Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Man's World - Carry on working for good health

My column A Man's World on

Padraig O'Morain advises people facing into retirement to take on some kind of part-time work; there are plenty of health benefits, both physical and mental, and you can earn a bit of extra cash.

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Time to invest heavily in a little generosity

My Irish Times That's Men Column published 17th November 2009:

THAT'S MEN: If you're trying to impress a mott, dig deep and throw a few bob about. Could be the best investment you ever made, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN 

PEACOCKS' TAILS, giving to charity and mating – they don't seem to have a lot in common, do they? But if that's what you think you'd be wrong and if you're a man you might be missing out on some useful information about snaring a woman's heart.

Giving money to charity is an altruistic act but if you do it publicly, it can serve the same purpose as the peacock's tail which is to attract a nice peahen.

It works like this. Charles Darwin wondered what was the point of peacocks having those beautiful tails. All they did, so far as he could see, was to attract predators and make it harder to run away.

But then he wondered if the purpose of the tail was to attract peahens and if this made up for the disadvantages. If so, then the peacock tail played its role in the perpetuation of the peafowl species.

Since then, people who research this sort of thing have established that peahens actually favour the males with the best tails. Why? The males with the best tails are the healthiest and strongest and more likely to pass on "good" genes.

Darwin also wondered about altruism. Being generous to your children is understandable – each child carries 50 per cent of your genes, so your generosity increases the chances that your genes will be passed on.

If you don't have children, then being generous to blood relatives such as nieces and nephews also makes evolutionary sense because every niece and nephew carries 25 per cent of your genes – be nice to them and they'll pass them on for you.

But why, Darwin wondered, would we be generous and kind and giving of ourselves to people we have nothing to do with and who are unlikely to play any role in passing on our genes? Why, to take a modern example, would we give money to save lives in Africa?

What if altruism for men is as the tail is to the peacock? What if being generous actually attracts women? Suddenly the whole thing makes sense.

And, according to a fascinating article by Wendy Iredale and Mark Van Vugt, from the University of Kent and VU University Amsterdam respectively, in the current issue of The Psychologist , that's exactly what's happening.

We like to show off our generosity. For instance, if a man is walking along the street with a woman when he is approached by a female beggar, he is likely to give her more money than he would if he was alone. Why is that?

The clue might lie in the fact that men in the earliest stages of a relationship with their companion are far more likely to put their hand in their pocket and give something to a beggar than men who are in long-term relationships. If displays of generosity attract females, then such displays are likely to be more ostentatious in the early stages of the relationship when the chase is still on.

And displays of generosity do, indeed, attract females. In one study, men who were described as donating blood regularly and as volunteering to help out in a local hospital were rated attractive by women.

Why would women be impressed by altruistic acts? Researchers suggest that generosity in a man implies that he is a good bet for investing in a relationship and in his offspring and is more likely to stick around to do so instead of going around sowing his seed hither and yonder.

For immediate short-term relationships, women are quite impressed by heroic acts. But for longer term relationships, it's kindness and generosity that floats their boat.

So if, like me, you're not the heroic type, go for kindness and generosity. That phrase, nice guys finish last, just isn't true when it comes to the mating game.

Christmas is coming up. The choirs will be out on the street trying to part you from your money. Forget your inclination to growl Bah! Humbug! and walk past. On the contrary, if you're trying to impress a mott, dig deep and throw them a few bob. Could be the best investment you ever made.

  • Padraig O'Morain is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, That's Men, the best of the That's Men column from The Irish Times , is published by Veritas

How fear can point us in the right direction

My Irish Times That's Men Column published 10th November 2009:

THAT'S MEN: Fear should act as a catalyst for action rather than instil a feeling of paralysis

FEAR IS all around us. Even Harry Crosbie of The Point/O2 fame said on the radio the other day that for the first time in his life he has the feeling that "it's dangerous out there", or words to that effect.

I thought it refreshing to hear a man in his position acknowledging the fear that so many feel.

