I'm a starfish glowing at the bottom of the ocean I'm a light bulb shining down in the basement I pray to the sky to be seen and heard another day ends without a word.
Over the last few years, I’ve seen more attempts than I can remember to define what constitutes appropriate and proper (often characterized as “healthy”) manhood and masculinity. Some of these efforts are clear, grounded, and helpful. Some are well-intentioned but misguided and/or misinformed. Others appear to be driven primarily by sociopolitical motivations, and in far too many cases, by an ongoing effort to demonize men, masculinity, and male power as inherently flawed, bad, evil, wrong, “toxic”, etc. Masculinity is seen as a source of problems and therefore must be restricted, restrained, and if possible, eliminated, with corresponding retraining of men to rid them of their innately troublesome nature (e.g., the widespread “Teach men not to rape” meme).
One of the most prevalent and pervasive themes I’ve seen on this subject typically goes something like this:
Healthy masculinity is defined by how a man treats women.
This could not be more wrong.
Healthy masculinity is defined, first and foremost, by the nature of a man’s relationship with himself. He must know, understand, and be in conscious, ongoing relationship and dialog with:
- his wounds
- his history
- his needs
- his anger
- his sadness
- his grief
- his joy
- his strengths
- his weaknesses
- his purpose in life
- his shadow
- his power
A man’s relationship to his own power is a critical element of a mature, healthy masculinity, and that relationship can be a tricky and difficult one for some men. The primal aspect of male power can be very intimidating, especially for men who spent their boyhoods with men who abused or avoided their own power. But true manhood is not possible without acceptance, application, and mastery of one’s own power, in whatever forms are unique and appropriate for the individual.
Owning and applying one’s power in a mature, healthy way carries with it the responsibility of owning the outcomes of doing so, both positive and negative. It also requires setting boundaries for what is and what is not within the scope of one’s responsibility. A man must be willing to take responsibility for his own actions and inactions, his own successes and failures, without assuming responsibility for the actions, inactions, successes, and failures of others, however much he might feel pressured to do so.
Any man who defines himself primarily in terms of something external to himself (other people, objects, job, etc.) is in for a world of trouble. A man who regularly gives women’s needs higher priority than his own is going to wind up very lost and very angry at some point in his life. He will then direct the effects of his suffering at himself, at those around him, or both.
A man will generally treat others, over the long term, only as well as he treats himself. A man who is in healthy relationship with himself will treat others (women, children, and animals as well as other men) with the same respect, consideration, and understanding he allows himself, and all of it will be coming from a place of authentic inner abundance rather than from a need to impress or meet external expectations.
It’s hard for me to imagine the same folks who espouse the “Healthy manhood is defined by how a man treats women” approach flipping the genders and advocating a “Healthy womanhood is defined by how a woman treats men” philosophy. Healthy relationship between men and women will not come by requiring one gender (male) to elevate the other (female) above itself. What we should be aiming for is parity and partnership. Telling boys and men that the number one priority in their lives should be the needs of girls and women takes all of us in the opposite direction.
The “Healthy masculinity is defined by how a man treats women” approach essentially says that healthy, appropriate, mature masculine identity is to be determined on a performance basis by women, according to standards that would no doubt vary from time to time and woman to woman. This is a blueprint for confusion and frustration on the part of both men and women. Women cannot define masculinity for men, nor should they be expected to, any more than men can, or should be expected to, define the feminine for women.
The true source of healthy masculinity is within each man. It is waiting for him in his mind, his heart, and his body. It speaks to him in his dreams, his daydreams, and his fantasies. The pathways that can lead him to it are ancient and well-traveled by his ancestors. It is a journey that has been taken countless times over countless centuries, but it begins anew with the life of every newborn boy who enters this world. Let’s give each boy and each man the tools, the knowledge, the encouragement, and the freedom to take that journey in his own way, at his own pace. That is the one and only way that healthy masculinity will truly manifest and express itself in our world.
Photo credit: David Jewell. Used by permission.
Men and grief
D.A. Sears – What If He Cries?
Coming to terms with an absence of elders
Why aren’t more older men showing up for younger men?
What do you need right now?
sometimes I just wanna put on my suit of lights and march straight into the darkness arms held high hands in the air two middle fingers aimed at the cosmos one last defiant victory salute. to hell with karma fate love time and gravity I'll set myself free from all of it lighting the fuse on an eternity of smashed hearts and dashed hopes blowing myself sky high into a new constellation.
love is madness hope is weakness trust is blindness passion is mindless. kindness is an invitation to a disaster party a promise made is a handful of snow an open heart is a carnivore buffet she will chew her way through then walk away.
“There is a masculine mode of feeling equally as deep as feminine. Men needn’t be feminine to feel.”
What might motivate a man to want to say “goodbye” to masculinity? I can’t speak to the motivations of the author of the poem above, but I’ve observed that there is a group of men out there, many of them very well meaning, who seem to believe that men and masculinity are inherently inferior to women and femininity, and that men must look to the feminine as their model for “healthy masculinity”.
