Can men make sense of their aggression? Can we live in balance with our primitive selves and remain effective as adult men?
If you don't know it already, try listening to the song The Beast in Me . This song does not tell a particular story, it's more like a description of the sense of regret that usually follows when you 'lose your temper' and do or say something that's hard or impossible to undo. To my mind it's about being overwhelmed by your own aggression and taking it out on someone else. What really touches me about the song is that it is full of compassion - for the aggressor.
-- This is article #30 in our series of #100Voices4Men and boys
Aggression is not a solution
Before I go any further let me make it clear that I am not an apologist for verbal or physical violence against anyone, I am not advocating aggression as a solution. What I do advocate is looking at aggression with curiosity in order to understand it and to reduce it's power over us. I suggest that the first step is to stop thinking of aggression as an entirely negative quality. Since starting to write this article I have begun to understand that compassion is the only way to really deal with the issues that lie behind aggression.
The natural or reflex response to aggression is either to run away or to reflect it back, to be more aggressive and engage in a fight. Neither of these responses is likely to help resolve the aggression. Most of us have to resolve our own aggression, it's just not safe to act it out in the world, it frightens people or they become aggressive back at us.
A positive force?
Through discussing this issue I now see aggression as an essential ingredient in almost everything we do. I became aware how hard I work to control it and what a nuanced set of skills we all need to deal with it.
Aggression is not an exclusively male trait but it is often treated as an inherently male quality that can be enacted in a positive or negative way. I am interested in how men and boys do this, how can we channel our aggression so it works for us (and those around us) and does not explode in our faces. When aggression is expressed it is highly charged, exciting, possibly dangerous, sometimes destructive, sometimes it's a positive force for change, it can even be all these things at once.
The thing that enabled me to start thinking about my own aggression was to stop thinking of it as a taboo subject. It is now my understanding that aggression is like salt in food, there's a little of it in everything, when there's a lot of it, you really know it (and it's hard to process). What I mean by this is that it takes aggression to get going. To do anything at all you need determination and energy, a decision and the power to enact it.
This can apply to making a cup of tea, getting out of bed, driving a car, building a bridge. We have lots of words that disguise aggression, determination, energy, pizzaz, spirit, power, spunk, oomph, all these things come down to applying our energy effectively to our everyday lives in order to get things done. Etymology reveals that the word aggression stems from the Latin word "gradus" which means "a step" so "to agress" is simply to "to step" or "to go to".
With this understanding in mind, it's much easier to see that aggression is something that all of us are constantly managing, constantly trying to balance (like the salt) in a satisfactory way in our behaviour, the right amount here, the right amount there, a little more here, a little less there. In this light it is much easier to catch how this balancing act sometimes breaks down and we get it wrong. I suppose I am talking in terms of misjudgement rather than catastrophe, that getting aggression out of balance is common but often repairable, apology, amends, trying again are every-day occurrences that are used all the time to unscramble an excess of aggression.
I think men have a particularly complex relationship with aggression, so many of our childhood role models are soldiers and action men it is hard to work out where the 'gentle-man' fits in. Integrating the primitive masculine will always be difficult, ultimately it's a continuous process, our relationship to it is not set in stone. If we are prepared to reflect on our aggression and learn about it we can deal with it better, with more skill and dare I say, finesse.
Simon Fell is a Brighton-based artist. You can see his work by visiting his website www.simonfell.co.uk
You can find all of the #100Voices4Men articles that will be published in the run up to International Men’s Day 2014 by clicking on this link—#100Voices4Men—and follow the discussion on twitter by searching for #100Voices4Men.
The views expressed in these articles are not necessarily the views of the insideMAN editorial team. Whether you agree with the views expressed in this article or not we invite you to take take part in this important discussion, our only request is that you express yourself in a way that ensures everyone’s voice can be heard.
Photo: Flickr/Doug Kline