Then I read an article on fear by one of my favourite Buddhist bloggers, life coach Sunada Takagi, on the Wildmind website. What she wrote is worth repeating because with the Budget, Christmas and the bleak month of January coming towards us, we are not short of sources of fear.

The Buddhist approach to fear and other discomforts is to turn towards what is happening instead of running away from it.

If you were a primitive man strolling through the jungle and you came across a fierce tiger you would run away as fast as your little legs could carry you. That's not running away from fear. That's running away from the tiger. Fear in this case has done its job.

Fear today, of course, is more likely to be related to money problems, threats to a job or a business, health issues or challenges in relationships than to tigers.

Back to that primitive man. Fear can save his life if he happens to meet a tiger. Even if he doesn't meet a tiger, though, fear of meeting one means that he is mentally and physically alert.

As Sunada puts it: "He's in a state of readiness – not to the point of hyper-anxiety – but a clear, focused alertness that can respond intelligently to whatever comes his way."

That's a different take on fear. If a person defines fear as bad and as something to be got rid of, he or she may run around like a headless chicken, snort cocaine (not easy if

you're a headless chicken) or become paralysed. I should add that these examples are my creation – as she is a Buddhist, talk about headless chickens would not go down well with Sunada.

Instead of running from fear, she writes, "if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it's 'bad', we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world. It also has the potential to draw out our inner resources that we may not even be aware of. It's a force that can move us forward."

To experience these benefits, "when the fear temperature rises, stay with it. But don't fight it or indulge it. Recognise any doomsday thoughts that come up for what they are – just thoughts.

"In that moment, with your heightened awareness, look for what's really calling for your attention. What's one step we can take to move forward?"

Since I read her article I've been experimenting with this approach. When the fear stirs, instead of lamenting that fact, I ask what the fear is telling me I need to do. It helps me to prioritise and to get on with doing what needs to be done.

I have to confess that when I'm feeling lazy I sometimes opt to have the fear instead of getting up and running away from whatever metaphorical tiger is baring its teeth at me.

Still, this approach to fear brings a clarity to how I see things and there is a relief in just being afraid of what the fear is about rather than also fearing fear itself.

"I've grown to see fear as my ally," writes Sunada. "When I listen to it, it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go."

Afraid of the expense of Christmas? Well, what's your fear telling you? That now is the time to start lowering your kids' pre-recession expectations? That you should forget flying to Lanzarote on the 27th (hey, remember that?)? That you should put a realistic limit right now on what you're going to spend?

Isn't that approach better than going around shouting at people and drinking too much cheap wine to calm your nerves?

You can find Sunada's article at

  • Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, That's Men, The Best of the That's Men Column from The Irish Times , is published by Veritas

Plan early to avoid tension at Christmas

My Irish Times That's Men Column published 3rd November 2009:

THAT'S MEN: Separated parents shouldn't leave it until the season itself to decide what will happen with the kids

THE EARLY arrival of Christmas advertising annoys many of us, but if you're a separated parent it brings an extra twist of anxiety.

I am sorry to add to the talk of Christmas, but if you are a separated father – probably living apart from your children – then you need to start thinking about and planning for Christmas now.

Christmas itself tends to stir up all sorts of emotions, including anger and loss, so don't leave it until the so-called festive season itself to address the question of parenting and what will happen with the children. Deal with it now, while emotions are calmer.

Hopefully you can talk to your ex about this. If you cannot talk to your ex, perhaps there is a mutual friend or family member who could act as a go-between. If not, then you will have to do the best you can yourself. If possible, try to keep solicitors out of it – an exchange of vicious solicitors' letters really isn't going to make for a happy Christmas for anyone.

Christmas is very problematic for separated parents because it is full of details, each of which carries an emotional charge.

For instance, what presents will the children get? Who will buy what? If one parent thinks junior shouldn't get an iPhone is the other parent willing to respect this?

How and when and where will the live-apart parent give presents to the children? Is it possible to agree that both parents will be there during the opening of the presents? If one of the parents has a new partner should that partner be there?

