Men & The Current Crisis
Men are both powerful and relational. They have a drive towards becoming and belonging. Their vast capacities to feel, think and do all are capacities to both imagine and make a difference, and to empathise and relate intimately. But too often the vastness of their nature has been cut down to a meagre, soul-destroying size.
Here’s a quote from Gordon Clay (The ManKind Project) that helps elucidate the vastness of the nature of men.
Man’s inherent nature is to be curious, gentle, intimate, responsible, enthusiastic, sensual, tolerant, courageous, honest, vulnerable, affectionate, proud, spiritual, committed, wild, nurturing, peaceful, helpful, intense, compassionate, happy, and to fully and safely express all emotions. When will we stop teaching him otherwise?
Are women different? No, not in this inherent potential. And the unique differences, preferences, strengths, values between the sexes are far less significant than the unique differences between individuals - and societies. We are all wonderfully varied and wonderfully similar as humans. Yet, we teach men and women otherwise. But here I consider the chopping down, the soul-sucking of men.
Learning how to live. Learning how to die.
The movements of patriarchy, industrialisation and feminism have taught men that they don’t belong here as they are and must do or be certain things in order to belong (or, at least, be tolerated). Fundamentally, men live with the message: Unwanted (unless they are or do this or that). Furthermore, men have been taught to be powerless cogs in a globalised, consumerist machine, and, contradictingly, for all their personal power is bad. The message is: Don’t be too much, Don’t succumb to the temptation of power.
1. Unwanted unless you ‘be a man’
Industrialisation moved us away from our villages, and moved our fathers away from our households. We were thus divorced from social validation of who we are as a man, of becoming a man. No tribal initiation ceremony told us we were welcomed into the male tribe. No father present and open enough to embrace us into his domain. Instead, neoliberalism and globalised capitalism told us that to be wanted here, to have any value, we must be productive, self-reliant, independent and successful. The training we received often took the form of criticism and undermining, toughening us up to be a productive member of society.
But we were left in a vacuum, desperately hungry for something to make us worthy of belonging here. And quickly, at school, from our dads, in the changing room, we learned the apparent rules of manhood: don’t be a girl, emotional disconnection, toughness, independent self-reliance, competition and success, violence and banter, sexism and homosexuality. We learn, in our varied ways, to live by these and so find our place in the outwardly strong, inwardly depleted and desperate male tribe.
And so we had to cut ourselves off from our curiosity, sensuality, vulnerabilities, enthusiasm, compassion, tenderness, affections, spirituality, affections, emotions and happiness. We could be powerful, but only in a predefined way, a manly way, a way that is squeezed of imagination, creativity and making any real difference in the world. Moreover, we could only be relational in competition and banter - and with women, only in objectifying ways. Friendships were defined by this - we dared not risk anything more, anything that might feed our souls. Perhaps we find a woman, our own Mother Nature, to hold these parts of us, to be these lost parts of our soul for us, and to tend gently to our wounds and needs. Perhaps meeting her we no longer felt the need to be with our friends and lost them completely. Yet we could not relate even to our partner authentically, with our innermost desires, hurts, longings, fears. True, intimate, authentic connection upon the sacred ground of non-conditional belonging was still beyond us; the closest we could reach for with our mangled souls was performance-driven, manhood-proving, guilt-ridden, pain-ejaculating sex.
And so we chase after manhood running on empty, scared shit of tripping up or taking a breath. And when we tire, start to trip up, start to get in touch with the hollow facade of a man our vast souls have been reduced to, we can’t seek the help we need. For then we wouldn’t be a man. We would be the tearful boy, left longing for their dad who themselves was running scared trying to be a man. What would our Mother Earth think? How could our friendships so toughly constructed handle this. All our fears come true: we feel that we must, after all, be fundamentally unwanted and not good enough.
2. Powerless and bad power
Feminism has brought about an incredible awareness of the harm such a patriarchal culture has done, both to men and to women. But it has been conflated (including by feminists, but certainly by mens movements as well) with a hate of men: men are either inept and useless (and our engagement with real change in this arena has been pretty useless, overwhelmed by competitiveness, intimidation and all our other defences against really feeling all that patriarchy has wrought upon us) or their power is fundamentally bad (we are fundamentally power-crazy, violent, competitive). Men are told they are unconscious. inevitable actors in a patriarchal script written for them, and thus their agency and responsibility is removed, and they are told that their own powers to break free from this script are bad, evil, corrupt and they should run from them (their agency is evil). The symbol burned on our flailing soul is the flaccid, impotent penis: wormlike, pointless, paralysed with the fear of erection - the fear of virility, visibility, demanding satisfaction - the fear of becoming wild, vicious, abusive.
We are left in confused paralysis. We long for change. We long for something different. But we are removed from our inherent drive towards life, fulfillment, satisfaction, justice, claiming and protecting all of our inherent worth, as well as towards relational intimacy, connection, union; our energy and power that could free us from the empty, numbing, insatiable chasing of being a man cannot find valid expression, it is not permitted to invigorate our ever-desperate souls. We are left yearning for difference yet removed from our capacity to make a difference. We are left using this drive solely to climb the ladder of manhood - of success, of being a provider, of being big, of being someone no-one messes with, or using it to berate ourselves for not climbing it well enough, or simply extinguishing it until we’re left utterly depressed, angry but without the energy, stuck in meaninglessness and insignificance.
And so, we’ve not learned how to live. We’ve learned how to walk silently into the dark paths of catastrophe. We’ve learned how to die.
Re-learning how to live
Men are living lives of ‘quiet desperation’ ‘dying to be men’ (Thoreau). How do men learn to live again? How do we enlarge ourselves - not blow ourselves up like an empty balloon ready to pop - but from the inside, filling and growing outwards again so that the wounds and scars we hold no longer weigh so much on our impoverished souls?
I find exquisite expression to this quest in Thomas Merton’s words:
Life consists in learning to live on one’s own, spontaneous, freewheeling: to do this one must recognize what is one’s own - be familiar and at home with oneself. This means basically learning who one is, and learning what one has to offer to the contemporary world, and then learning how to make that offering valid.
Men have been taught the opposite. Men have been taught that their soul is bad, useless and unwanted. They have been taught life in reverse: to start with what others define as valid for a man to be, and then to cut off, shape, wrangle themselves to become this definition as best they can, shutting off their vast, unique souls in the quest for justification, for belonging. Merton tells us that the fundamental, primary step in re-learning how to live is to start with ourselves.
But it is a mistake to see this task as finding who we are, like an object we find swept under our cultural and family carpets. For who we are is the person also doing the finding. Rather, it is to be with ourselves, as we are, as we are becoming. We will have moments of recognition: Aha! This is who I am! This is how I am feeling! This is what I’m passionate about! This is what I hate! We will have moments when we swallow the pill: ‘OK, I am this too’. But this is all the start of living.
How might we start to do this? A primary way of learning to be with ourselves is by being with others who are able to be with themselves. As we openly, vulnerably and honestly share what’s going on for us, and see that others are OK with it, discovering even that many others share our experiences, we realise that all that’s going on inside us is OK. It won’t rip us apart. It won’t make us nothing. It doesn’t make us bad, useless, unwanted.
And, more, it opens us up to the truly nourishing experience of intimacy with another. Our souls are fed. Something of their old vastness emerges. And new ways of being in the world become possible: ways that don’t mangle us, chop parts off, extinguish our life, or chain us to prewritten scripts; ways that make a real difference in the world, that are new, spontaneous and relating freely and intimately with our ever-emerging, ever-flowing selves, relationships and world. Men can learn to become and belong again.