Category Archives: spirituality of men

Men Behaving Badly

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.

Beyond Gun Control: Other Issues Raised by the Unspeakable Events at Newtown

Like everyone else, the president included, the Unspeakable, that is to say, evil acts of murdering twenty children and six of their defenders has left me speechless. Evil does that. Awe does that. As poet Adrianne Rich put it, “Language cannot do everything–chalk it on the walls where the dead poets lie in their mausoleums.”

But we do communicate in words, and after the shock wears down a bit, one struggles for understanding and for learning from this horrible event. Politicians are beginning to talk again about gun regulation vs NRA and especially regarding automatic weapons, which are the weapons the killer used on his mother and all the kids. And that conversation is long overdue.

But I want to talk about something else. If you look at all the perpetrators of this kind of violence, whether in Aurora or Happy Valley or Virginia Tech or Tucson or Newtown, what they all have in common is this: They were all young men. What is it about young men that makes them so prone to such violence?

I recall once being at a gathering and sitting with Malidoma Some, the spiritual teacher from West Africa, when a young man got up and started raving and ranting at everyone in the room. Malidoma leaned over and said to me: “See what happens when young men do not have rites of passage.”

Malidoma should know, for if you are familiar with his story, in a nutshell it is this: He was kidnapped as a boy from his tribal village and taken many miles away to a Jesuit seminary where other boys who had also been kidnapped were being taught. He received a fine education but at the age of sixteen he threw one of the Jesuits out a second story window. Conclusion? He didn’t have a “vocation” to be a Jesuit. He left and walked home, a very long hike through jungles.

When he arrived he was very angry–not just at the Jesuits but at his tribe, who never came to rescue him. Two years of anger and hostility in the tribe passed and finally the elders came to him and said: “You are impossible to live with. You are full of rage. This year you will take the rite of passage you missed with the thirteen year olds.” So, at the belated age of 18, he took that rite of passage which was quite severe; of the sixty-five youths who went into the jungle with five elders, four or five did not survive it.

But Malidoma did survive it, and it not only made him a man who could deal with his rage, but also gave him his vocation, how he was to be an active and contributing member of his community or tribe. Much of Malidoma’s teaching is about the value of a rite of passage, especially for boys. And what happens when rites of passage are absent.

Part of a rite of passage is leaving one’s home, one’s mother and one’s father, as it presages becoming a mother or father one day. It also includes incorporating one’s own capacity for motherhood internally, instead of projecting it on to women in one’s life.

It is of significance, I believe, that Adam Lanza shot his mother first. This woman who did so much for him, who even home schooled him as a sophomore, who taught him how to use weapons (in what seems like a clumsy but well-meaning way to appeal to his ‘masculinity’) was the first to receive his full frontal rage. All the adults whom he shot at the school were women–the principal, the psychologist, the teachers. And they all bravely stood up to him to defend the children.

Education has become very womanly in our culture. In California today, 84% of teachers are women. Where are the men? Men are less and less drawn to teaching because the pay is so modest, but also because as youngsters they rarely see men as teachers and educators (see The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do by Peg Tyre).

The effort to define educational success by exams serves girls better than boys, who more often than not learn by doing and by bodily action rather than by sitting in desks seven hours a day and, if fidgety, being diagnosed with a “disease” and often given drugs for it.

Boys are two times more likely to be “diagnosed” with so-called “attention deficit disorder” than are girls. And four and a half times more likely to be expelled from school. Fifty-eight percent of college graduates in America last year were women and only 42% were men, and the gap keeps growing. Four times more teenage boys commit suicide than teen-age girls.

There is an underlying issue to consider here. The late and great E.F. Schumacher wrote that the number one purpose of education, the bottom line so to speak, is about values. How comfortable is our education system with talking about Values? If we are not talking about values, then we are presupposing that the consumer-driven, “get to the top” value system of our culture is reasonable and sustainable and healthy and indeed what life is all about.

Many people complain that in a pluralistic society and education you cannot talk about values because religious differences (or the difference of having no religion) arise. But I have laid out a value system in my book called The A.W.E. Project: Reinventing Education, Reinventing the Human, that I have tested in public schools and that has been appreciated by Muslims and Christians, Jews and atheists. I call it the “10 C’s” and I think it takes us beyond religious differences and into a deep conversation about shared values.

I offer the list here: Cosmology (and ecology); Creativity; Contemplation (calming the reptilian brain); Compassion; Chaos; Critical thinking; Courage; Community; Ceremony and celebration; Character development.

Among the questions we need to talk about are these:

  • What constitutes healthy manhood?
  • When is a boy a man?
  • What is the meaning and meanings of being a man?
  • Is carrying a gun manliness?
  • Is power over others manliness?
  • Is being number one manliness?
  • Is angry revenge manliness?

Our culture and its promotional industries offer their answers to these questions, but I have tried to address the deeper and more archetypal meanings of masculinity in my book, The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors for Awakening the Sacred Masculine.

We need to be teaching such matters in our so-called school system. We are rarely doing so.

I am not just talking about teachers when I talk about education. I once sat at the headquarters of WASC, the body that accredits all the schools including universities of Western United States, and listened to the head honcho tell me: “If you had $5,000,000, your new school would be on a fast track for accreditation. We just did that for a fundamentalist college that had five million in cash.”

I said to myself, “So if Hitler walked in the room with five million dollars in his pocket his school would be accredited on the spot?” No values whatsoever. None but the values of the “market place,” of consumer capitalism. Shame, shame, shame.

Education needs reinventing from the inside out. Who accredits our so-called accrediting bodies? And what values are discussed and/or taken for granted there? Are any of the “10 C’s” in the mix? And if not, why not? I was struck at that meeting that the head honcho never asked a single question about the content of our education, that is, about values.

And so, while reflection on this horrible event continues, I recommend not only a discussion about gun regulations but one much deeper. Our schools are failing us in so many ways. Our families and religions (whose rites of passage have become quite wimpy) are failing us also.

We need to consider the multiple ways in which youngsters learn, especially boys, and quit cutting money for the arts and sports. We need to address:

  • Rites of passage
  • Creativity as being at least as important as exam preparation and testing
  • Values, including the values our educational system itself is committed to (is the Great Unspoken Value to make us all Consumers in a consumer-driven economic system?)
  • What manhood (and womanhood) means.

To do these things is not only to create violence prevention; it is also to create a new society. One that puts community before competition and values of justice and sustainability before those of materialism and its very narrow version of success. One that honors stillness and our capacity for contemplation and not just racing to the top in competition. One that values Creativity over memorizing answers to tests.