Hashing Out Life’s Big Questions As A Climber, Surfer, Cook, And, Soon, Therapist

What it means to live an inquisitive and emotionally robust life.

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In pursuit of a good story, Daniel Duane has climbed mountains with Jimmy Chin and Conrad Anker, trained for a triathlon with Lance Armstrong’s crew, and cooked a gourmet BLT with Thomas Keller. He’s chased wildfire scientists, champion weightlifters, wingsuited BASE jumpers, and spent hours with legends like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and big-wave surfer Garett McNamara. But for Duane, a father of two, nothing is quite as thrilling as the leap he’s about to take: to pursue a career as a therapist.

A great journalist is a great listener. And Duane, who has published six books and won numerous awards for his work which has appeared in The New York Times, Outside Magazine, Esquire, Men’s Journal and elsewhere, has spent the better part of his career seeking answers and listening to subjects, often men, wrestle with various aspects of life: the choices one makes, what the pursuit of greatness really requires, what it means to truly take care of yourself, how to move forward when the world feels unsalvageable.

These conversations, coupled with Duane’s own meaningful experiences in therapy — he’s seen therapists off and on since he was in his twenties and views attending to emotional health as life-altering and necessary — were the gravitational force that pulled him towards his new path. But it was the support he got from the men in his life when he was suffering most that made the move feel right.

In a recent feature for The Guardian, Duane wrote about his recent decision to pursue while reporting on the trend of men making the move into the often female-dominated field. Reflecting on his own early experience with therapy, Duane wrote “I learned that psychotherapy could be a private space in which men hashed out life’s great questions.” That space, Duane contends, is especially necessary today.

Fatherly spoke to Duane, 57, about his new pursuit, the support men need to give one another, what his father taught him about masculinity, and the lesson he hopes his mid-career transition teaches his daughters.

You touch upon it in The Guardian article, but what compelled you to pursue psychotherapy as your next career? I imagine your background as men’s magazine writer and the many long conversations you had with different subjects influenced it a bit.

Well, I have always gone hard after authentic concerns and interests of mine, things I felt hungry to learn. And all these years I've had this very serious, authentic concern about how to be emotionally healthy. I have gone through these sorts of passages where gestures that I had made toward emotional health had been profoundly important in my ability to be a good father and good husband, and to hold my marriage together and be loving to my kids and not fall apart and fuck up our family. So that had given me a strong conviction in the value of that kind of work. And it also had me sitting in my therapist's office all these years thinking, Dude, you have a good job. This is pretty cool what you do. Guys come in and you talk about life's big questions, hash it out.

Did the conversation about masculinity or reports on the worrying state of men that are often in the news have any influence on your decision?

As a guy who has done a lot of suffering and found a lot of help from other men, and then as a journalist meeting a lot of men and dealing with guys who were going through it a lot of different of ways, I felt drawn to this career. It wasn’t so much about reading about the statistical crisis of men in the news as it was having actual experiences of being present in guys' lives and having guys be there for me and feeling drawn to that experience.

One of the last features I wrote for Men's Journal was about a man in Montana who played football at Montana State the last time they won a national championship, and he had become the voice of Bobcats football. And his son was a brilliant youth league quarterback who was just right on track to be a great high school and college quarterback. But he got a very serious brain injury in a game.

I went to Montana and spent time with this guy trying to understand what he was going through. It seemed from the outside as if the thing he wanted most in the world was for his son to play football. But there was one thing he wanted more than that, which was for his son to be healthy and alive. He was struggling and we talked about it.

And I found being present in that guy's life and talking to him about his experience and what he was struggling with among the more moving and important experiences of my whole professional life. I had started to have these experiences as a journalist where bearing witness, being present for people, having compassion had come to be every bit as important as the journalism I was doing. And a lot of that was happening with men.

You’re only just beginning your journey to become a therapist, but ultimately do you have any plans for who you’d like your clients to be? Are you hoping to work with men in particular?

I’m open to everybody. But I do really look forward to trying to be able to be there for men in the way that men have been there for me and to be there for teenage boys in ways that my father was there for me.

One of the things that's been interesting to me in talking to male psychologists is there's a pretty strong feeling that the culture wars conversation about masculinity feels disconnected from the lived experience of these psychologists who are doing emotional engagement with men on a regular basis.

I’m really interested in finding the right language for thinking about what it feels like to be a guy these days, what it feels like to be a father, what it feels like to have your identity wrapped up in work, and have your work go through ups and downs, and have your identity wrapped up in feeling like a guy, and to like feeling like a guy.

