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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Man-ifestations: The Work Men Do To Inhabit Their Lives In Western Culture

Presented by Michel Léger, Worship Leader, with Celinda Marsh, Worship Associate


The Work Men Do To Inhabit Their Lives In Western Culture

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

Michel Léger, Worship Leader

July 14, 2013



Take thought, man, tonight. Take thought, man, tonight when it is dark, when it is raining. Take thought of the game you have forgotten. You are the child of a great and peaceful race. You are the son of an unutterable fable. You were discovered on a mild mountain. You have come up out of the godlike ocean. You are holy, disarmed, signed with a chaste emblem. You are also marked with forgetfulness. Deep inside your breast you wear the number of loss. Take thought, man, tonight. Do this. Do this. Recover your original name. This is the early legend that returns. This is the legend that begins again. Remember the ancient dances.

            (Thomas Merton: The Early Legend, I, from The Collected Poems)



Man-ifestations: The Work Men do to Inhabit Their Lives in Western Culture.

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”—Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. (1949)


The quote at the top of the Order of Service is from Joseph Campbell’s seminal work on the figure of the Hero and the Archetype of the Hero’s Journey in Western Culture. In this book, Campbell argues that the Hero’s journey is the “monomyth” underlying—providing the basis of—all human story and all human understanding of the human journey toward wholeness and (spiritual) maturity. Based largely on the work of Carl Jung and Sir James Frazer, Campbell’s work offers a way of understanding the human experience that resonates with me and that has ultimately offered me many of the tools I use today in my ongoing search for truth, meaning, wholeness, and spiritual health.

What I’ll be doing today is describing my own personal journey through the cultural labyrinth of “masculinity,” and what that journey has taught me about the ways in which our culture militates against an authentic experience of masculinity and even of humanity. Then I’ll share the strategies I have pursued in order to inhabit my own life more fully and more authentically.

VERY early in my life, I received some powerful lessons in what it meant to be a man. Alas that these were powerful NEGATIVE lessons: Among other lessons, I learned that showing that my feelings were hurt, whether I cried or lashed out or simply reported the fact, was NOT okay. To do so was to be “oversensitive” and—you guessed it: NOT a man. In my father’s world view, men don’t get “hurt” emotionally, don’t FEEL sadness or fear or shame, are unaffected by emotions—or, at BEST, don’t SHOW that they have such emotions.

The SUBTEXT of the lessons I received was even more impactful: Not only was my experience of emotions “wrong,” emotions were suspect, especially the emotions that made a man vulnerable: fear, sadness, even love; and EXPRESSIONS of the other emotions—joy, anger, hope, desire—had to adhere to fixed formulas that conveyed power: joy must be triumphant, anger must be threatening, hope must swagger, desire must objectify. This was the way it WAS: I was NOT to behave in emotionally aware or expressive ways, nor was I to decide for myself what responses to emotions were okay for me as a boy/male/man: I would be TOLD, and had better adhere to, others’ definitions and expectations for manhood. As the BORG say: “Resistance was futile.”

As a matter of survival (I mean this ALMOST literally), I became a VERY precocious student of what qualities, attributes, response patterns, etc., would constitute “acceptable” masculine identity. I suppose every young child becomes such a student, more or less consciously, more or less unconsciously. Children are “socialized” in a thousand ways, quickly and comprehensively, mostly below the radar screen of consciousness.

What made my lifelong “study” of “masculine identity” more conscious—not to say: more crucial—for me was that I had absolutely NO HOPE of conforming myself to the patterns of the “acceptable.” In earliest childhood, I noticed that my gaze was drawn to those parts of men’s bodies that distinguished them from females. Unfortunately, my father noticed this as well.  I learned to HIDE my gaze but I couldn’t NOT be curious about men, I couldn’t NOT desire men. Moreover, vulnerable to teasing, as a child with a speech defect, as a youngest child, and as an awkward and unenthusiastic athlete, I was almost constantly in situations that DID hurt my feelings. I could, theoretically, have learned how not to SHOW I was hurt (yeah, THAT never happened); I could learn to hurt and control others FIRST; and I could even learn how to medicate my hurt (which I did): but I couldn’t, while remaining human, NOT have emotions—a point to which I will return.

From my earliest experiences and my earliest lessons, then, I have been consistently aware, throughout my life, of the disjunct between what “real” men were, according to the world around me, and who I was…. As a result of that awareness, I learned how to hide out, how to medicate, how to lie about who I was; along the way, I learned to loathe who I was, because I perceived collusion to be the only way I could survive.

When my eldest sister committed suicide and my father died two years later, the lessons I initially took on board reinforced the things I had been taught to that point in my life: that emotions were suspect and dangerous, and that the appropriate response to emotion was to control it—the appropriate response to life was to be “in control.” My sister’s mental illness was seen as a failure to control her sensitivity to world events, a failure of her doctors to control her emotional states and her mind.

