By Bruce A. Smith
A few years ago, my friend Jeff telephoned in a rush to say, “You have to come over right now and watch the Bill Moyers show on TV.” I did. It was a telecast titled: “A Gathering of Men,” and was an introspective on the work of poet Robert Bly and his efforts to help men discover their manhood.
“How do men learn to become men?” he asked. “Who teaches us, and do we learn everything we need? If not, why not, and what are the consequences of an incomplete upbringing in manhood?”
It is Bly’s perspective—and now mine—that most men know diddly-squat about being a man. I know I wasn’t taught much, at least not directly. Our fathers should be the ones who teach us the most about manhood, after all, who else should. But I know that my Dad taught me very little about being a man. I don’t remember him siting me down and telling me specifically what I was to do in order to be a man, or even a gentleman. I’d like to think he would have done so if he himself had been schooled in such a manner, but I don’t think his father taught him much, either. This lack of specific male training has been going on for quite some time, I suspect, and I don’t know hoe or when we lost it, but lose it we did. Aboriginal tribes and other so-called indigenous peoples, like the ones I see in movies or read about in Anthropology classes, know more about teaching the skills of true manhood to their boys than the current civilization that most of us inhabit.
One of the things that I learned from Bly was that it is the job of men to do the killing for the tribe, the community. That means hunting and fishing for the meat, or providing protection. Men also help provide a community with inner strength, leading the way with insights or moral instructions. Bly puts these two aspects together by citing Celtic wisdom: Don’t teach a man the art of war until you’ve taught him how to dance, and also, Don’t give a man the tools of war until you’ve taught him how to draw.
And so, what is truly a manly man? My definition, and I think Bly would concur, is: A true man is a tender warrior who can express himself fully.
A warrior can protect his loved ones and provide—he brings home the bacon. A tender man has the compassion and self-awareness to guide his aggressiveness to a greater good. That means a real man has to be able to talk about his feelings.
In his workshops and seminars, Bly makes the simple observation that men don’t talk about their feelings because they don’t know what their feelings are. If we did, we would probably talk about them. Bly says that men do look inside themselves to find their emotions, but they can’t find any. It’s not that they’re hiding anything from anybody, for most of us our feelings are hidden from us as well.
That exact dynamic happened to me. Back a few years ago, I remember my psychotherapist asking me what I was feeling about a certain issue. When I told her, she said, “That’s what you think, not what you feel.”
When she said that I felt a quickly rising chill of panic as I searched to find that elusive “feeling,” but I couldn’t find any. All I could muster was a carefully honed cerebral statement. So, to a large degree my therapist had to teach me what feelings were. Sure, I knew some basic feelings and could easily access them, such as “I feel horny,” or “I feel lonely,” but not the subtle ones or the unpleasant one, such as anger.
One encounter was particularly illuminating. After a back-and-forth discussion on some personal issue, my therapist asked me if I was angry. I said, “No,” to which she replied, “Well, you look angry.”
Again, I stated that I was not angry, but she kept on top of it.
“Well, Bruce, why do you think you look angry, if you’re not angry. Are you sure you’re not really angry?”
“NO. I’m not angry. I’m just, well… frustrated, I guess. But if you keep pushing this anger thing I’m gonna get angry!”
“Really?” she replied, and smiled slightly. “I think you are angry, but you aren’t allowing yourself to truly feel it. What would you say to that?”
After more discussion I agreed with her, and now I know that I was covering-up my feelings. That in turn opened up the whole field of what happens when we suppress our emotions because anger or some other feeling is too troubling for public consumption—such as being a kid in a family that didn’t want to hear my thoughts, attitudes, or feelings. As a result, I shoved everything into a protected box. Not only anger, but also joy, intimacy, and true sexual excitement was suppressed and lost.
Despite plenty of therapy and meditation much is still hidden to me, particularity in the area of love and intimacy. Impotency with women has been a life-long issue for me, as are developing satisfying, meaningful friendships with men. One of the greatest lacks in my adult life is the absence of good male friends. When people talk about the diminished capacity of men to be intimate they usually mean with women and sex. But men have great difficulty being close with each other—of just being good friends—the kind of friendship where you are comfortable telling your friend anything and being able to explore the issue in depth, either by crying about it or talking, expressing it other than by the traditional methods of physically acting out or getting drunk.
