Mythopoetic men’s work has become irrelevant to the great callings of the day. I write these words with sadness and regret, for the work utterly transformed my life when I engaged it in 1987. Today, I enjoy the gifts I received from that, but have moved on, while it seems to me that the work itself has receded, even retreated into its own oblivion. Let me explain.
I began my interest in understanding the unique experience of being a man ever since I came of age in about 1980. I started my first men’s group at the University YMCA in Minneapolis in 1982, and subsequently got involved in Robert Bly’s mythopoetic men’s work in the mid 1980s. This opened a very rich vein for me personally, and I stayed involved for many years, including as editor of Inroads: A Journal of the Male Soul. Since the mid-1990s I have been to a few large events and spent years in two different small men’s groups. The result has been positive — the work activated my heart and soul, opened the world of poetry to me, and has made me a better man. And yet…
Something has been missing. In 1991, more or less at the height of the men’s work Bly was leading, the United States invaded Iraq unprovoked. Bly, who built his poetic reputation partly on anti-Vietnam war activism did not miss it. He wrote, he read, he carried a torch against another senseless war. But in the men’s work? Hardly even a mention. Even though there were men in that work who had served in Vietnam and were terribly triggered and traumatized by the war’s reports, it barely came up. Though we received many submissions to Inroads, none were about the war. We had to go pursue them, which moved me to write an editorial asking about the meaning of the men’s movement. It’s primary point: What is the value of this awakening that men’s work can bring if when challenged with great things, we fall silent, become passive, do not speak and do not act? That was thirty years ago, and the men’s work never found a answer.
It is now 30 years later and the entire planet is burning up. Global heating is creating a slow moving catastrophe that is likely to spare no area. We have also had #MeToo, Donald Trump, and even the murder-suicide of one of the men’s works leading voices, Robert Moore. Near as I can tell, the men’s work is silent on this. I see and hear individual men engaging in their own ways, and that is powerful and good. And, I am NOT making a call for the men’s work to become activism. Protest, street action, political change — all that is important but it was never what men’s work was all about. It’s not useful to criticize a political movement for lacking inner awareness, and it is not useful to criticize an inner work movement for not being activist enough. To emphasize, that is not what I am trying to say.
The reality is that this changing world we are in and these critical cultural and global moments have a profound affect on the inner lives of men. For men and men facing the male experience, it is hard to underestimate the power of #MeToo. I sat with men whose reactions ran the gamut of possibilities — from terror of being outed about something in the man’s history, to grief and trauma at the newly exposed experiences of women they loved, to anger at the other men who perpetrated. There was also plenty of wagon circling around certain men, participation in doubt creation, and outright antagonism — even hostility — toward the women who told their stories. And yet, groups involved in so-called men’s work, which is supposed to address the deeper aspects of the male experience, found precious little to say about #MeToo. That cultural phenomenon had a tremendous psychic impact on men, yet there was nothing to say, almost nothing to help with, no guidance to give. One would think, for example, that men who have been at inner work for thirty years might consider themselves an elder, and that if they did, they might look for ways to be elders to young men faced with a bewildering world of gender-based energies. You could hope that an engaged men’s work would find ways to address and guide young men through these contradictory forces, and yet there is silence. Of what use is an inner-based men’s work that has so little to say to men who are facing the biggest disturbance in gender-based understandings ever? We must acknowledge that culturally, #MeToo has subsided, but we must also acknowledge that nothing has been healed, men are still driven by inner impulses they do not understand, there is no guidance, and women are still at risk to awful behavior by men. And men’s work has nothing substantive to offer.
Likewise with climate change, or what I will call global heating. The planet is beginning to burn, and the inner and psychic consequences of what is coming cannot be overestimated. The human toll may become incredible. The political consequences as people look for some return to normalcy could not be greater. The profound economic changes, social changes, immigration forces, and so much more, all changing the very nature of the planet on which we live.
What does the inner aspect of men’s work have to say about this? Sadly, almost nothing. Men go to the woods, have their fires, beat their drums, and seek self-transformation. Perhaps they even achieve it. Yet the psychic onslaught should be calling forth the greatest minds, insights, creativity, and force, but none of that manifests. Men return from these events often very calm and peaceful, almost as if passively accepting the catastrophe. Men return saying they are more “centered,” but to what avail? To make what contribution, exactly? Again, I am not calling on men’s work to become an activist movement. Nor am I willing to let it all collapse into “personal choices” as a way of solving the problem. Global heating is bigger than all that, even though activism and personal choices can contribute. I argue that if we are going to be good, awake men, if we have great awareness, indeed, if we have greatness in ourselves at all, is this not the time to engage it? Isn’t it time for men’s work to call us all forth into the world with the inner strength and practices we have achieved, and to contribute our own genius to the changes we need? If men’s work is not about that, then what the hell is it about?
I would like to redeem men’s work specifically, and inner work more generally. Both reflect a certain consciousness and set of practices that help to raise consciousness inside ourselves, and by so doing, enable us to discover, engage, and contribute the genius of our character. As my title suggests, I am tired of men’s work and inner work precisely because they fail to deliver on this promise. Increasingly, they continue to provide respite to the men who participate — and usually, these are the very men with the strength and geniuses we need to participate in the world, not shrink from it!
So, the redemption of men’s work will lie in a new question. What force, what energy, what insight, what experience can men bring as a gift and contribution to solving the problems of our age at the level of both inner and outer work as things transform. We can no longer focus on “saving” the planet, but rather on engaging the changes that are coming at all levels — externally and internally. We will either save the planet, so to speak, by transforming the economy and having to confront all the anxieties that go with such comprehensive change, or we will need to bring our deepest insight and guidance and other tools to dealing with the changes the planet will wreak upon us. We can and should track our individual development through dream work and stories like Iron John and the great myths and great ideas; but we must also go forward and use those tools and geniuses in ourselves to engage and participate in this world and provide guidance to others. Inner work may be necessary and good, but let us not turn it into a whirlpool that sucks us down and incapacitates us at the very time when the world needs us most.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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