This is the first part of a series of article on men and the masculine dimension of life. I want to go on a brief journey and talk about men’s work, the qualities of the masculine, the history and the social predicament we find ourselves and how we move forward from here, as well as provide some resources for growth and development.
The first time I have ever consciously paid attention to an emotion happened as I was going through chemotherapy. It was a real rollercoaster.
As I wrote it then in my book, “When I was going through chemotherapy my mood and energy levels could be very volatile. Some days I could barely drag myself to the hospital. Some days I could hardly go through chemotherapy. Some days the pain was debilitating. Some days I questioned my entire being.
But on some days it was a breeze. I’d go to the hospital with a huge smile on my face, ready for whatever was about to come. I’d walk out of the hospital with that same smile on my face. Feeling victorious after conquering, not cancer, but myself.”
So, it took me 18 years and a cancer diagnosis to become aware of my emotions.
How is THAT for extreme?
I have been involved in what is called as “men’s work” (yes, there is such a thing), for a good while, which really is just another aspect of personal development/growth designed specifically for men. It involves specific trainings, workshops, exercises, support group meetings and so on.
The two basic goals of this work are to help men, (i) stay open in any life situation, no matter how challenging, by learning not to default to “unhealthy” behavioural patterns and (ii) understand, embrace and develop their feminine side.
Going deeper this work serves men in the following (I’ll cover some of these in this essay and will get into others in future ones):
- Helping men connect with other men in healthy ways. It is not as easy as it sounds unfortunately, as for most men it’s been quite rare to find themselves in an emotionally safe and honest space with other men where there are no distractions (e.g. sports, drinking etc). This is not about “feelings and becoming vulnerable” nonsense. Rather learning to be authentic in an environment without societal expectations
- Self-examination and processing of a whole host of past events and conditioning: guilt, shame, anger, trauma, resentment and self-hatred amongst others. Unprocessed (and often unconscious) trauma is the foundation for how we are in the present not just individually but as a collective society as well. This is the work of a lifetime but getting over the past is crucial in creating a today that goes beyond individual needs
- Understanding history, society and the role and impact men have in it. For instance, addressing what’s been referred to as “toxic masculinity”, which I personally prefer calling “immature behaviour” (which it ultimately is) for reasons I’ll discuss below
- Learning to recognise and treat women as equal partners in this life. The fact that this is not happening in 2021 and requires explanation (and work) shows just how limited our society is
- Growing personally and developing a different (hopefully better) worldview
- Education on a bunch of topics such as masculinity, commitment, sexuality and so on
Through these events and support group meetings I have been attending I often see men, from a wide variety of age and socio-economic groups, open up for the first time about their lives, more often than not about struggles with work, relationships, family or addictions. They are trying so hard to hold it all together inside and put on a brave face for the outside just to make their lives work. This is of course not specific to men but as we have learnt…well…boys don’t cry. “Sharing” is not a very common word in the male dictionary, unless it relates to sharing stats from the game last night.
I have also experienced something similar personally.
I have given many copies of my book to men: friends, colleagues, family etc to share my story. Without a fail I heard back from them to thank me for sharing my book (they were just polite I think), tell me how much they liked it (they were very polite I think) and then most of them proceeded to tell me about some difficulty in their lives, such as a struggling marriage, divorce gone bad, family member having cancer and so on. It really looked as if for most of them this was the first time they have ever opened up about that part of their lives. Some were even crying. I was stunned. Totally unexpected but glad that they felt comfortable sharing. These are all men whom society would consider “successful” people, yet their insides told a different story.
Now, I’m not asking for your pity for these captains of industry. Far from it. I just want to offer the perspective that many are in pain, suffering and hurt inside without much help no matter their socio-economic status. If they knew that help was available and if it became part of our culture for men to recognise when they need it and seek it out our society might look different.
I’m sure you’ve heard this cheesy new-agey phrase how “hurt-people, hurt people”. If someone, with a tremendous amount of testosterone, cannot really express what’s inside of them in a healthy way (transmutation is a very foreign concept at this stage), carries generational pain and suffering, and acts it out in unhealthy ways it is like shaking a sparkling water bottle incessantly. It’ll eventually blow up. It is also then inevitable that the reciprocal response will be something like #metoo. At some point this has to happen.
But how did we get here? Why is this considered “normal”?
The general narrative you will likely hear if you engage in any kind of personal or relationship development work centres around the idea of how the societally accepted (or “normal”) roles for genders shifted during and after WWII, particularly in the west. If you pick up any relevant books (I will recommend a bunch below) you’ll find pages and pages on this so I’ll just briefly summarise. You don’t have to take this narrative very seriously, but might find it helpful as a guide.
Starting in the 50s and quoting from Robert Bly’s book Iron John (note the American, generally western, context):
“During the fifties, for example, an American character appeared with some consistency that became a model of manhood adopted by many men: the Fifties male.
He got to work early, laboured responsibly, supported his wife and children, and admired discipline. Reagan is a sort of mummified version of this dogged type. This sort of man didn’t see women’s souls well, but he appreciated their bodies; and his view of culture and American’s part in it was boyish and optimistic. Many of his qualities were strong and positive, but underneath the charm and bluff there was, and there remains, much isolation, deprivation, and passivity. Unless he has an enemy, he isn’t sure that he is alive.
The Fifties man was supposed to like football, be aggressive, stick up for the United States, never cry, and always provide. But receptive space or intimate space was missing in this image of a man. The personality lacked some sense of flow. The psyche lacked compassion in a way that encouraged the unbalanced pursuit of the Vietnam War.”
Moving to the 60s.