Suppose Christmas day is not one of the access days granted by the court? Can both parents agree that each of them will see the children nonetheless?

What about grandparents and other extended family? Can the extended family on both sides get to see the children over Christmas? How will that be done?

One way to address the situation, especially if you are newly separated, is to ask what sort of Christmas the children had in the past? What did they do? Where did they go? How much of this is it possible for the children to have this Christmas?

Are the children now in a "blended family"? In other words, are they living with half-brothers and half-sisters because of the break-up and a new relationship? If so, when giving presents can you avoid jealousy between the two groups of children, which could have repercussions after Christmas is over?

Many families have a tradition of visiting graves on Christmas day. Can this be done this year? And if so, how?

What will be the role of either parent's new partner? Should they be brought into the Christmas planning? Should they be there when the live-apart parent delivers presents?

You will notice that I have answered none of these questions. That is because there are no neatly packaged answers that will satisfy everyone.

Parents are going to have to do their best and to muster what sensitivity they can in dealing with what can be a painful time. It can be especially painful in the absence of sensitivity.

And friends and relatives also need to remember that this is no time to ratchet up the stress between separated parents.

I know there are parents out there who will use Christmas as another battlefield in the ongoing war against the absent ex. If you are that absent ex, you need to get yourself through this painful experience in a way that leaves you in as good shape as possible, for the sake of your future relationship with your children.

Most separated parents are more reasonable than this. But because Christmas is an emotional minefield, they need to start planning for it now. I would like to acknowledge that most of the sensible ideas in this article came from a conversation some time ago with workers in the Family Mediation Service, which is part of the Family Support Agency ( Those ideas that are not sensible came from me.

  • Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book That's Men, The Best of the That's Men column from The Irish Times , is published by Veritas

The minefield of political correctness

My Irish Times That's Men Column published 27th October 2009:

THAT'S MEN: I've been taken to task over my comments about gender issues in last week's column, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN 

LAST WEEK'S column has brought accusations that I insulted nuns and wrote "balderdash" about entry to medical schools.

I began by saying that after I left High Infants I never again saw a female teacher and I went on to suggest that now it is males who seem to be vanishing from the system.

I noted that all my teachers in Junior and High Infants were nuns and, I said, "they didn't really count as females. They were a higher and more scary order of being."

"What kind of language is that for a counsellor, who is dealing with both genders, on all levels of society, to use?" asks reader Meabh Ní Uallacháin.

"I don't care just what point you were trying to make, it is a total insult to the many good, gentle and caring women religious, who down through the years have made the Irish educational system what is, and the hospital system also and it's only when they are no longer visible in both, that their true worth as women will be appreciated . . . and they were 100 per cent women, with all the strengths, weaknesses, gifts and struggles that all women have . . . why demean them with that insult?"

Nuns did many great things in education, health and social services, but I would maintain that to schoolchildren at the time they were not ordinary women like our mothers or aunts but had a special and daunting status of their own. And I don't think I'm insulting anybody by saying that.

Michael Kane, professor emeritus of physiology at NUI Galway, suggests that the pressures of writing a weekly column account for "a piece of balderdash" in last week's effort.

In it, I mentioned that the proportion of women in the medical profession is increasing all the time. I then added, in brackets (and this was my downfall), "though the lads have now introduced a personality test for entry to medical school which they blatantly laud as boosting the proportion of men in the profession – how did they get away with that?"

Prof Kane points out that the HPat test is not a personality test but is supposed to evaluate one's ability to use knowledge rather than just learn things off by rote without understanding.

I should have known that, he says. Actually I did know it but lazy writing let me down. My substantive point remains, though. The medical establishment expressed great satisfaction this year that the test boosted the number of males entering medical school.

If the owner of a corner shop introduced a test to boost the proportion of males behind the counter, how long do you think it would be before he or she was up before some authority or other and fined for discrimination? Not long at all, I believe.

Prof Kane defends this aspect of the test. "It seems true that to some extent, perhaps to a major extent, one object in picking such a test was to give a more even balance of student genders entering medicine," he writes.

