“I’m not going to do a damn thing to help
you,” the old man said, glaring at me across the boat with
bloodshot eyes. “I’ve been usurped.”
I stared back, speechless. We were moving fast downriver toward a churning brown rapid that could swallow our boat whole. Bob was refusing to help me tie up our raft on shore next to the other boats on our river trip. “Not helping” meant leaving the rest of the boats behind and running the rapid alone.
I had only spent a few minutes with Bob, an 80-year-old oarsman. I’d been hired to replace him halfway through a commercial river trip on the Grand Canyon, because — due to age and infirmity — he could no longer handle rowing a 22-foot-long raft carrying baggage and food, and I could. I understood why he didn’t like me. But it was already clear to me that one way or another, I was going to have to kick Bob out of my boat.
I made it to shore without Bob’s help, by yelling to another guide to throw me a rope. Then, I told Bob to get out of my boat and ride with someone else.
Maybe Bob’s rage was a symptom of dementia or some other organic deterioration. It would be easier to say if I’d known him before the trip. He had good friends before things started to go downhill, who told me he used to be a nice guy. By the time he died, less than a year later, however, he’d pushed them away, too.
Or maybe Bob was just throwing a massive existential tantrum. There are some poorly-supported scientific explanations about why some men get angrier with age, involving lower testosterone levels after the age of 70. Psychologists have even invented cute names for the phenomenon, such as “Irritable Male Syndrome,” and the less official “Grumpy Man Complex.”
But words like “irritable,” and “grumpy” don’t come close to capturing the looks of pure, furious outrage that Bob shot me for the rest of the trip, or his repeated accusations that I’d stolen some of his river gear.
Bob has been on my mind lately in part because I’ve seen a similar quality of anger erupt in so many other men lately — most troublingly, in my father. Maybe the rage is fueled by the inevitable loss of control that comes with age. Maybe it’s untreated depression. I’m not a psychologist (it’s not my job to figure this out, I keep telling myself ) but psychologists do say men are somewhat more likely than women to “externalize” depression as anger and aggression, taking it out on other people.
Men are also much less likely than women to seek out mental health services. One common explanation for this is that women are biologically more “prone” to depression. There’s probably some truth to that, although men are four times likely as women to die by suicide. But men refusing to seek help must also play a major role in the gap. When I talk to female friends who are in therapy themselves, many say that at least one reason they decided to seek help is that they are exhausted by supporting their boyfriends, husbands, and fathers, who can’t even acknowledge they might need it.
Women are expected to “handle” male anger. But rage can be dangerous and frightening to confront directly, and it is exhausting — so exhausting — to be always managing that rage, assuaging, anticipating, and deflecting it.
“Rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” Dylan Thomas wrote, before drinking himself to death. Please do go gently, I want to tell all the angry old men out there. To my dad, I want to say thank you for teaching me to row. You taught me well. Now rest easy. Loosen your grip. Let me row for a while.