter Osborne

    Check out the website based on the book titled Our Stolen Future too.

    • Fickle Pickle says

      PS Two of Steven Gundry’s deadly disruptors are GMO foods and Roundup, in relation to which he referred to an essay titled Monsanto’s Sealed Documents Reveal The Truth Behind Roundups Toxicological Dangers. It is readily available online.

  26. C Young says

    A great piece of writing. Good luck. Keep it up.

    The APA removed homosexuality from its list of pathologies in 1973, so masculine gay men have had a glorious 46 years fee from mental illness. Unfortunately, the APA has returned to its old pathological ways, and is once again attempting to police our personal lives.

    It was inevitable that the therapy culture would eventually label stoicism a pathology. Stoicism provides a doorway out. That door has to be nailed shut.

    Self reliant people don’t need therapists. They don’t need the APA.

    They tend to believe that they have autonomy and should (shock horror!) take personal responsibility for their own actions.

    Before you know it they are asking other people to take responsibility for their own lives and we simply can’t have that.

  27. Rosemary Elizabeth Trout says

    Thank you for this writing. It’s meaningful on so many levels. Prayers are with you.

  28. my husband is a grade 2 astrocytoma survivor since 1992 and gets MRI every 2 years…we reside in Surrey BC. I believe that what we go through is a way for us to go deeper and find out what our mission in life is after surpassing trials such as this.
    He is now 75 years old and is a stroke recovering person with disability. but I love him and will help him be restored with the help of our Lord who created him and still wants Henry to finish whatever mission he was created for.
    He was a consultant in Manila but ended up selling insurance in Canada as part of a challenging life of an immigrant.
    All the best to you and will pray for your complete recovery…keep us posted.

    henrylopezdee@shaw.ca

  29. Paul Peterson says

    Thank you for sharing your life story with us. Emotions are important, but maybe we’ve put too much importance on emotions. It’s easy to fall into a self indulgent trap. However, repressed and blocked emotions can be explosive searching for release. My understanding is that most need to balance emotion and intellect .

  30. Dean Bisogno says

    I’m happy to hear that you are in a good place with your diagnosis and I am very happy that this story has inspired many people in these comments.

    But I believe the author is misreading the APA guidelines. Or at least does not understand what stoicism is. I think it is clear in context that the APA is using the word “stoic” in the colloquial sense rather than the philosophical sense. Let’s address the two phrases in which the word “stoic” appears: “emotional stoicism” and “male stoicism.”

    In fact, men have been taught to repress certain emotions. As the author acknowledges, there is a difference between repressing emotions and restraining emotions. A stoic should be acutely aware of their true emotions and makes a concious decision to act on an emotion or not. A stoic should still address their emotions, but is able to choose when to do so. This is not “toxic masculinity” nor is it “toxic stoicism.” The adjective “toxic” is applied when an individual believes that not showing “weak” emotions is “strength.” In fact many individuals (particularly males) have been taught to repress most emotions for so long that they can barely feel them. Of course the individual then thinks they have become very strong. This is not healthy and this is the behavior the APA guidelines address.

    The same can be said about “male stoicism.” There is virtue in being unflappable. But it is misguided to think showing disregard for one’s own comfort or well-being is strength.

  31. Angelo Deboni says

    Great thread. I’ve been inspired to pursue applied psychology and focus on men’s health. Seems to me many men are confused by society as to what is acceptable as opposed to what is necessary to mature and grow as a fully developed and stable man.

  32. Evangelical says

    I guess that’s why libertarians have always lost. They just lecture people about emotion and exalt so-called reason. They want to restrain the passion of the left. Doesn’t that make them like beta males?

    But people are moved much more by the heart than the head. That’s why religion and the Great Awakenings were so successful. That’s also why the left is successful. They seize the moral high ground and all libertarians can do is lecture them about their excessive emotion and unreason.

    Libertarians worship at the altar of secular humanism and societal progress. They’ll never understand that the dumbest ideas come from the smartest people. A society that embraces the scientific rationalization of all things will ultimately become a cruel, godless, and inhuman place much like the dystopia in Blade Runner.

  33. Joe Almeida says

    Dear Jonathan

    It is my great hope that you are granted many years to come so that you can keep doing the things that are worth doing.

    In terms of emotions, I think it fine and human that when we first bear a burden that is unexpected, our emotions are unleashed. The key I believe, is that once we realize the burden is to stay with us, we wipe the tears, anger, and sorrow, and strengthen our backs to bear the burden. In carrying the load, you not only strengthen yourself, but you also give strength and hope to those still struggling with carrying the weight of their existence.

    Soldier on dear man. You can have your weak moments, surround yourself with those that love you for those times – let them be there for you, as you have been there for them.

    Soldier on.

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