I believe this notion must be challenged. Both masculine and feminine are valid in their own ways. One is not superior to the other. Both have aspects of light and shadow, as all archetypal energies do. We must take care not to ignore or inflate the shadow aspects of either, or to project the shadow aspects of one on to the other. That is a dangerous path that can only lead to disaster.
As a man who entered adulthood with a deeply wounded masculinity, I understand the attraction to the feminine as a source of healing and direction. Wounded men often seek out women to heal them, but much of what they need can only be found in safe male space with other men. I make this statement with confidence based on many years of personal experience as well as observation of other men, in men’s groups and in life. A man who is living out a wounded expression of masculinity in whatever form that takes (and there are many) can receive a lot of helpful support and wisdom from women and from the feminine, but there are shadow places and black lakes deep in the masculine heart that are only known to other men, and only other men can help him explore, endure, and navigate them successfully.
Ancient cultures knew this, but we have forgotten. We as men cannot step back into those ancient ways, but neither can we abandon the masculine as being so flawed, so defective, so inferior to the feminine that it has no worth whatsoever. There is no saying “goodbye” to masculinity. It is primal, with roots that reach deep in the very origins of humankind, and it will always be with us. Let us instead find ways to celebrate what is, and always has been, worthy about it. Let the men among us who’ve spent time in those shadow places and black lakes in the masculine heart, those of us who’ve also stood in the fiery breath of the feminine shadow and survived, come forward to extend an open hand to our younger brothers who need us, in whatever way we can.
“Men learn early to ignore their bodies.”
“When a man resists empathy, he is trying to maintain his independence.”
“Sometimes a man does not welcome empathy. It can feel too intense, too exposing, or uncomfortably erotic.”
“Sometimes the most empathic response is silence. Respectful, patient silence. When a man is thinking, let him think.”
The above quotes constitute just a small sample of the many astute observations on men and the male psyche included in John M. Robertson’s excellent 2012 book Tough Guys and True Believers: Managing Authoritarian Men in the Psychotherapy Room. John is a psychologist who works with authoritarian men, often described as workplace bullies, sexual harassers, partner abusers, and true believers of various types. For years, he has served these men at a facility that assesses and treats them on an intensive out-patient basis. His publications, workshops, and professional presentations focus on various aspects of the psychology of men.
I was pleased and honored that John chose to include two selections from my book Iron Man Family Outing in Tough Guys and True Believers: my poem “learning to breathe” and an excerpt from my poem “release”.
I had the pleasure of spending a day with John at a masculine psychology conference in San Antonio about two years ago. We’d previously corresponded briefly by email regarding his use of the above-mentioned poems in his book, but had never met in person. I found him to be not only quite knowledgeable, but also wonderfully accessible, open, and engaging. Before each of us returned home (me by car to Austin and John by plane to Kansas), we took a little walking tour of the Alamo and the River Walk, had some lunch, and chatted about our work. It was a friendly visit filled with meaningful conversation. John spoke to me as a peer, which was a great and unexpected validation of both me and my work. I felt inspired and encouraged by my time with him, and I hope we’ll have the opportunity to meet and visit again sometime.
Folks who’d like to learn more about John’s approach to psychological treatment of authoritarian men might also be interested in his six-hour video seminar “Effectively Treating the Authoritarian Client: Narcissistic, Obsessive & Histrionic Behavior”, which is available for purchase (downloadable video and audio) and rental (streaming video) here on the PESI website.
For more information about John and his work, you can visit his website at jmrobertson.net.
she pops the lid off her skintight cookie jar leaping inside so hungry for a taste I tumble like alice down the bunny hole into a temporary womb of no tomorrow trying to resurrect myself from the lazarus tomb of the daily grind hoping to release myself from the relentless death grip of the shared cubicle mind.
devil skin devil skin stroke devil skin peel devil skin deliver me from what I can't feel. devil skin burn devil skin heal devil skin fall in love with someone unreal. hold me raw sometimes I feel like I'm gonna go stark raving spontaneously-disintegrating-into-a- cloud-of-randomly-circulating-electrons batshit crazy mad if I can't roll over in bed into the arms of someone who'll love me and hold me when I feel raw scared insecure uncertain lonely even if it's only for a few minutes every few years so I don't feel so goddam alone in this world. angel skin we can all be angels briefly in fleeting moments of love our skin turns to angel skin our breath is angel breath every moan gasp sigh is angel language our native tongue before we fell to earth and forgot who we are.
am I bad am I too much am I too blinding to be around. do I come on too hard do I give away too much do I make too many mistakes. have I held on too tight have I reached too far have I fallen over the side. will I finish my work will I find my way home will I sleep in peace tonight.
pleasure reflex into old pain instant remembrance of lost rewards a single breath of sunlight long awaited blows raw wounds long hidden wide open one brief moment of sweet affection shared then withdrawn forever detonates the starving heart into a million shards of heat and light like a star exploding alone and unseen into cold black space.