Recently many of my friends have commented that men’s roles have been evolving during the coronavirus, as guys struggle take on responsibilities that women have long shouldered in the home. A question that keeps surfacing in my mind is whether men will now also be more open to developing the internal capacities — nurturing, becoming more emotionally available, connecting — that many cultures designate as feminine. This question is especially urgent as many social commentators believe men’s inability to connect in a deeply personal way has created an epidemic of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide among men that is likely to continue until we expand traditional notions of masculinity to incorporate these character traits.
In an effort to better understand what it might mean for men to develop their feminine side, I recently read Mirabai Starr’s new book Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics. A highly regarded and lyrical translator of the works of numerous Christian mystics, a former adjunct professor of philosophy and world religions at the University of New Mexico Taos, and a devout practitioner of several spiritual disciplines, Mirabai is in a unique position to comment on the lessons that the sacred feminine might have for today’s world.
From the outset, it is important to establish that Mirabai believes that the qualities of the sacred feminine are available to those of all identities. In her own words,
Indigenous wisdom, modern psychology, and the lived experience of most humans have demonstrated that we all contain both feminine and masculine elements in our psyches, and they vary in degree at different phases in our lives and in response to changing conditions…. As humanity evolves, many of us locate ourselves on an ever-flowing gender spectrum — as women lead with certain masculine impulses, for instance, and men whose feminine sensibilities are pronounced… Confining ourselves to a binary gender identity…no longer feels valid to many of us.
She then goes on to describe in vivid detail a pantheon of feminine deities and mystics whose unique characteristics illustrate the capacities that cultures around the world have defined as the divine feminine.
Wild Mercy is a wealth of inspiration and insight calling attention to attributes that are in short supply and undervalued by not only men but society in general. Mirabai’s aim is to help us understand how our lack of appreciation for feminine wisdom (and its related practical skillset) has compromised our ability to find solutions to our planet’s most urgent problems — from the global polarization between the sexes and the ongoing exploitation of women to the persistence of poverty, the increasing inequities in the distribution of wealth, and the degradation of the environment.
In her book, we learn from Teresa of Avila to appreciate the sacredness of ordinary daily life (in opposition to the centuries of masculine religious traditions that train one to transcend everyday experience). From Shekinah, we learn the benefits of taking a break from the world so that we can more deeply connect with its grace and beauty (in stark contrast to the 24/7 workdays that we all now endure). From Mary Magdalene, we learn to celebrate our bodies and take good care of our physical well-being as a form of prayer. From the great Sufi mystics, all women, we learn of the power of union and connection; and from the Mother Earth figures that are so central to North and South American Native traditions, we learn to appreciate the interrelatedness of all life, and the power of individual action to heal deep division and wounds.
As page after page of insight unfolded, illustrated with examples from faith traditions around the world, I found myself wondering whether men would identify with these female wisdom figures. Would we, could we find ourselves in their stories? Or do we need examples of men who have successfully embodied both the sacred feminine and the divine masculine? If so, are there any such men that we can hold up as a model?
Mirabai’s book is understandably silent on this topic, as her focus is on the feminine; I suspect, however, that its absence is reflective of a more pervasive problem. Most of the “great” religious traditions have been led by men who don’t value the sacred feminine and have stamped it out.
As a result, we are left to infer what a balanced man looks like from his traces in this book. He is someone who is open and transparent, heart-centered and emotionally available, comfortable and responsible in this body, connected and collaborative, less binary in his gender self-definition, contemplative, passionate, interested in lifting people up, pursuing the common good. How do we integrate these capacities into traits that men traditionally cultivate — our strength, toughness, bravery, tenacity, and impulses to provide and protect?
Further, can we even start to develop these internal capacities, especially when most men are conditioned from childhood through adolescence to dismiss the very traits that the sacred feminine advances? Indeed, how do we develop our feminine side when the edicts of the Man Box expressly dictate that “feminine” attributes are a sign of weakness and should be avoided at all cost?
These questions linger on my mind. It’s high time we find some answers.