It had been a hard year. My rather meteroric career in mental health and academia had come to a spectacular close related to my own compulsive choices and addictive behaviors. I had fucked a co-worker, and generally been an asshole of a human being, acting like a character in someone else’s melodramatic novel.
My faith community that I had founded and participated in was over--leaving long time friends and genuinely good people whom I love in the lurch, hurting and confused. What had seemed like a liberating move to end it, had simply left my family more isolated and me more lonely.
The marriage that I had committed to and passionately wished to be a part--my second--was quickly becoming a casualty of my broken way of being in the world.
It looked like everything was falling apart. Life has never felt as over for me as it did in that moment. I knew I was facing loss in every arena. I can remember clearly thinking "Work--down the toilet. Family--gone. Relationships--ruined. What do I have left?"
One night, after we put the kids to bed, turned off the lights, we stood in our bedroom--neither of us moving. I recall in that moment looking at my wife, as she was sobbing—we both were—and I asked her: “What do you want me to do??” I’ll never forget her words: “Fucking BE THE MAN!”
The reality of that moment was this—all of my defense mechanisms had ground down to a halt. Whatever had been working up till then had by now, stopped. Maybe this is an obvious analysis. But the truth is most of develop our defenses as natural ways of dealing with the situations that come about in life. They are often elements that develop very early on which help us mitigate circumstances that would crush us otherwise. In that sense we ought to be grateful for them.
imagine a pristine and clear mountain lake. It’s absolutely teeming with Life - fish, amphibians, nocturnal shore mammals like beavers, and otters. The presence of Life is overwhelming.
But then something happens.
The cold winds blow. The winter storms come, and inevitably a sheet of ice forms over the top of the lake. In a sense it’s protective. It stops further harm to what lies beneath. But it is also preventative, isn’t it? The things that are underneath cannot easily escape any longer; in order to access those elements, you have to first get through this line of defense.
As it is in the wild, so it is in our lives. When we’re in the process of personality formation, we’re born into the world as a potentiality.
As a father who has witnessed the birth of my own children I can tell you that there’s a vibrancy to this emergence of aliveness. It’s unparalleled.
Maybe you’ve heard people talk about having a kind of essential-self, or even more common is the idea of people having a spirit. What does that actually mean? If you’ve ever enjoyed a fine scotch or a good whiskey, you actually probably already get the idea more than you think.
When you process an alcohol down to its finest or most pure distillation, you actually call what’s left “the spirits.” Its the element that is heart and soul to the character of the drink. In the same way the essence, or spirit, is that part of a person that cannot be reduced. As one poet and philosopher said, it is your face “before you were born.” That’s the kind of irreducible quality that we have as we are born. It is potential, uncolored, unbounded, and undeconstructable. You can’t break it down any further.
Of course, if you can’t reduce it--it can be covered up, can’t it?
Let’s be honest: Very quickly, a steady series of disappointments occur to an infant soul, don’t they?
You’re plunged from the warm comfort of the womb into excruciating brightness and cold and noise. The world is distinctly LESS pleasant. And if this weren’t enough, your caregiver isn’t always responsive to your cries; you don’t always get what you want, or the environment doesn’t correspond to your immediate need.
You get the idea… So what happens at this point?
We develop coping mechanisms--elaborate defense strategies to protect us from being disappointed or hurt again. This is like that icy layer covering the lake isn’t it? In this analogy we call that ice--our personality. It’s the outer most part that people interact with--that we show the world. That’s right! In large part our personality is really simply the protection racket we’ve been running to avoid heartache.
“Hi, my name is Rainier and I’m a defense mechanism.”
Your Sin and Your Gift
It all works. Until it doesn’t. The things that got us through simply stop. The habits that protected us and acted in our best interest, no longer do so. The reality is that at some point we had to figure out if we are going to keep running the same play, or try something different.
My own life had centered around filling the void of detachment and loss of connection, chronic loneliness and isolation, with cheap sex and romantic love (the original dopamine rush and cocain high). I meet lots of guys who mirror this journey, and the truth is I suspect its an easy trap to fall into. Regardless of whether or not it is anyone else’s road—it was mine. Those hidden moments, whether spent in front of a magazine or the internet, or making a real life contact, made me feel fucking great. Empowered, charming, and surely, I was able to make sense out of the sadness. I no longer had to think about it.
