tribe

Embarrassed

When I was a practicing psychotherapist I saw a number of men of all ages who suffered from a common wound: embarrassment of being a man. Perhaps put another way they experienced the shame of finding themselves raised as male in this current world. As the Latin American poet Pablo Neruda said: 

It so happens that I am sick of my feet and my nails/ and my hair and my shadow./ It so happens I am sick of being man.

From my privileged position of confidant I heard other men's stories and discovered the profound pain that many endured. Men told me of abuse or neglect from father's, whom they considered to be larger than life examples of stereotypical manhood.  The loss of elders and the rather ubiquitous transience of shifting male role models, the loss of passion and purpose, and the sense of utter disconnection to male community were common themes. They would say, "I get along better with women than men," typifying their experience of feeling profound ambivalence concerning their basic ability to even interact with their own gender. And honestly it made sense. Hearing them, I understood their sadness. I still do.

In many ways I relate. My grandfather was my hero--standing 6'6", a WW2 hero decorated with the purple heart for saving another man's life while wounded, he was a cattle rancher and a horse trainer. The man noodled catfish and bronco busted!  But, I rarely saw him. Not unlike my father, who also occupied an absentee role. Not that I didn't idolize him--I did. He was a powerful orator and preacher, as well as a brilliant teacher. I loved hearing him cast spells with words...but when I came home from church he would slide into a kind of moroseness, withdrawn and isolated. No, instead of being raised by my heroes, who's attention I craved, I was left to the devices of my mother and sister mainly. They loved on me and pampered me, protecting me from bullies or doing the dishes. I was their companion and little helper. The world I grew up in was more haram than throne room. And for many years I felt I was better for it.  Actually I began to identify myself as a brand of "feminist-man" capable of getting women for who they were and being their shoulder to cry on. In many ways when I saw men--particularly from older generations--I just felt bad for them. They struck me as brutes and savages; dinosaurs whose time had passed. Looking back on it, I suspect my judgement of other "manly men" was a sort of judgement on parts of myself I wished to sublimate or do away with all together.

The Loss of Ground

When talking to men, it seems as though our embarrassment is caused by several different sources. There is the loss of "archetypal ground" so to speak, the disconnection from the body, the detachment from tribe and community for men, and grief over the father wound. As I've mentioned earlier, this last one, is felt keenly. Boys feel such an instinctual need to be touched by their father, to be heard and hold his gaze, that when this doesn't happen the sense of grief builds unbearably. One male in his early adulthood told me of a hunting trip he and his dad took. This was set up as a rare and exciting opportunity to join into his dad's world. He remembered his sister and mother waving goodbye as they drove away in their little pickup. For the first two hours silence reigned. He didn't know what to say to the man, and apparently the older male was equally clueless. Suddenly his dad brought the car to a screeching halt and pronounced, "this just isn't working!!!" and turned around towards home. My friend recalls feeling as though he had done something wrong. As they drove he began to whimper quietly, tears eventually cascading on his cheeks. He replayed their silence, attempting to imagine a way out of it. But, he remembers, the words were stuck in his throat. He mumbled an apology, but didn't know what he was saying he was sorry for. The remourse was ignored. And they stoically arrived back at their house. Over the years he wrestled with this question and the consequence of self-blame. He routinely asked "what is wrong with me? why did my father not speak to me? why could he not bear my presence?"  This grief, he stated, was the dominant issue of his life. 

Interestingly my shadow side influenced this distain for the Masculine. The parts of me that were distant, detached, pretentious, seductive or sexual, aggressive, or overly assertive were--I thought--mannish. I preferred the elements of my persona that I assumed were more feminine: connected, emotive, caring, relational, not-interested in sex. It's funny how associated stereo-types go into those notions. However, in truth, these are generalizations that multitudes of people make. And they're not altogether wrong. Usually we make stereo-types out of truths that replay themselves consistently. We feel that they can be counted on. In my own childhood--as in the lives of many other men, and current culture at large--to be a man by those stereo-types was negatively reinforced and to be a woman or feminine, according to those same generalizations, was positively reinforced. It was frankly embarrassing that I had these shadows of masculinity.