"If you are genuinely PC, then you should feel that is laudable. If you are pseudo PC, then you might feel the opposite."

If one believes that men and women are equal in intellectual ability, then selecting on the basis of the Leaving Cert alone, with females making up about 70 per of entrants to medicine, "was actively discriminating against male applicants", he adds.

Finally, Seathrún Mac Éin reminds me that in his book, Speed Write in Exams , Joseph F Foyle MA drew attention to the fact that women often have more nimble fingers than men do. Thus they can write far faster, which is an enormous advantage in nearly all written exams. . . Males in a hurry frequently tend to press so hard on the pen that they plough furrows in the paper, which can be felt by running a finger over the underside of the sheet! This actually slows them down. Females, on the other hand, tend to use a light touch – barely skimming the paper."

Well, my poor fingers have been soundly rapped already – so no speed writing for me.

Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, That's Men, the Best of the That's Men Column from The Irish Times , is published by Veritas

Rising status does little to stem abuse

My Irish Times That's Men Column published 20th October 2009:

THAT'S MEN: Despite women appearing to be more powerful, domestic abuse is still a huge problem for many, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN

AFTER I completed High Infants and got sent off to the Christian Brothers in Naas, I never encountered a female teacher up to and including secondary school. Recently I read that almost two-thirds of children in fifth class in primary school are taught by females.

This seems to mean that men are in as much danger of becoming as a rare an event in the classroom in the near future as women were when I was going to school. I wonder what this will mean for males' view of females, especially where the boy is raised by a single mother and taught only by women?

I said at the start, by the way, that I had not encountered a female teacher after High Infants. However, all the teachers in Junior and High Infants were nuns and they didn't really count as females.

They were a higher and more scary order of being. So even before I went to the Christian Brothers, the concept of being taught by a female who wasn't a nun never entered my head.

Of course, there have always been female teachers, especially in the national schools, so my experience may have been unique. Nor were all these women necessarily soft and gentle females.

My grandmother went to a two-teacher school. Both teachers were women. She was lucky – she got the kind teacher. The children in the upstairs classroom got the cruel one, and she recalled hearing them begging for mercy as they were beaten. In a two-teacher school, you were stuck with the same teacher from the day you arrived until the day you left, so life was hard on children who got the harsh teacher.

Boys at that time, though, were living in a male-dominated world. Today, they are more likely to live in a world in which, to their eyes, women are not only the equal of men, but in which there may be no man around or at least not living in the home.

As today's children grow up and go to schools in which male teachers are the odd ones out, how will this mould their view of women and of themselves?

And why did we hear in the past week or so that between 2007 and 2008, the demand for services for women suffering domestic abuse rose by 21 per cent, according to Safe Ireland?

Somehow the increasing status of women in the schools, home and workplace seems to me to be contradicted by this rise in abuse in the home.

This is happening in a world in which women, on the surface, are increasingly more powerful.

An ESRI report a couple of years ago forecast that women would make up the majority of business, financial and legal professionals by 2012. The report forecasts that more than two out of five managers throughout the whole workforce would be women by that time.

Increasingly, men who go to the doctor, an authority figure to most of us, will be seen by a woman (though the lads have now introduced a personality test for entry to medical school, which they blatantly laud as boosting the proportion of men in the profession – how did they get away with that?).

On one level, then, the environment in which boys grow up has shifted dramatically. The concept of never encountering a female teacher from the age of five onwards would be seen strange to the point of being unhealthy.

And a woman is more likely to be the sole authority figure in the home. Most of the students in many third-level courses are female. Many of the colleagues and bosses at work are female.

And yet there is that rise in domestic abuse. Change in the relationship between the sexes, is, it appears, messy and unpredictable. And domestic abuse seems to have increased with the recession as financial troubles bring stresses into relationships.

As women progress in education and the workplace, are the genders lagging behind in how they handle their emotional conflicts? And shouldn't we be teaching boys and girls more about that subject in our schools, regardless of whether the teachers are male or female?