Too, when my father died, the family narrative was about how his heart had been broken by his eldest daughter’s death. My mother, in particular, lamented his inability to be open emotionally, conveying the “if only” that would seem to have pointed the way to what I would call a “healthy” attitude regarding emotions: that they should be shared. But here, too, his dysfunctional inability to process emotion receded behind the romantic image of the “manly” stoicism and self-sacrifice of a man keeping his woundedness to himself, seeking to shield his family from the “harm” of knowing its father was hurt.

In both cases, the clear lessons I FIRST took away were about the value of CONTROLLING emotion as a dimension of experience, CONTROLLING emotional states, and CONTROLLING emotional responses. To be a human being, to be a man, was to be in CONTROL of one’s mind and emotions.

My ultimate—decades later—take-away from these experiences of loss has turned out to be quite the opposite from the lessons of control my family and our culture seemed intent on imparting. Of MOST value for me in these experiences, is the clear lesson that what is powerfully destructive is NOT the emotional dimension of life nor even mysterious and frightening illness, but the attempt to exercise CONTROL over mysterious mental and emotional states and over emotion itself as a dimension of experience. As I learned relative to my alcohol addiction and to other aspects of my life: control is the problem, not the solution.

In Western Culture, control is an absolute value. We may humorously call ourselves “control freaks,” seeming to deprecate investment in control, but none of us seems really to object to control, except when someone else tries to exercise control over US, OR unless the damage to our lives of our own controlling behavior or that of others towards us is clear. Nor is this problem limited to WESTERN culture: it seems clear from the central tenets of Buddhism that cultures in the Eastern Hemisphere also identify with the need to moderate a seemingly universal impulse to control: the emphasis on the impermanence of all experiencing seems to me intended to support the letting go of investment in outcomes. But in practice, this emphasis seems also to drive that segment of Buddhist thought that seems to strive for IMPERVIOUSNESS to emotion instead of simple awareness of the unfolding of both painful and pleasurable experience through the medium of impermanence. (At least, this is my read of the tension between the Zen schools and the more “mystical” strains of Buddhism).

I am not the first observer of patriarchal culture to identify “control” as the reason patriarchy invests in physical force and military power over diplomacy and reason, intellect over emotion, left-brain powers and the professions associated with left-brain activity over those of the right brain, male-dominated hierarchy over structures of power integrating both sexes and all genders.

Our patriarchal culture still operates, to a great extent, on the basis of assumptions made about sex and gender: that women ARE, essentially, nurturing, emotionally aware and connected, and right brained; that men ARE, essentially, strong, courageous, protective, rational, logical, and left-brained. My focus today is NOT to deny that women in our culture are ALSO asked to cut off major potentials in order to avoid social ostracism, here in patriarchy: of COURSE they are. But just for today, I am calling out patriarchy for the ways in which it disempowers MEN.

So how have I striven to find the thread to lead me out of this labyrinth?

I’ll cover that in PART II.

I want to invite you to consider the ways in which our culture, our society, your own individual lives, have asked you to hide, deny, or repress any part of the truth of who you are. I invite you to follow the sound of the singing bowl deep inside as you spend just a few moments contemplating this question .



So how have I striven to find the thread to lead me out of the labyrinth of cultural masculinity?

In my early twenties, after several years of piling addiction upon addiction just to keep from killing myself overtly, I began to question the wisdom of continuing to struggle against what I knew to be my sexual identity; I began to be aware that anger was eating me alive from the inside; I began to realize that I was drinking abnormally, using alcohol BOTH to numb my painful emotions of sadness, fear, and anger AND to unlock my positive emotions of love, desire, and joy. In short, I became aware that I was living an inauthentic life that would ultimately prove to be suicidal.

Here are the strategies I have discovered and employed that have allowed me to build a life that I believe is more authentic, and that has certainly become more and more satisfying as I have grown older:

In my early twenties, I entered into a course of psychotherapy; I have periodically returned to it, formally, and continuously engaged with it, informally, ever since. It is in this work that I have uncovered experiences and patterns of experience, and the roots of my responses to these experiences, through reviewing my personal history and that of my family.

In my mid-twenties I experienced the sum of enough negative consequences –I hit bottom—from my drinking, so that I therefore became motivated to enter a twelve-step recovery program. There, I learned a radical truth: the authentic experience of all my emotions could not kill me, unless I added alcohol. I embarked on a path called “working the steps” that has allowed me to deepen my understanding of my emotional life, and of my responsibility to my relationships, that has helped me to understand that I not only CANNOT, but NEED not, live my life nor face its challenges IN ISOLATION. I learned the principle of “surrender”—surrender to the truth that addiction is not something I can “control” in the sense of “remove from my experience,” any more than I can control the fact that I have inherited a propensity for premature gray hair and arterial blockage; surrender to the truth that only with the support of others can I manage the symptoms of my addiction (low tolerance for discomfort, craving, substance abuse). I also learned that for me, control truly IS the problem, and NOT the solution. Trying to CONTROL the reality of having an emotional life and of having uncomfortable emotions was what largely DROVE my addictions. Willingness to embrace emotion as a dimension of experience, and to welcome and process more and more awareness of my emotional experiences—and indeed, of my LIFE experiences—as they happen, without judging them, has fueled my commitment to life, to recovery, and to spiritual growth. 