You said that you want to give back some of the support you received from other men. What form did that take shape for you?

Well, it starts with my dad. I feel fortunate to have had him for a father in the sense that, unlike for a lot of men, I never had the experience of the distant father. My dad was a physically imposing guy. He lifted heavy, he was strong as hell, and his family had been pretty tough Irish immigrants in New York. His great uncle and grandfather had been the founders of the 20th Century Fight Club, which was the first boxing promotion in New York City.

There was this whole aspect of my dad that was hyper-masculine, and he got me into Yosemite climbing when I was young. And through Yosemite climbing, he gave me this beautiful, perfectly structured series of manhood initiation rituals, like do this climb and that climb and learn this skill and that skill, and then you can become a leader and now you're the leader, and now you're leading me. That kind of stuff.

But he was also a very emotionally tender person. He wasn't really one to talk about his own feelings, and that is an absence for me and something I wish somebody could have done for him. But my whole adult life my dad was the best person to talk to if I felt ashamed of anything at all. If I felt like a professional failure, if I felt scared or weak, or bleak, or anything he was the best guy in the world to call. He was always there for me.

That’s very special.

It was. And he modeled for me a kind of masculinity that was a mixture of real physical strength in the world as well as very caring, very loving. He had very close male friends, he was in a bluegrass band for years, and he had guys he lifted weights with at the gym, and I saw guys really looking out for each other, really catching each other when they fell.

And what about your experience with having other men be there for you?

I've made some close friends through climbing and surfing and cooking, and there've been guys who've really been there for me in my weakest moments. And yet I'm also aware of how I've also screwed up some friendships. When I was a younger guy, I was a jerk to some friends. I lost some friends, and really regret that and think of them as precious jewels that were given to me in life that I threw away.

So I guess that gives me a sense both of the richness of what men can give each other and of how easy it is to lose it.

Based on what you’ve learned, what do you think men today need?

Compassion. Compassion for ourselves and for other guys. Our culture just gives us endless ways and endless scales against which to measure ourselves. And we are just constantly aware of how we are scoring on these scales. Is your stock up today? Is your stock down today? Did you hit a PR today? Did you not hit a PR today? You think you're doing well, but how about that other guy you know who's making twice what you're making?

We live in this American life that we love, so we live in this American life that is relentlessly measuring us against metrics in which somebody is always beating us and in which the vicissitudes of life that are unavoidable are just inevitably going to put us in the toilet at some time. We may be on the winner's podium at another time, but you are going to be in the toilet at some point.

My brother-in-law once asked my dad at a family dinner for advice about getting older. And he said something like, "Beware of whatever makes you most proud. That's where you're going to get hit."

Oof. Brutal. But a very good reminder.

It is. Do a little self-scan. What is it? You think you're good-looking? Is it your 5K time? Is it you're at the top of your professional game? What is it, man? Because you're going to lose it.

You’re a husband and a father of two teenage girls, one of whom is now in college. What do you hope your transition teaches them?

One of the most important things my father gave me in a way was something that happened by example. He had some big professional setbacks in his 50s, and his father did too, and his father. He had a TV distributorship in Los Angeles in the 40s and 50s. And when his father's business fell apart, his father vanished into alcoholism. And my dad had a nervous breakdown in his early 50s. I don't know if that's the term he would use, but he really struggled. And I saw him stripped bare of all the defensive shield of keeping up good appearances and looking tough.

And he really put himself back together and healed himself and became a healthier and happier and stronger guy and stayed married, stayed in love with my mom. That had a profound effect on me. It was very important to me to see my father struggle and then come through emotionally intact and happier. It gave me a sense of responsibility, a confidence that I could do that because my dad did it.

That’s a really powerful thing to witness.

It was. And if you really think about what a kid wants, they want you to take care of yourself. They don't know it. They would never put it in those terms. But even the guy who comes around to compassion for his dad and says, "Look, I know the reason my dad was never present was he was suffering," still can't help but wish that dad had taken care of himself better.

Even that guy who thinks My dad was a good guy and likely thinks but I wish my dad had gone to a therapist, gotten on meds, dropped his fucking pride to get his heart squared away so that he could be in my life, so that he could love me.

So, when you go to that place yourself, when you're in those hard moments yourself, I think that's got to be your North Star. And I hope my girls learn from it.

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