SOCIETY ISN'T BUYING IT

It's no wonder that I, and many others of my generation and younger found ourselves rejecting our sense of the masculine. Even if we did not find corresponding demons in ourselves, the cultural assault on men has been overwhelming. In a randomized study of over a thousand television commercials it was found that 100% of the portrayals of men were negative. Husbands were pictured as unable to do the laundry or adequately clean the house, men were shown as barbarians or criminal, males who were friends of each other were noted as stupid or inept. On down the line there were ZERO positive references. What was once a rich tapestry of male depictions has been reduced to gross simplifications of what it means to be a man. As Guy Garcia put it in his book The Decline of Men, " If men were a brand, their value would be dropping because society is not buying what they're selling."He goes on to suggest that this rapid de-centering of manhood was even advisable: "What better way to welcome to resplendent return of the goddess than the symbolic immolation of the male?" And there is no doubt that this kind of self-combustion is occurring.

The images we're seeing of men, daily--hourly--by the minute--are of overly hostile, vilified, or inept caricatures. Names like TRUMP, WEINER, WEINSTEIN, BUSH and DICK are easy to remember and stick to the gender as a whole. They create a kind of market-image that is transposed onto every other card carrying member who don't openly distance themselves from Testosterone. However, even more disturbing are the beta-bro's who simply drop out of the man-game. As sociologists have been telling us for years boys are overwhelmingly choosing video games, frat parties, and hook ups. Instead of opting for the traditional routes towards responsibility, occupation, and family, men are staying juvenile longer--well into their thirties. It's an interesting reversal culturally in which young women are encouraged to take on the world headfirst, and ARE DOING SO, while the boys-to-men are choosing porn, parties, and video-games.  It's little wonder why, in response to this phenomenon, ex-first lady Michelle Obama criticized this in saying that while we raise girls to be tough and strong we've overprotected boys and created an entitlement culture. 

As Ms. Obama notes though, the same cannot be said for women. If anything women have fought an up-hill battle across the last century and have won every square inch they now occupy--which is far more considerable than mass media might let on. In the infamous piece for The Atlantic Hanna Rosin wrote that for earned Bachelor's degrees are 2/3 in favor of women. And in all but 2 of the 15 projected "future industries of growth" they were dominated by females. It's a strange phenomenon compared with both the record of history, and the rhetoric as it exists today. In Kay Hymowitz's piece Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys she observes that “young women are reaching their twenties with more achievements, more education, more property, and, arguably, more ambition than their male counterparts.” Her conclusion ultimately comes in the form of question "where do boys fit into a girl powered world?"  And of course this conclusion isn't to say that there's been a total reversal here. Women still earn, on average, less than men in many professions. Women still experience the results of systemic oppression, and continue to be outraged at the injustices of power abuse and wrongful societal rules. But for a son of liberal parents, or even growing up savvy to the dictates of culture today, its hard not to feel the shift and be effected by it. 

When these two extremes, what David Deida called "The macho jerk or the new age wimp," are what you're given, when your own internal shadows are what you project outward, when you're reinforced for distancing from what you perceive as the dinosaur of The Male, why wouldn't you be embarrassed to be a man?

WHAT'S THE BENEFIT

At some point I began to realize that the shadow parts of me--the so-called undesirable elements--are also worthy of love and respect too. In fact the Divine Feminine, the goddess, is only worthy when balanced by a Sacred Masculine. If the feminine qualities can rightly be historically perceived as empathetic, relational, and emotive then the masculine virtues of aggression, assertiveness, and action can also have appropriate function. While society routinely finds itself threatened by these qualities, its important to remember that when overlayed with the virtues of Strength, Courage, Honor and Mastery, as well as tempered with Wisdom, these qualities have saved countless lives, enriching and enabling generations of individuals.

