The challenge in any healthy relationship is that of being one's own person--which is to say, being authentic--in relation to the Beloved. As Alan Downs, psychologist and author of the widely-acclaimed The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing up Gay in a Straight Man's World (2012), makes clear, we cannot come to living an authentic life without "passion, love, and integrity" (155).
Based in his seasoned experience with multiple generations of gay male clients, Downs notes that growing into authenticity for a gay man is a matter of overcoming the shame of being what dominant society deems abnormal in terms of one's sexual preferences--certainly not by hiding in the closet, nor in compensating for one's seeming abnormality by the heedless pursuit of material success. Rather, "the road to contentment"--in other words, the path to fulfillment--requires a gradual movement through a series of three stages that lead, ultimately, to more authentic living, to a life grounded in passion, love, and integrity.
This tripartite process begins with a "period of time in which he [remains] 'in the closet' and fearful of his own sexuality" followed by a a time of "[attempting] to neutralize his shame by being more successful, outrageous, fabulous, beautiful, or masculine"--often "[taking] on many sexual partners in his attempt to make himself feel attractive, sexy, and loved--in short, less shameful" (3-4). "The final stage," which Downs defines as "'Cultivating Authenticity,'" is a matter of working through and out of the previous two stages--both of which are rooted in shame--"to build a life that is based upon [one's] own passions and values rather than proving to [oneself] that [one is] desirable and lovable" (4). Contentment, what according to Downs consists of "passion, love, and integrity," "rests firmly in the ongoing pursuit of these three things" (155). For it is these things that generate joy, a "feeling of painless lightness within the body" that comes from within and sustains itself only by being noticed (157). Living a life of passion, love, and integrity is one way to go about noticing joy so that it becomes more than a fleeting emotion (157).
So much of this work, of which noticing joy is no small part, requires diligent self-examination, a healing of traumas wrought upon one's gay male body by experiences of invalidation that began at an early age in the very environments--of church, home, and school--that are supposed to nurture. It helps to have a therapeutic guide for this journey, someone to help facilitate the gradual "coming out" that overcoming gay male shame demands, a guide like Downs, who has accompanied countless men through the stages of gay individuation described in The Velvet Rage. Indeed, his book provides a practical tool kit for dealing with shame-based behavioral patterns that have sabotaged so many gay men in their genuine attempts to live an authentic life.
I am one of those men, whose ingrained belief in my own unlovableness has led me down the path of addiction, primarily to compulsive sexual activity and romantic intrigue, and all but prevented me from entering into the joy of contentment that Downs details in his concluding chapters. Fortunately, I have had the (white) privilege of psychotherapeutic guides in many mentors, not least of whom is my present spiritual guide, a Jungian therapist, who has encouraged me, in the vein of Downs' own insight, to find my purpose and pursue my passion. As Downs defines it, "Passion is present when you observe that the same activity consistently brings you joy" (156). For me, writing is that passion, a passion that has helped, is helping, me maneuver the shame of my same-sex attraction that others, that I, have stigmatized as a "daddy complex," as a perversion of a perversion.
In the creative self-expression that writing involves--be it in the form of a journal entry, a blog post, a scholarly article, or a dissertation (all of which I have written)--I find the kind of contentment of which Downs speaks, where one no longer needs to look for external sources for validation, but rests in the mindfulness of joy as it emerges from within--in the process of doing what, and being with the one, I love.
My present partner, a man significantly older than me, inspires such mindfulness of joy. Downs writes:
Love, like passion, is also a meta-emotion ['an emotion that is felt only after observing other emotions over time'
(156)] and is the second essential component of finding contentment in life. Also like passion, love is felt only
after noticing the ongoing experiences of joy. While passion is about feeling joy in an activity, love is about noticing
joy in the presence of another person. When the experience of another person regularly stimulates joy within us,
we being to feel we love that person. (163)
Real joy comes more from such things as enjoying another's company, connecting emotionally, and common core
values. Sure, it helps if he's gorgeous, sexy, talented, or rich, but it isn't the main dish. All of those things we
sought in stages one and two had little to do with the simple but powerful experience of joy in the presence of
another person. [...] When the gay man begins to truly experience love, it is because he is mindful of the
subtleties in his partner that bring him joy. A look, a smile, a laugh, a walk, a touch. These consistently bring him
joy and pleasure. (163)
I have to remind myself repeatedly of these subtleties in moments of doubt and confusion around the fact that I'm with someone whose physical well-being may become a challenge to my own material advancement in the prime of my life. What will happen when he needs someone to look after him? Will I be able and willing to avail myself for the sake of his wellness, our wellness, as I pursue my passion for writing, wherever that leads? Am I sabotaging the joy of passion by even being in this relationship where my partner's age, with its implication of physical and mental (to say nothing of other forms of) debilitation, may become an obstacle to pursuing personal fulfillment? What of finding another partner more suitable to the pursuit of my own dreams?
This, I think, is where Downs' note on the last of the three aspects of contentment comes into play: integrity. In short, integrity, according to Downs, is the state of being undivided [sic] (164). In the context of committed partnership, an arena in which I have freely chosen to enter with a man whose physical health is robust but precarious if he does not monitor himself (true of anyone, right?), integrity is a matter of being honest with oneself and one's partner about those issues--be it the doubt and confusion I articulated above or those habits of denial and avoidance in the face of uncertainty--which could potentially destroy the relationship.
Living in integrity with my present partner, I've realized, is a matter of being consistently present to the doubt and confusion I experience about the age gap without letting it distract me from noticing joy as it arises moment to moment. It is a matter of being undivided within myself about my love for the Beloved--someone whom I find sexy precisely in light of his age. All the questions, particularly that last one about "suitability", are rendered irrelevant when I remember the joy of this love. The only obstacle in the way of pursuing my passion is me.
Despite and because of the realities of age and aging that come with being in an intergenerational gay relationship, I find it a crucial daily practice to recall the joy that accompanies being in this other man's presence. Coupled with the passion I have for doing what I love, a passion that my present partner's emotional support and encouragement only amplifies, being with the one I love puts all of the doubt and confusion to rest.
It takes integrity for me to recognize that being my own man is not mutually exclusive of being with another man, especially when this person inspires me to become more fully who I am by dint of his very presence. His space and place in my life in fact presents me with the welcome challenge to be an adult, to grow up, to put the pieces of my life together in a meaningful way without voiding him from the picture. For what is the pursuit of a dream without someone with whom to share it? What is a completed puzzle if a piece is left missing?
So here we are today--two men in love across the divide of two generations (he is a Baby-Boomer; I am a Millenial)--making things work despite the seeming odds. It is true that we are both in different seasons of our lives: he is in retirement and a settled homeowner; I am just out of school (a doctoral program), looking for a meaningful career in writing and a place to call my own, to call our own. Much of this now depends on my own concerted efforts to bring the proverbial bread to the table. Integrity demands that I commit to myself as a means of committing to him and vice versa--that I be undivided in myself in making these commitments. In so doing, I remain my own man, present to the joy of contentment as Downs describes it, without forfeiting my vision of a shared future with the one I love.