“During the sixties, another sort of man appeared. The waste and violence of the Vietnam War made men question whether they knew what an adult male really was. If manhood meant Vietnam, did they want any part of it? Meanwhile, the feminist movement encouraged men to actually look at women, forcing them to become conscious of concerns and sufferings that the Fifties male laboured to avoid. As men began to examine women’s history and women’s sensibility, some men began to notice what was called their feminine side and pay attention to it. This process continues to this day, and I would say that most contemporary men are involved in it in some way.
There’s something wonderful about this development – I mean the practice of men welcoming their own “feminine” consciousness and nurturing it – this is important – and yet I have the sense that there is something wrong. The male in the past twenty years has become more thoughtful, more gentle. But by this process he has not become more free. He’s a nice boy who pleases not only his mother but also the young woman he is living with.”
And onto the 70s.
“In the seventies I began to see all over the country a phenomenon that we might call the “soft male.” Sometimes even today when I look out at an audience, perhaps half the young males are what I’d call soft. They’re lovely, valuable people – I like them – they’re not interested in harming the earth or starting wars. There’s a gentle attitude toward life in their whole being and style of living. But many of these men are not happy. You quickly notice the lack of energy in them. They are life preserving but not exactly life-giving. Ironically, you often see these men with strong women who positively radiate energy. Here we have a finely tuned young man, ecologically superior to his father, sympathetic to the whole harmony of the universe, yet he himself has little vitality to offer.”
Stages of development
Another way to look at this development, as it was popularised by David Deida, is to look at this evolution in three stages. Again, don’t take these stages too seriously, just more as a guidance or illustration (there is a pretty good summary here so I’m just adding some extra ideas).
The first stage, described as a person or relationship: it’s all about ME.
I don’t think this needs much explanation as this was the dominant stage up until very recently (some would say even up to today). This can be best described by pretty strict gender roles and norms. Men going out to work and women taking care of the children at home. There is not much empathy and compassion for the other.
Men dominate women by their physical prowess and/or withholding resources and women dominate men by unleashing emotions they haven’t seen before and/or withholding sex. This stage is filled with each satisfying their own needs, manipulation and even violence, yet there is a tremendous focus on presenting a suitable image to the outside. Here essentially our past wounds and hurts (our shadows) are running our lives.
In the second stage the concept of the relationship or a person’s priority shifts from it’s all about ME to it’s all about US.
The emergence of this stage has it’s roots in the zeitgeist of the feminist and gender-equality movements, post WWII disillusion, Vietnam war etc. During this period women began to embrace their masculine aspects, became more dominant, independent from the resource-provider while men identified more with their feminine such as flow, emotions, sharing and becoming more open.
Some have characterised this stage as the “high-powered women executive and the sensitive crystal-healing flowboy”. This is the stage of political correctness, respecting boundaries, avoiding conflict, lack of judgement, agreeing to disagree and so on. All the niceties we live in today. People here want to be valued based on what they can do as opposed to their past, resources or looks. On the flip side this stage also marks the disappearance of sexual polarity because we try to be pleasing to the other.
Our societies and the vast majority of our existence oscillates between these two stages. It is very important that people respect boundaries, “gender norms” disappear (really gender has very little role beyond the bathroom and bedroom), people learn to embrace their opposites and that we find healthy expressions for our shadows. Very much needed. Nothing wrong this, it’s just we are in our evolution, but if one wishes it is possible to transcend these stages and move onto the third.
As we’ve looked at it in a previous essay on free will if one takes their own growth seriously, like an athlete practicing for the Olympics, they’ll eventually reach a point where they will see that there is something in them that is beyond the physicality of the body and the noise of the mind and emotions. At first it’s an intellectual realisation, later it becomes a living experience.
This is a very liberating realisation. Here you’ll begin to need less and less from the outside world to make you feel a certain way. You become loving, joyful, blissful or ecstatic simply by your own nature. People who reach these stages have been called awakened, realised or enlightened beings (there is a progression) but don’t worry so much about labels and please do not call yourself an enlightened being. You might have had some enlightening experiences but that’s nothing.
As you reach this stage you’ll find less entanglement with the outside world, less need to engage, thus the choices and actions you make will be more conscious. Again, it’s not that you move to some cave or become homeless because you are now “spiritual”. It is simply that what you do will be driven by the needs of situation in front of you as opposed to some personal need or ambition. If you want to continue with the person/relationship analogy, one goes from it’s all about ME, through it’s all about US, to your needs are my needs.
Here, you’ll walk into the deepest and darkest corners of the world to do your work, to serve and contribute, because you’ve gone beyond the compulsions of your physicality and psyche. You’ll automatically want to create and share because you are so full. How you express yourself in the world will be through something akin to art (note, not all art is daisies on a canvas).
If you want to take it deeper, in this stage women, or the more authentically feminine person would offer their light, radiance, life-force etc while men, or the more authentically masculine, would offer their integrity and presence unperturbed by the movements of the feminine and the world. Now, imagine if society had let’s say 10% of people like that?
In summary, we’ve gone through this narrative ark of dominating men and submissive women, to WWII where women entered the workforce as men left for battle (and/or returned broken), to men finding odds with this reality of working women, to the search for equality in all aspects of life. Practically speaking this is really a lot, but much needed, change to the historical social structures in a very short space of time which left many wishing for no change at all (e.g. very stringent abortion laws…really a ridiculous idea in the 2020s) or even more change (#metoo).
So, how does all of it relate to men’s work or men in general? As a group of people we have oscillated between the suppressed/repressed provider and sensitised sharer, however to move forward we have to define and create a new paradigm. One not defined by governments, brands or public personalities (they are all keen to get in on the action) but by life itself.
Stay tuned for part 2.