For decades until I met Jeff at the Ramtha School, I never had a good male friend. Other men tell me that as adults they have never had a good male friend, either. Sometimes I think that all of us guys in this predicament should become great friends, but we don’t. I’ve even started men’s groups to overcome some of this, but the efforts all fall flat. Something is missing for me and many other men, and I don’t know what it is, and now that Jeff moved out-of-state, this issue is front and center for me, again.
So I go back to the day Jeff and I viewed the Bly-Moyers telecast and talked up a storm about our fathers and our sense of ourselves as men. Besides taking a close look at who our fathers were as men, we discovered that both of us had only begun to consider ourselves men in middle-age.
For me, turning forty helped somehow. Now, I figured, I should be old enough to be a man. But, as the forties rolled into the fifties and sixties, I’ve also grown in personal fortitude, and that has helped immeasurably. Joining Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment and moving to Yelm, Washington from my home in New York when I was forty meant that I needed to divorce my wife, sell my business, and relocate across the country took quite a bit of self-determination. I had to say in the face of a lot of adversity: This is my life. This is my desire. Therefore it is my decision.” True men talk like that, and I realized I was becoming qualified to consider myself a man.
Early on, I thought other men would like to talk about their views of manhood, but the process of starting men’s groups was daunting. When I put up flyers and made a general announcement about forming such a group, I heard from plenty of women that they would like to attend, or that they wanted their husbands to participate. Only a handful of men actually came, though, and the initial discussion was so awkward and unsatisfying we never held a follow-up.
When I’ve thought about my dilemma of no male friends, I think about sports. Wouldn’t that be a nifty way to connect with men and makes friends? I’ve mused. Ironically, I’ve traveled this path a few times, certainly when I lived in New York and before Ramtha and meeting Jeff, but the experience may be worth re-telling.
Back in the 1980s, I was a contractor who had sandsifting equipment and I used them to clean beaches. As a result, I never had a day off in the summer but had all winter free. I have also had a life-long love of baseball, so the question for me was: where can I find a baseball league that plays in the winter so that I can indulge my love of the sport and possibly make some male friends.
Fortuitously, enterprising sports enthusiasts had converted a large warehouse in Commack, NY into a complex of indoor baseball fields and had started a thriving business of organizing softball leagues. At the beginning of the winter season I asked management if there were any teams that might need a solo player.
“Sure, a few teams need a couple of extra players. What position do you play?“ the desk guy asked.
“I love to pitch,” I replied.
“Great. We’ve got a team that is looking specifically for a pitcher. They call themselves the Long Island Mice. They’re a good team, too, from what I’ve heard. They’re from out of our area so they’re new to the league, and they’re looking for an upgrade in the level of competition.”
“Sounds fantastic. I’d love to join.”
The desk guy took my money and gave me all the pertinent details, contact information, and game schedules. One little detail was a tad troubling—the Mice were an all-women’s team. But I wanted to play and I wanted to pitch. Who else would give me shot? So, I was ready to become a temporary Mice.
When I showed up for our first practice I was realized how good they were. The Mice weren’t any slouch group of ladies—they were the 2nd-best women’s softball team in North America. They had petitioned the Commack operation to join its all-men’s “B” league for the winter because none of the women’s leagues in the Greater New York area could provide them with suitable competition, and although we played “B” teams they were all still good. But the Mice kicked some serious butt that season and just missed the play-offs.
I had fun playing with these “jocks” as they called themselves. For their part, they enjoyed having me be part of their team. I was an okay player, but more importantly I was their spy in the men’s locker room. They especially loved my reports on the crumbling egos of the guys they had just beaten. I remember vividly a team composed of NYC toll booth operators screaming at each other because they had “lost to a bunch of girls!”
I also remember our first base-woman, who had the largest hoop earrings I have ever seen anywhere near a playing field. It really made her a great target to throw to. Plus, our shortstop had the best arm of any infielder I’ve ever played with. The Mice were truly formidable.
But they were also frail, too, or at least vulnerable. If our opponent scored first, my gals got deflated. Your could see the energy and confidence drain from their faces, and only once did I ever see us come back from a deficit and win.
So, I had fun and learned a few things about the capacities of women, but I didn’t make any new male friends that season.
