The Waste Land the Ability to Shudder

It’s no one’s fault but most men would recognise it as a part of their life-journey. Something kicks in and, over time, we lose the ability to shudder. Oh, we can take a blow, manage the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ and stoically stand with the ‘impostors’ of triumph and disaster; but somewhere along the line we develop a callousness that offends many women, a kind of cold-bloodedness, which often serves us at work, but which estranges us from our life-partners, and our kids.

It’s the same with entertainment, and porn, and food. We seem to need stronger and stronger flavours. Our palate gets jaded and we demand more: more horror, more chilli, more violence and more spice. And all the while we are getting detached from our true feelings, finding them harder and harder to access. We are becoming numb.

In my case, hospitalisations, boarding school, contact sports and a chronic excess of adrenaline induced by an unsafe home, left me physically and emotionally numb by the age of ten. I remember treading on a rusty nail when I was about nine. The nail pierced the shoe I was wearing, went through my foot, and stuck out the top, pinning me to a green-painted plank of wood. Did I scream and shout for my mother? Was I a little soldier? No, my inner numbness was such that my first thought was, “Oh, that’s interesting, I’ve got skis,” at which point I began to walk around flapping my new sporting equipment.

Such numbness is not unique. Millions of young men, come to this as they grow up, so that by the time they achieve adulthood they are ‘hardened-off’ and able to witness the horrors of life with impunity. This makes us exemplary warriors and ‘good in a crisis’. It also leaves us uncaring, unfeeling and cut off from those we love.

Research shows that the rush of adrenaline can leave us numb and distanced for up to 24 hours, and if we constantly re-trigger its release before then, we can enter a state of near-permanent “fight or flight” which, amongst other reactions, suppresses the digestion, and numbs the feelings – all for good reason. However, the wind can change and we can get stuck like it – stuck without our vital feelings of empathy and compassion. At this point we are lost without a compass. We need to regain our ability to shudder.

Our ancient storytellers addressed this phenomenon often, as did the great poets, who saw the need we have as men, to recapture our feelings, to return to the humanity we lose on the road to war, business or male success. In “Breaking the Spell” our upcoming workshop in Somerset, we will be seeking ways to reconnect with feeling. Through story, poetry and ritual, we will be seeking ways to re-charge our masculinity — with feeling, compassion, and the ability to shudder.

William Ayot

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