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Dan Rodricks: Robert Bly, Andrew Reiner and the long path to better men | COMMENTARY

Andrew Reiner's book argues that boys and men need an updated model of masculinity to thrive and survive in a transforming society.
Andrew Reiner's book argues that boys and men need an updated model of masculinity to thrive and survive in a transforming society. (Baltimore Sun staff)

We each take from the poet what we hear, and, when it came to Robert Bly, I heard a challenge to finally confront the profound grief I felt about my father and his death before we made peace. I won’t bother you with details, but trust me when I say that Bly, the poet and social critic who died last Sunday at 94, had the right words at the right time for me.

And apparently for many others.

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I never took part in one of his widely-mocked wild-man weekends, never beat drums around campfires. But Bly’s book, “Iron John,” and his “Gathering of Men” interview on PBS in 1990 took me to a clearing in the woods of lingering depression. A friend in recovery from alcoholism, and still grieving his father’s suicide, introduced me to Bly. A lot of what the poet had to say about manhood came from his own place of grief and recovery. He expounded powerfully on how the absence of a loving father, in particular, left a hole in the souls of boys becoming men.

Bly’s “men’s movement” of the 1980s and 1990s was criticized as anti-feminist, and men who sneer at psychotherapy and introspection ridiculed and dismissed Bly’s “mythopoetic” approach as touchy-feely self-indulgence.

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But we each take from the poet what we hear, and I heard an admonition by a wise, older man that the next generation must do better. Reflecting on his work, Bly put a stamp on that. “The biggest influence we’ve had is in younger men who are determined to be better fathers than their own fathers were,” he said, and that, for me, is his legacy. That, and his superb poetry.

In “The Sibling Society,” Bly complained that America had too many “half adults,” women and men in protracted adolescence, obsessed with personal pleasures, neglecting the next generation and the greater good. That sounds like cranky geezer stuff, but, again, the poet uttered a powerful truth. His critique, originally leveled during the Clinton presidency, came to mind frequently during Trump time, whenever I heard someone refer to the lack of “adults in the room.”

And I think of it now when I see armed militias and bands of white supremacists on the march or when I hear people protest vaccination mandates amid a pandemic. It all sounds adolescent to me, the weird fixations and selfish behaviors of people who have not grown up. I fear for children: The so-called adults who pass loudly before them hardly form an ideal for them to model.

But that might be the least of problems for American children, particularly boys, according to anyone who’s been paying attention to vital signs.

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Andrew Reiner has. A lecturer in the Honors College of Towson University, Reiner has been examining why boys and young men increasingly suffer from anxiety, loneliness and depression, become addicted to opioids and commit suicide, and why men inflict so much violence on others. He’s written a book, “Better Boys, Better Men,” about how parents, coaches and educators might better prepare boys for manhood in a society quite different from the one of Robert Bly and “Iron John.”

“A lot of middle-aged and older men I interviewed for my book said things along the lines of, ‘Oh, gee, didn’t we already have this conversation in the ‘70s or ‘80s or ‘90s?’” says Reiner. “But boys and men were in a very different perch decades ago than they are now. #MeToo dramatically and rapidly changed the landscape in profound ways, not just for girls and women but for boys and men, too. Girls and young women are lapping boys and young men on every metric of education — from elementary school through graduate school. Young women are more gainfully employed than young men and are doing a better job of landing white-collar jobs out of college.”

Reiner’s book, published by Harper One, is packed with insight, many from his own classroom observations, about 21st century boys and young men; I dog-eared several pages. This is an eye-opening read for anyone who wants to understand what troubles boys today and what they need. What they need, Reiner says, is an updated skill set that includes “self awareness, empathy, collaboration, strong communication and compassion.”

He cites, among others, Baltimore high school teachers who understand that. They know their classrooms can be emotional battlegrounds for boys trying to keep up academically with girls while still burdened with outdated models of masculinity. There’s a reason why, for instance, boys rarely ask questions in class; the “gender script,” says Reiner, requires that males appear confident, decisive, certain; a question suggests weakness. “The whole premise of openly courting curiosity and intellectual uncertainty flies in the face of gender identity for young men,” Reiner writes. “This was summed up with perfect precision for me by an educational researcher: ‘Girls seek to improve while boys seek to prove.’”

That’s just one of numerous places Reiner goes to make the case that everyone involved with boys needs to nurture what he calls “emotional resiliency” as they live and work in a transforming society.

“This isn’t about becoming more sensitive or rejecting the feminine,” he says. “It’s about learning how to access, process and discuss men’s deeper emotional lives. It’s about learning how to integrate the full range of our humanity into our being. This opens the door to developing the tool kit boys and men need to thrive and survive.”

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