Wounded Men and the Search for Manly Virtues


Father's Day came and went with little respect, honor or celebration for fatherhood's basic biological prerequisite -- being male.

Maleness has been under relentless assault for a generation. Feminists first blew the bugle and still lead the attack. They accuse men of being violent, destructive, exploitative, competitive, abusive, domineering and misogynous. Some of them hold the male gender responsible for war and environmental degradation, as well as the oppression of women.

This demonology of maleness contrasts with feminism's affirming vision of womanhood. The feminist movement has developed a coherent body of ideas which define womanliness in terms of beneficent feminine qualities such as the ability to nurture, relate and cooperate.

This positive aspect of feminism has done much more than criticize men and confront discrimination against women. Feminist ideas have liberated females themselves from their own restrictive concepts about what it means to be a woman. The movement has inspired and empowered women to conceive and pursue their highest aspirations.

Men, on the other hand, have not developed any comparable body of thought with which to respond creatively to the profound and exciting challenge of feminism. In fact, men haven't even established a position from which to defend themselves against the vilification of their maleness. Men are philosophically bereft. When they look to their inherited concepts of manliness, they find them morally indefensible, emotionally exhausted and spiritually empty.

To fill the void, some men have turned to feminism in their search for redefinition of what it means to be a man. They have tried to cultivate their own "feminine" qualities. The result has been an improvement over macho bravado, but the product has largely been a soft and tepid male who lacks spark and vitality.

Males have their own unique abilities to nourish, empathize and connect. But thoughtful men are beginning to realize that they cannot develop any strength in the male manifestations of these qualities unless they can learn how to reach into their own deep male energies.

Men are now at the beginning of a new period in which a few trailblazers are trying to find or create liberating and empowering metaphors, myths and archetypes for manliness. The patron saint of the quest is the white-haired grandfatherly poet Robert Bly.

The new men's movement took off in early 1990 when Mr. Bly appeared on a Bill Moyers PBS television special called "A Gathering of Men." Later that year he published his best-seller "Iron John: A Book About Men." It retells the Grimms' fairy tale of the "Wildman" as an allegory for a boy's initiation into manhood and his discovery of the secrets of authentic manliness.

Just as early feminists were ridiculed as "bra-burners," Mr. Bly and the new men's movement have been greeted with derision and rejection. People have hooted about his weekend seminars at which men beat on drums and dance together. But the mockery is only an attempt to deny a male reality which the men's movement has disclosed and which profoundly threatens men who are stuck in the old paradigms of what it means to be a man in this culture.

The men's movement begins with a startling insight: The much maligned "male-dominated" organization of American life not only discriminates against women, it cripples men. Our social, economic and political systems have historically assigned to men the primary responsibilities for warfare and economic competition. In order to prepare male children to assume those roles, our traditional culture has emotionally impoverished men by requiring boys to learn to repress and deny their fear and their pain.

While feminism has expanded little girls' horizons beyond child rearing and homemaking, there has been almost no progress for males. Little boys are still subjected to a high school football coach's warrior mentality which shames them if they hurt or cry.

Two principal consequences flow from the repression required to achieve this level of male denial. First, men are physically destroyed by it. They must endure internal and external stresses which break their bodies, ruin their health and ultimately kill them at much higher rates and at much earlier ages than women, as Herb Goldberg first pointed out almost 20 years ago in his brilliant pioneering polemic, "The Hazards of Being Male."

The second consequence of denial is that men lose their emotional, psychic and spiritual liveliness. Men's underlying mode of feeling is grief. They mourn for their lost vitality, playfulness, spontaneity, sensuality and joyfulness. Most of all they grieve for the fathering they lost when their own fathers went off to work themselves and left their sons at home to be raised by women, who could not, of course, lead boys along the treacherous pathway to manhood.

The search for a revitalized masculinity has just begun. In addition to Mr. Bly, other writers and thinkers are now exploring new definitions of what it means to be a man. Two recent guides are Sam Keen's "Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man" and Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette's "King Warrior Magician Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine."

The redefinition of manliness will probably take a generation or longer. But it is already clear that the process will begin and end with our experiences of fathering. We need to heal our boyhood wounds and then take our own sons by the hand and guide them toward an experience of manhood which embraces fear, weakness and vulnerability as well as power, strength and courage.

This journey can seem incredibly threatening to those of us who were raised under the traditional paradigm of masculinity. We cannot take the first steps without acknowledging that we feel scared, weak and vulnerable. But the deeply ingrained warrior's code of denial and repression scorns these feelings.

To answer these contemptuous voices from the past we need other men's encouragement. With the support of a strong men's movement, we can re-father each other and develop the manly virtues to become new men ourselves.

@4 Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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