Recently a social media troll went after me privately stating that I don’t sufficiently explain how our behaviors develop, how our shadows emerge, or how we overcome them. I get it. Culture is awash in clever and empowering self-help jargon that skims over how we get to be the way we are in the first place. It assumes a certain level of awareness on the part of the average reader, or is simply disinterested in exploring the how and the why. Strength based. Solution focused. That’s how you have to be a hustler-guru today on instagram.
The would-be-on-line assailant wasn’t wrong. He was pointing out the obvious truth. We’d rather no have to deal with our shadow. Jung, the father of psychoanalysis and of the discussion around the shadow, noted that the shadow is really the things in our life which no longer harmonize with what is acceptable to the public self. It is, to paraphrase him, everything that shuns the light of public opinion. Of course we don’t talk about it. Of course our resumes are littered with the good stuff. Our stories all hinge on the turn around. And our memories are constructed carefully around putting the best foot forward. However, as Jung further pointed out: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.” In other words, until we learn to integrate our wounds and shadow, they’ll trip us up at every step.
I’ve got to be honest—that’s what “being the man” is about to me. It’s not about simply reinventing my golden self, or trying to put on airs. It’s not about developing another platform where I simply show the gold. Those things are deadly. For me—being a man living out of his health and strength is about accepting both “my sin and my gift.” One with the other. In order to do this we must have practice spaces, or what I call “unsafe spaces.”
I call them unsafe because quite honestly they’re the very opposite of the tidy, well-organized, pillow filled rooms I used to sit in as a therapist. They’re anything but safe or clean. The circles I find myself in today are messy. And when the shit hits the fan its ugly.
A man whose wife cheated on him.
A man whose cheating on his wife.
A man who hates being a father, but can’t imagine being apart from his children.
A man who can’t contain his anger.
A man with a past who can’t escape it.
A man who can’t stop sobbing about the emotional incest of his childhood.
A man who was an abuser.
A man who lost his job.
A man who is a closeted homosexual.
A man who wants more but has no clue how to get it.
Men need “shatter zones” where they can fall apart—without being therapized to death, fixed, coddled, or cuddled. Men have to have places where they can practice integrating their shadow. But not so fast—because these aren’t judgement free zones. No—in fact, other men may very well judge a man who shares his shadow. And when that happens—that too must be given voice. Why? Because it’s an important part of change. Just like my wife challenged me in that moment, validating the fact that I needed to do more, show up in better ways, and work towards change. We men must have those moments where we both can be radically authentic, and actively challenged. It’s a both/and process.
What makes that any different than the judgmental and shaming world that shuts men down in the first place, the very thing that has turned us cold and avoidant? Belonging. A deep and profound belonging that says: “I may not like this, I may not agree with this—but everything belongs.” That’s the difference.
Sebastian Junger comments on this when speaking about Tribe, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It's time for that to end.”
We are never so unnecessary as when our sin is divorced from our gift. As one of my podcast guests, Stu, said: “We need failure. Failure is a much better teacher than success.” But our relentless emphasis on success and the golden aspects of our self, makes this difficult, even impossible, to reveal. So we hide, sensing that we aren’t needed—either our sin or our gift. We drop out, tune out, and fade away (which is of course statistically what we are watching with men)
But what if we chose not to?
Just like my wife said to me—I’m challenging men to “Be The Man.” I’m not talking about a juiced up meat head macho jerk. That’s not what it means to be a man. No—a man is someone who is resilient in the face of suffering. A man takes responsibility for his actions—even when they reflect poorly. A man can look at his shadow, and take steps to integrate it. A man can roll the dice, lose, and try another time. A man is someone who can stay, when everyone else falls away—but he’s also someone who can shake the dust off of his feet and leave when he needs to. A man is strong—but he’s flexible. A man has honor in the courts of his tribe, even when public opinion has sentenced him down-river. A man cares for friends and strangers alike, and isn’t afraid to give hand outs or hand-ups. He is a king who is generous because he knows that everything he has was first given to him. A man can face down the Feminine—be inspired by Her, draw from Her, feel and move with Her—and also not be hypnotized by Her, abandoning his mission. A man takes care of his obligations, and commits to be obliged as little as possible.
I’m learning to become that kind of person. In fits and spurts, with help along the way. Life has a way of providing the feedback you need if you find yourself out of step. I wonder what it might be like for you to begin to find your way also?
Might it look like reaching out to a friend, or mentor? Might it look like seeing a therapist or a coach? Could it be joining an online group, reaching out to men in your area, or even starting your own circle of men? What would it look like for you to begin to bridge the gap and to integrate shadow to light, sin into gift, and to discover, more than ever before, who you really are?