The masculine has always been associated with competition and aggression. it seem as though the male tendency to fight is universal. We witness it in the horse world where one stallion fights over reproductive rights, in the wild where stags skirmish for food. Anthropologist's note that it would be unlikely for humans, as a branch of the great ape family tree, to have ever been peacable. Our ancestral condition as males would have been to fight to protect the tribe, to hunt over a wide area, to acquisition safe nesting zones, to defend things of value and to overcome obstacle. Of course aggression was hardly a male monopoly--females also demonstrate the same capacity. However what distinguishes male aggression is that even in ritualized versions of it, there is a passionate enjoyment which seems to possess men. Even with young children, boys demonstrate an instinctual thrill around rough housing and violent play. 

All of this points to the reality that while there is little place today for such intensity, male aggression has served an evolutionary and primordial purpose, so much so that it is ingrained from birth--even provoking feelings of fun. This feature was rewarded not only with delight, but also with a slough of adaptive functions in relationship to other arenas of life, such as increased resiliency. As Sebastian Junger points out in his ground breaking book Tribe,  cultures where there is less aggression also have higher rates of PTSD and depression.  Is it possible that a society that decreases its aggressive tendencies might also experience heightened mental health distress? And if this is so, does it point to the idea that by de-emphasizing the masculine contribution, we do so at our own peril?

It seems apparent that in relationship to not only aggression, but the other dormant male virtues, we suffer when disconnected from them. Masculinity, in its essence has something to offer us, that is more necessary than ever. What I needed to do, I realized, was not deny these parts of myself, or shield myself and others from them, but refine them give them real life.  

HOW TO RECONNECT

Some times I sit at the Fire nights with my tribe of men, or get the opportunity to meet with others lone-wolfing it. I end up hearing this sadness in them. And they're nuanced enough to know throwing out the whole enchilada isn't the right answer. Most of us are trying to figure out how to show up more in our daily lives as father's, husbands, business owners and friends. We want to integrate not only the aspects of the modern man—emotionally sensitive, empathetic and connected, but also our more primal and ancestral truths. Again, Sebastian Junger points out: “

human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered "intrinsic" to human happiness and far outweigh "extrinsic" values such as beauty, money and status.

And this strikes me as true. We need to feel a mastery over self and environment, need to feel as though we genuinely matter and don’t have to hide our truest sense of self, and need Tribe. Mastery. Authenticity. Tribe. In other words, if men are going to start to feel content in themselves they need to find places where they can experience both their core instincts and push against their edges. Men desperately need to shed themselves of the shame that comes from being a “man” in this culture, and begin to practice a new degree of intentional openness, both accepting and challenging themselves.  

If we intend to grow in our capacity for aggression, and therefore resilience, we must allow ourselves the opportunity to experience this coursing through our veins again. In part this is why the book Fight Club was so popular. Its author Chuck Palahniuk said, "There are so few books that offered a valid path for manhood--I wanted to do it."  Being physical, competitive, and intense is such a new reality for men who have come of age today, that the most we know of it is the middle school conflict we engaged with early on, or the movies we have seen. Both demonstrate little in terms of motivating us to either want to, or know how to, engage with each other on a playing field of physical competition. But try wrestling another man. Even in a friendly way. Or pull out the boxing gloves. Be friends. Be friendly. But also, let your muscles wrench against his. Why? Because to touch and be touched are a part of manhood, as well as this--it opens you up to a new way of being you have been shut off from. Or rather--it reconnects you with the wound that has been scarred over. The loss of contact with Father, and the detachment from boys in earlier years, creates shame. When you grind into a fellow male, competing for mastery in that moment, you allow yourself to encounter that place once more. At first it smarts a little--but soon begins to heal over. 

