Joe Biden, SNAGs and discomfort

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

This column is in response to the — at last count — eight women who said they felt "uncomfortable" when Joe Biden touched them in one way or another.

First, some personal history, which I think a lot of men who live in this town can relate to. About 20 years ago a woman called me a "SNAG."

"A what?" I asked.

"A SNAG," she replied. "You know. A 'Sensitive New Age Guy.'"

I took it as a compliment.

I also received it as a confirmation that old dogs can learn new tricks.

You see, I was born in 1947 and the models held up to me for what it means to be a man were roles in movies played by actors like John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, Rocklin in Tall in the Saddle, and Sgt. John Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima. Strong, silent types. Men who expressed love by their actions rather than words. Cowboys and soldiers.

The following joke could be told in the 1960s. "Did you hear about the Northern European man who loved his wife so much that once he almost told her?"

Men were from Mars and Women were from Venus. Women's work was homemaking and nurturing children; men's work was being successful in a career and earning a living. Mary Tyler Moore's role in The Dick Van Dyke Show was that of a stay-at-home mom.

But then feminism and other social tremors hit the American cultural fan, and role expectations began to change. Many women became more aggressive. They talked about breaking through the glass ceiling that limited how far they could climb the ladder of success in corporate America. In The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which came after The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary was an independent, single, professional woman.

And, in addition to demanding more from society, women began to ask more of the men in their lives. They asked us men for emotional intimacy, in addition to paying the bills and sex. They asked us to share our feelings, in addition to standing for principles and being good providers.

And so, in response to these new role expectations, I and five other guys formed a men's group in the late 1980s.

Just a few quotes from our mission statement reveal why that woman called me a SNAG.

Meeting dynamics include trust in the group members to support an atmosphere of safety, respect and confidentiality where we can be open and vulnerable without fear of being shamed;

Where we can safely bare our soul;

Where we are non-competitive;

Where worth is not determined by performance.

Where the topics chosen must allow the speaker to share his issues, feelings, emotions…with the rest of the group.

In the almost 30 years since I began participating in that group's weekly meetings, all of us have changed. We've changed not only in terms of our behavior but also have become more willing to be vulnerable and share our feelings.

At his 42nd birthday party, my son said to me, "Dad, I know that you always loved me, but when I was growing up, I did not feel close to you … not like I do now."

You see? In some ways, Joe Biden embodies what a lot of us Baby Boomer men heard our women asking for. Unlike the present occupant of the Oval Office, Joe Biden is a SNAG.

So when I hear women criticizing the former vice president for expressing emotion, I think, "But, but that's what you were asking from us 30 years ago and now you are complaining that we've complied."

And when I hear Biden being criticized for being too touchy-feeling, no one ever says he has done anything wrong. What they say is, "He made me feel uncomfortable."

So, a few words about discomfort.

First, not feeling comfortable is not the same thing as being wronged. Comfort is not an ethical but a psychological category and that distinction must always be made clear. I've noticed a tendency among many these days to relativize what begin as ethical questions into statements of comfort or discomfort.

For example, people from other cultures often behave in ways that "make me respond" by feeling uncomfortable. When I feel that irritation in multicultural situations, God often comes to me and says, "You seem upset, my son."

"Well," I complain, "they're not doing things the right way."

"Ah," says God. "What you mean is that they are not doing things your way."

And so I wrote a column years ago with the headline, "If you are comfortable, it's not multicultural."

Bottom line — discomfort is my problem, not yours. If you haven't done anything wrong and I'm feeling uncomfortable, either I am hung up on my way of doing things and can't adapt, or I need to take responsibility for my feelings and let you know where I'm at, without making a moral judgment.

If you are uncomfortable with another person's behavior and he has not done anything wrong, don't go public with your discomfort when it's your problem, but take responsibility for your feelings and tell that person, face to face.

To paraphrase the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to take responsibility for how I feel; the courage to fight for what's right against what's wrong; and the wisdom to know the difference."

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