Recent news stories have not been showing the better side of men. From police brutality to domestic violence and international terrorism, we’ve seen stories lately to raise horror and concern.
We’ve seen a white male cop gun down a young black man, apparently for walking while black on the streets of Ferguson, Mo. We’ve seen a NFL halfback, Ray Rice, slug his fiancée on an elevator so viciously that she fell unconscious. We’ve heard of another player, Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers, who apparently hit his girlfriend during a party in the Bay area. We’ve heard of Adrian Peterson, one of the great running backs of all time, beating his baby child. There are now documented cases of 56 serious cases of domestic abuse by NFL players in the past eight years, yet in most cases there was no punitive action taken by either NFL or law enforcement.
And it’s not limited to the U.S., or the world of football. We hear of young men in ISIS who are beheading journalists at will while recruits for ISIS pour in from around the globe. Recently I saw a YouTube recruiting piece from ISIS where three young men, dressed in full beards and with machine guns on their laps, tell the viewers to join ISIS and “get over your depression.”
It is true that many young men are depressed these days. Given much that is going on in society and in our depleted earth community, one can see why. And given the dearth of healthy male role models one can understand the depression. Realistically, what are we to do with it?
As I see it, the real issue has to do with what passes as masculinity in our culture.
Recently two authors teamed up to express their opinion on these matters in a thoughtful article entitled “Depression in men is a public health problem” — Dr. William Pollack, author of Real Boys and Jennifer Siebel Newsom, filmmaker of The Mask You Live In, a documentary exploring the bad images of masculinity among boys.
In their article, they point out that boys are more likely to act out their depression than are girls, and so “the early warning signs of depression in boys are often missed, leading to a misdiagnosis as a conduct disorder or attention-deficit disorder.” Young men in the US are committing suicide on an average of three per day — five times the rate of women. The authors conclude: “Depression in males of all ages is a public health crisis that must be addressed. To do so, we must redefine healthy masculinity and recognize that even if men are putting on a face suggesting ‘everything is fine,’ real pain may be lurking beneath the surface.” (1)
Some years ago, I addressed the issue of redefining healthy masculinity in my book The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors for Awakening the Sacred Masculine.. Even today, the response from people on the front line remains very strong. A Native American who has worked in prisons for twelve years told me that he’d found getting men to look within themselves was practically impossible — that in prison men are always trying to project on others. After bringing my book into his program, he said it was the first he’d found that got men to look inwards and “find the nobility inside.”
That is key: Finding the nobility inside, the original blessing, effectively heals the lousy self-image that most men carry. And this is the process I offer in Hidden Spirituality: I gather ancient archetypes of the healthy masculine that take us far deeper than superficial messages of our culture (be a winner; don’t feel too deeply; be a Marlboro man, etc.). Such metaphors as Green Man, Spiritual Warrior, Father Sky, Hunter-Gatherer, Blue Man, Father, Grandfather, and more alert men of all ages to the greatness of which they’re capable.(2)
In his recent Washington Post article, “I understand why Westerners are joining jihadi movements like ISIS. I was almost one of them,” Michael Muhammad Knight shares his own story to illustrate the appeal of jihad and ISIS to young men. He was attracted to jihad not by Muslim philosophy (of which he was ignorant), but by his growing up in American culture. Leaving his Catholic High School in upstate New York, he traveled to a Saudi-funded madrassa in Pakistan. He writes:
It wasn’t a verse I read in our Qur’an study circles that made me want to fight but rather my American values. I had grown up in the Reagan 80’s. I learned from G.I. Joe cartoons to (in the words of the theme song) ‘fight for freedom, wherever there’s trouble.’ I assumed that individuals had the right–and the duty–to intervene anywhere on the planet where they perceived threats to freedom, justice and equality.
He learned from his (conservative) Muslim teachers that Muhammad had said that “the ink of scholars was holier than the blood of martyrs” so he eventually gave up soldiery aspirations to become a writer.
But here is the crux of his testimony:
We [Americans] are raised to love violence and view military conquest as a benevolent act. The American kid who wants to intervene in another nation’s civil war owes his worldview as much to American exceptionalism as to jihadist interpretations of scripture. I grew up in a country that glorifies military sacrifice and feels entitled to rebuild other societies according to its own vision. I internalized these values before ever thinking about religion. Before I even knew what a Muslim was, let alone concepts such as ‘jihad’ or an ‘Islamic state,’ my American life had taught me that that’s what brave men do.(3)
What DO “brave men” do? That is the question. What awakens a man’s soul? What calls for courage and generosity and sacrifice and community? How does a boy mature to become a man? What values are we passing on to our boys and young men? The values of the reptilian brain (be number one; conquer; win at all costs; control others)? Or of the mammalian brain (compassion, caring and justice-making)?
We are living in a teachable moment. All the bad news about men behaving badly offers us an opportunity to speak out, to ask the deeper questions, to redirect the messages our boys and young men are getting from a patriarchal and reptilian-brain-driven culture that is dangerous to women and men, children and the Earth.
Feminist poet Adrienne Rich put it this way, writing about her two sons:
What do we want for our sons? To discover new ways of being men even as we are discovering new ways of being women…a manhood in which they would not perceive women as the sole source of nourishment and solace….If I could have one wish for my own sons, it is that they should have the courage of women. I mean by this something very concrete and precise: the courage I have seen in women who, in their private and public lives, both in the interior world of their dreaming, thinking and caring, and the outer world of patriarchy, are taking greater and greater risks, both psychic and physical, in the evolution of a new vision….I would like my sons not to shrink from this kind of pain, not to settle for the old male defenses including that of a fatalistic self-hatred. And I would wish them to do this not for me, or for other women, but for themselves, and for the sake of life on the planet Earth.(4)
Rich has perceived deeply how men are stuck in “a fatalistic self-hatred.” Men have internalized the lies about original sin preached not only by bad religion but also by bad consumer-capitalism more deeply than have women. Men need to find the original blessing, the “nobility inside.” There lies the medicine for an obviously sick manhood that drives men to addictions, militaristic brutality and domestic as well as international violence.
1 William Pollack and Jennifer Siebel Newsom, “Depression in men is a public health problem,” San Francisco Chronicle, Sept 4, 2014, p. A-14. Italics mine.
2 Matthew Fox, The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors for Awakening the Sacred Masculine (Novato, Ca: New World Library, 2008)
3 Michael Muhammad Knight, “I understand why Westerners are joining jihadi movements like ISIS. I was almost one of them,” Sept 3, 2014
4 Cited in Matthew Fox, Meister Eckhart: Mystic-Warror for Our Times (Novato, Ca: New World Library, 2014), 74, 75. Italics mine.