Let me just pause here, in the spirit of the principle of anonymity, to say that I do NOT claim to speak for any of the 12-step programs. I only speak for the ways I have found to live the principles and steps of those programs.

Ongoing research in various psychological and spiritual traditions has grounded my belief that I am not just a physical body, but also have emotional, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions; I have become convinced that to be whole I must acknowledge each part of myself and seek growth and health in each dimension of my experiencing. My reading led me from Jung to Campbell to Robert Bly and other writers in what is called “the mythopoetic men’s movement.” From Campbell and Bly, I learned to think about the universal internal energies, impulses, and challenges that Jung names the archetypes—in terms of how these described my internal experience as a man; and I learned I could use these archetypes as beacons to my own growth. I also discovered the benefits of interacting with men as mentors, comrades, and protégés, patterns of relatedness I had consciously rejected because of the nature of my father’s woundedness and of his treatment of me, because of the lack of identification I had always felt with and from my brothers, and because of the fact that I am unlikely to have any children this go-round.

Once the realization of this lack and of the possibilities for remedying it became clear, I sought out contact with other men, intentionally, through the Twelve-Step program to which I belonged, and in the churches to which I have belonged.

Here at Paint Branch, I was invited by Peter Wathen-Dunn to visit the men’s group that was established ten or fifteen years ago. I joined it, and sat in circle with the good men of that group for five years. We spoke of our daily lives and our unique challenges, supported one another through periods of struggle and growth, and developed a heart connection that I still feel four years after leaving that particular group.

In 2009, on the encouragement of my friend and AA Sponsor, I signed up for a personal-growth weekend called the New Warrior Training Adventure, offered by the international organization, the Mankind Project. This intensive 48-hour series of workshops and growth exercises, gave me a whole new repertoire of tools for developing relationships with both men and women, for living my life with authenticity, and for developing an increasingly satisfying way of living that kept me connected with my deepest self. The weekend is named for an ideal, the “New Warrior,” that is set up as an alternative to “the old warrior way,” a way of fear, competitiveness, domination, inauthenticity, emotional denial, and destructiveness. To quote a formulation of this ideal: “the New Warrior way is to be awake and to be healthy; to live life with authenticity, with accountability for the intended and unintended consequences of actions, with congruence among heart, mind, and behavior, with integrity, and in mission; [the New Warrior way is] to empower himself and others; and to evolve as a man in connection with other men.” The development of the tools I gained on this weekend is ongoing in the “New Warrior” men’s group to which I now belong. In this group I am supported in: identifying my emotions honestly; in breaking through and out of the patterns of response and behavior first set up for me, by me, and by others, in my childhood; I am supported in living my life in the present, cooperatively, empowered within myself but not at the expense of others; and I am supported in leading myself in my own life and leading others into their own power.

Neither the lessons I absorbed in childhood, nor the strategies I adopted to survive, are unique experiences, alas! Generically, socialization REQUIRES SOME ability to regulate impulses and moderate behavior. I get that. But I’m speaking here of a level of “socialization” that chips away at human identity and limits the possibilities for human, masculine (and feminine) responsiveness. I’m speaking of cultural pressure to hide, repress, or deny important aspects of individuality and even of humanity itself, in order to maintain a bland status quo and in order to maintain structures of power that favor the few—for at least as long as those few can survive their own hiding, denial, and repression. I’m speaking of the demand that men exchange basic human birthrights for status, security, and basic respect: that we repress and hide our instinctual lives, instead of being taught to listen to our instincts and include their voices in our decisioning and choicefulness; that we hide or deny our emotions, and consider them weak, feminine, unreliable guides to action, and the enemies of reason and of purpose. We are asked to elevate intellection above every other human capacity, and indeed, still driven by Descartes’ reductive pronouncement—Cogito Ergo Sum: I think, therefore I AM, we are asked to consider intellection the sole mark of human identity; we are taught that control over ourselves, over every aspect of our lives, and over those around us, is the ultimate aspiration; we are asked to be less than and more than human.

I reject this limited prescription for measuring manhood and humanity; I reject the essentialist argument that only women can legitimately experience emotions and that only men can be powerful. I do not reject these in order to deny the differences between men and women; I do NOT reject essentialism in favor of men who cannot be fierce or women who cannot be nurturing. I am advocating MORE richness in individual experiencing, NOT less. I want to work for a world in which men are safe to be vulnerable, to live in awareness of their emotional and instinctual lives, and to live with the power to hold these capacities in the same center where their physicality and their intellects and their fierceness reside; I want to work for a world where men can live out of this center into the full truth of who they are, and can bring the full truth of who they are into full and authentic relationship with the other men, the women, and the children whose lives they touch.

I invite you to share this dream with me.

I invite you (again) to consider the ways in which our culture, our society, your own individual lives, have asked you to hide, deny, or repress any part of the truth of who you are. I invite you to journey deep inside as you consider this question. And in that center of who you are, as you allow yourself more awareness of the beauty and the mystery within, I invite you to bless what you find, and to bring who you are magnificently to all your relationships, to live your authentic truth.

May it be so.

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