However, all that is changing. As I reach inside to find my feelings and act on them, I become more manly. It’s a process, and at 67-years old I’m still at it. I’ve found it takes a lot of strength to be a man, but I am grateful for the rewards. Jeff and I keep in touch, and I leave no stone unturned with other men. Romantically with women I am better able to act on deeper stirrings, better prepared to resolve the fears and anxieties that come with those newer levels of connection. Intimacy always seems to be scary, but I tell myself: Every warrior is scared on the eve of battle. That’s just the way it is.
And so it goes.
Remember…a warrior in analogical mind…goes into battle with it already ‘won’…so be it!
Hence, the warrior dances and writes poetry.
It’s like the book that was out a few years back – The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.
I also like the definition of a warrior from the Chinese guy, Letz-Zu or something like that: A warrior calls things by their proper name.
The following is from an email I received this evening from MN reader, Pat Sparks. Her views really hit the nail on the head about the dynamics discussed in this piece.
Pretty deep thinking! And searching!
Sometimes the tapes we learned from our families are so imbedded that it’s difficult to change the messages to ones that are positive & healthy for us.
And if some messages are totally missing – as from your father – you now get the opportunity to create your own messages.
It’s often so hard to listen to our own truth. Society imposes “rules” about who we’re supposed to be that we expect ourselves to follow. But do we Have to? If we stop & be quiet (no distractions) we can often look at ourselves & find some answers. It takes practice.
Men don’t have to be “strong & silent” – as in blocking out your feelings gentler side. Strong – yes – to stay the course your life is supposed to take. Included in this is looking at all aspects of how we all function (yes we all get to pay attention to these): emotional, intellectual, physical, financial, social, spiritual. How are we balanced and what do we need to focus on? It takes adjustments often as we move thru time.
What gets us into trouble are Expectations! We Think we have to follow the behavior rules that society commands. No – We don’t have to act & look a certain way – as long as we treat ourselves and others with honesty, dignity & respect. It can be that simple. Not always easy. We can be honest w our feelings because they are our own – as long as we take responsibility for them.
I always liked the hand pointing finger symbol👉🏻. One finger forward, however three pointing back at ME. It has kept me ‘in check’ MANY MANY times taking ‘responsibility’ for ME! Grace💫
Geez! Where do I start? I could write a book on this subject Bruce.
I like what Pat Sparks says–none of us has to fall in line with what “others” expect of us. We do need to be true to ourselves.
Robert Bly was an amazing person. If you learned anything from him, it is that men have been slowly de-masculated in the sense of what “real” men feel best being–REAL! That means,men can cry, wash dishes, hunt, plant gardens, take care of children, build things, be teachers, be wild, be tame, be anything and everything–just like women!
Alfred Adler calls it “The Masculine Protest,” which means that at some point in time, some subtle message has been handed down to men that they needed to be tough, hard, hide their feelings, be the “head,” be the “boss,” take charge of women, be all “powerful.” What that has done is put an unbearable pressure on men. When they didn’t live up to this expectation, many men became despondent and passive, many more became angry and violent. This expectation of men has hurt both males and females.
Shifting to a mythological view–the Goddess is Mother of All. She births everything that is…everything! Her consort–the Sun, gives the spark of life to humanity (feminine/masculine). Nurture and Nature sets free the thing it creates. My personal feeling is that many men (and women) have not had a “good enough mother.” They strive for their lost nurture (for themselves) all their lives, instead of cooperating and “giving” nurture to other life.
The last part of your commentary really touched me, Paula – the piece about many men and women have not had a “good enough” mother, that real nurturing has been missing from their lives. I have felt that keenly in my life, and it has shaped me greatly.
“Looking for Mommy,” might be my next story. Or yours!!!
This is a serious and complicated subject Bruce; probably best addressed in some kind of therapy.
Something I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older–and learned the hard way–we all have within us both mother and father. Everything is internal now–no more external influences necessary. Look for “mommy” within yourself.
For me, it’s been a combination of “mothers.” Some within, some external. Yes, psychotherapy is a big part of it. So too, are personal relationships that have strong overtones of maternal nurturing. I had a 14-year relationship with a woman in New York who was 15 years older than me. In many ways she “mothered” me – she had more worldly wisdom and confidence. I benefited greatly from that. But we were also partners and equals, too, for her journey required a guy like me for her to go forward. I was fresh and creative – not restrained by old ideas and attitudes. An interesting mix.