Dylan Tweney
Published Work

The spiritual crisis of white men

For many of us, life hasn’t turned out quite the way we expected.
Dylan Tweney 6 min read
The spiritual crisis of white men
Photo by Kitera Dent / Unsplash

The Good Men Project first published this article on May 2, 2024.

For many of us, life hasn’t turned out quite the way we expected. Granted, this is true for many people of every gender and race, but for white men, it has a particular flavor of surprise. We were raised in a culture that made us feel comfortable walking into any situation, prepared to lead or take up space. We were raised to feel entitled to happiness: It’s right there in the Declaration of Independence, a document that was clearly written with men like us in mind.

Unfortunately, most men have not been raised with a great deal of emotional sensitivity. Until very recently, we have not been encouraged to use nuanced language about feelings and relationships. Our whole lives, we’ve absorbed messages that to be manly means to suck it up, tough it out, power through, and stop whining. While I was raised by liberal intellectuals, and I’ve tried my whole adult life to be sensitive and emotionally intelligent, I have often found myself confounded by my emotional illiteracy.

Now the world has changed, and we’re ill-prepared to handle the emotional impact. Public conversation about the oppressive and unfair structures built into our society is widespread. People who are not so privileged have been much more vocal and politically active about asserting their rights and demanding fair treatment. Language has shifted. Nonwhite people comprise 40% of the U.S. population today, up from 20% in 1980 (and in the under-16 population, a bit more than 50% are nonwhite today). What would have been unimaginable 50 years ago (gender fluidity, gay marriage, a Black President) is routine today — a welcome development for some, a moral panic for others.

For many of us white men, this new world is bewildering. It feels like we’ve lost our roots. We no longer have traditions and rituals to cling to. If we do, they may be traditions that other people seem to find repellent, like Thanksgiving or Independence Day. We may recognize that the things we love (from banjos to burritos) were stolen from others. We may feel ashamed of our ancestors’ rapaciousness rather than drawing strength and inspiration from their resilience.

Disconnected, uprooted, confused, and seemingly alone in the world, white guys often double down on our white identities — waving Confederate flags at NASCAR races — or try to dissociate ourselves entirely from our white bodies — disappearing into a fog of fuzzy language and “I don’t see color” canards. Either way, it’s a response to primal fear: The fear of rejection, being an outcast, and losing status.

It’s not surprising, then, that although men are less likely to say they’re depressed than women, they are more likely to commit suicide. Middle-aged white men, in particular, are three to five times more likely to kill themselves than teen girls.

Coming to terms with anger

For me, all this rootlessness manifested as anger, although I didn’t recognize the loss underneath it at first.

My anger boiled over at my wife and my kids. On one especially shameful day, my wife and I took the kids to check out a town in the East Bay we thought might be interesting. As we ate lunch at a sidewalk cafe, they acted a little selfish and entitled about the menu, as teenagers will do, and on the car ride home, I just tore into them. My anger sparked my wife’s anger, and pretty soon, it was an out-of-control escalation that sucked all the oxygen out of the car and left our daughter wailing with tears of self-loathing and our son mute with rage. By the time we got home, I was ashamed of how I’d acted, and we spent the rest of the day trying to pick up the pieces and coax our children, and ourselves, back to equilibrium.

This sense that something was missing also showed up in my body. As I approached my 49th birthday, I started noticing physical sensations of fluttering in my chest. A weird, thumping sensation, as if my heart was knocking on the door of my ribcage. It was uncomfortable and unsettling: Am I having a heart attack? Why is my heart doing this? What’s wrong?

My heart wasn’t racing (I checked whenever I felt this, and my heart rate was always relatively low, in the 60s). But it was definitely doing something. It got my attention.

I saw a doctor, who ruled out heart disease due to a lack of risk factors. He suggested that I was probably suffering from stress, and suggested that I investigate some mindfulness practices.

At that point, I had already started to meditate more regularly, so his suggestion was just another fucking annoying thing on the pile of annoyances that was turning into my midlife crisis.

But at some level, between the anger, the frustration, and my pounding heart, I had to admit that I needed help.

Finding my Zen

Desperation drove me into conversations with some spiritual friends, to whom I turned because I sensed their wisdom might provide some perspective. These friends helped me come to terms with the fact that, even though I was a rationalist and agnostic raised in a scientific family, I still needed some spiritual sustenance.

That realization brought me back to meditation, which I’d dabbled in for decades. I sensed that practicing with others would help deepen my meditation practice and make it more consistent, so I started checking out different Buddhist practice communities. After about a year, I found what I’d been seeking in Zen, specifically the form of Vietnamese Zen created by the revolutionary imagination of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. He modernized many of the Zen practices of his home country, translating sutras and chants into a more modern, vernacular Vietnamese and (later) English, French, and other Western languages. But he didn’t just “westernize” Vietnamese Zen; he updated it and made it more accessible while maintaining a deep connection to its Vietnamese cultural roots and to the long line of teachers stretching back over 2,000 years to the time of the Buddha.

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings and the international community of mindfulness practitioners he founded, known as the Plum Village community, I found a sense of belonging and acceptance that I hadn’t felt since childhood. I felt welcome. I felt like I had arrived at a new home. I may have felt rootless, but in this community, I could find my ground in a new way, recognizing the gift of the Zen practice and, at the same time, becoming more aware of and reconciled to my white roots.

An important note here: Many white people, like me, have found what they were seeking in Asian cultural traditions like Zen. Sometimes that embrace can turn into another kind of colonizing, as they take over and remake those traditions to suit themselves, removing “cultural baggage” and trying to create a new, “secular” form of the practice by stripping out all of the Asian elements. I think white folks practicing in other religious traditions need to be aware of that tendency. My aspiration is to approach this tradition respectfully, honoring my teachers and the lineages that have brought the teachings to us.

Over a period of several years, I deepened my connections with the Plum Village community. I stopped drinking and started trying to live in a less harmful way, eating less meat and dairy and taking steps to live as mindfully as possible in daily life. These changes (especially not drinking) had a transformative effect, and my kids noticed it right away. I became less angry, less prone to outbursts, more patient, and more attentive. I started to unspool the thread of loss and pain woven through my life, disentangle it, and get a good look at it.

I also realized that I am not alone. Many men are angry, frustrated, disappointed, and annoyed at the options they face. Many of us feel alone, rootless, and disconnected. Connecting with other white men who are also interested in looking deeply into racism and privilege has been an essential part of my healing. (A group called Organizing White Men for Collective Liberation, aka OWMCL, has been helpful to me in this respect, as well as regular, long, open phone conversations with a friend and fellow white guy from the Midwest.)

I am not going to tell you to practice mindfulness or Zen, or to connect with OWMCL. Those were the medicines I needed, but they may not be what you need. YMMV.

But I do want to share more of my journey because I think we — white men in particular — need to find our way to a more authentic way of living. We need to come to terms with the hollowness and disappointment, not to repress these feelings but to accept them and move past them. We need to recognize the thread of loss, not to eradicate it, but to understand it and disentangle it from the fabric of our lives.

My experience over the past few years is that it is possible to find a truer, deeper, less harmful way of living. If I can do it, I believe we all can.

And it starts right … now.

More from Dylan Tweney
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A delicious mid-life mocktail

Note: This article first appeared in Popula on March 28, 2019. Approaching 50, I went a little bonkers. I grew a beard, started waking up early in the morning to meditate, got into long email and phone conversations with a couple of spiritually-inclined friends, and started going to weekly meetings
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