The same can be said for activeness or assertiveness. I used to teach workshops to women who had experienced domestic abuse. We spent days, even weeks, on the topic of assertiveness. It has been so conditioned out of them, that they were terrified to state what they wanted, or take action. I usually posed the question--which is more important to you, situationally: to build the relationship, or to have self-respect? For many, keeping the relationship was more important. They were  willing to sacrifice their own sense of self in order to maintain the connection. But the same can be said of men who are  relationship starved. Because empathy, relationality, and sensitivity have been so emphasized to many men in this current epoch, they find themselves not knowing how to, appropriately, state what they want. It takes practice. Recently, a close friend and collaborator here at Evolving Wild, told me that he wasn't going to fulfill a project I had asked him to do. It was lower on his priority list. Interestingly, my response was that I found myself THRILLED. He showed self-respect in that moment. I knew that was hard for him. He was drawing a line in the sand, and being his own man. I understood he was practicing reclaiming his own sense of assertiveness. 

In order to effectively heal the embarrassment around being a man, we must learn to be apart of a pack, a gang, a Tribe. It is the most natural form of healing that could possibly occur. You don't need to sit around and "explore your woundedness" to do so. Even for men to get together as men is a kind of summoning up of the deepest wounds we each experience. It brings to light our vulnerability and our hiddenness.

The greatest instruction that I could give a man on this journey is simply this: Risk. Attempt. Try on. Allow yourself the opportunity to be seen, or to get it wrong. Look like a jack ass. Deconstruct. Build. Be with other men on the same journey. 

 

 

 

 

 

Risk

This morning I got up early--barely even light out. And I made a killing. I Day Traded the hell out of the markets on the east coast. I won't lie--I lost a little too, but I was a whirling dervish destroying the numbers. I was taking risks like nobodies business. Whereas some of my more conservative or cautious friends only bought in at a few shares--I pumped it to the maximum available. That's why I crushed today. 

Oh--and it was all on a simulator. The markets were real but my money wasn't. My risk was really bullshit.

Ouch. It even hurts saying it out loud. But here's the deal: I'm learning. I mean, I know ZERO about day trading, so this is all new. If I were to throw the family savings in now, I'd be a lunatic (which is already somewhat arguable). So, I playing with the tools of risk and risk management, the short and the long sell, while at the same time hedging my bets. Which makes sense. It works in this case. But honestly, that's where the analogy falls short.

In life we rarely can afford to hedge. When we do, whether in love or business or friendships, we usually come up on the wrong side of the line. I've done this so many times, especially in love. And it's gotten me in a hell of a lot of trouble. The deal is I hate being alone. And when I feel alone in a relationship I tend to soothe that discomfort by satiating myself. Historically this has come out as me starting a parallel relationship--I've cheated. 

Now here's what's funny about that admission--cheating is so risky. Breaking your agreements in unbelievably perilous. So much is at stake (especially as we get older). But it feels like safety. It feels like self-soothing. My brain had it all backwards. 

Over and over this plays out true. I hear it from friends who lament their physique but crave just a few more minutes under the covers, or folks who hate their jobs but stick with this one because they've had it for five years.  The thing that devalues their life, which ultimately risks their entire experience, SEEMS far safer. In reality its the opposite. The action that feels risky is actually the one that is far more profitable.

The Male in almost every species takes more risks. Its a biological reality. In this species its paid off. And lately it seems to be taking a toll. We're risking on the wrong things. We're betting on the wrong horse. Instead of putting our money on the places that seem to increase our comfort and make us feel better, we need to double down on our long term goals and highest values. In that department we need to be Monsters.

It's a risk to have an idea, take a step, and see it through. It's a risk to take a position on something, to be UN-dialectical, stake a claim, and take responsibility for that. It's a risk to make an agreement and hold to it. 

This is why Tribes are so powerful and so important. They help us Risk big, while holding us accountable to our highest intentions. 

It takes courage--it takes absolute commitment to tolerating the distress of looking like a failure, or even BEING a failure. But it pays off big.

Daring greatly on the things that actually matter to us, is like Day Trading with real money. It's scary, but it's also the only way you're going to make actual money. 

Authenticity

It's 6:55am on a Saturday morning. I walk into a bright yellow room with florescent lights blaring. There are a handful of chairs scattered around a sizable table. There isn't coffee. There aren't donuts. But there are men, filing in, like me, to this sacred and un-safe space--and they are here to do The Work. 

We are, most of us, self-declared "addicts," intimacy junkies, attachment adverse--broken when it comes to keeping agreements with others and ourselves. Serial dating, affairs, hook-ups, porn, sexting, parallel relationships--hell, a few second families. You name it. These guys have seen it all. The truth is I don't really care what they've done. Nobody is trying to win the prize for best "addict." Actually what I care about is that they're being honest. 

This is a group that values honesty over performance. Don't get me wrong--performance matters too. But for many of us we hid behind accomplishments, achievements, and pleasantries. I know I did. While I was out championing social justice, equity, and the kingdom of god, somehow I was able to break some of the most basic agreements to myself and to those I loved. How did that happen? One trainer from the seminal life transformation catalyst EST said it like this:

"It's quite simple. You break agreements because you live under the theory that you're special, a privileged character, and are thus free to cheat--on income taxes, stop signs, wives, husbands, expense accounts, and certainly on the little things..."

Now, that sort of sounds like performance language doesn't it? It is, sort of. But it's actually something far deeper--its about authenticity. When I'm living and speaking authentically my words match my actions. I stop being "an acrobat, to act like THIS and talk like THAT" (in the venerated words of BONO from U2). In the group of men I've been meeting with every Saturday morning I've learned to reflect my truth.  It's one of the first times in my life I've been able to do something like that. I'm hardly alone in that.

As men, culturally, we are told to be better, to change, and to improve. The stakes are high--our jobs, our relationships, our reputations. We know that something different is needed but there aren't structures that readily support that shift. The places we've carved out, as a society, for such honesty is usually associated with burnouts and dropouts--failures. Masking (lying) becomes one of the easiest ways to get to the place we feel others want us to be while maintaining an image of having it all together. As a client of mine said once after it was revealed they had been giving false reports in session, "I just thought everyone would be happier if they thought I was doing better." 

Not too long ago my son had a falling out with a friend in his Scout troop. When the meeting time came, he said he was too tired from the day, had studied too hard for the test tomorrow, and asked if he could not go to the Scout meeting. Because I didn't really have all the facts, I gave him a pass. Later he admitted that at least a large part of the reason he avoided the meeting was because of the relationship stuff. I was happy he ended up letting me know what happened, but sad that in the moment he chose to manipulate the facts to get an outcome he wanted. It was easy--just leave out some of the details. The tragedy was that we never got to explore those realities, deal with them, or even validate his own experience. He was left holding his turmoil alone. Suffering in silence. That isn't the way of Men. It's the way of boys. 

A real tribe of men practices ruthless authenticity. It means that if you feel like shit, you say it. It doesn't matter if you don't know why, or what the cause is. Nobody needs you to process that right here, right now. But you say it. It means if you are having a response to someone else, a challenge or a disagreement, you're willing to speak it--then and there. Yeah--you may look foolish. And your facts may come out looking like a battered piñata. That's OK. You said it. You were authentic. And you know what, if you don't feel like talking--then you get to fucking say that too. 

Authenticity allows others to see you and to interact with you. Authenticity provides the spring board for real relationship. Authenticity gives an opportunity to find meaningful connection and real solutions. And, authenticity often sucks. It really does. It doesn't feel safe. In fact--it's not. It's risky. It's easier to minimize, avoid, distance, lie, or cheat. Those things give  quick payoff. But--they really don't land a man where he wants to be--in a tribe of other men doing the Work.

7am comes early on Saturday. I drag my ass in, tired, and sometimes beat down from the week. But at least I'm seen. At least I'm choosing to be authentic. And in that moment--I get to invite others into my world and be apart of theirs.