By Frederick Marx
I believe men need to enroll women in the work of supporting men’s growth. Men also need to help women understand how growing and healing men—how empathizing with and understanding men—better serves them. In fact, it better serves women and children and other men, too; it serves all of us. Consequently, nothing frustrates me more than hearing women deride the work that men do to heal themselves. It’s completely self-defeating.
I served for a year as unpaid center director for the Northern California ManKind Project community in 1999 (www.mankindproject.org). I took a call once from a woman who was concerned about her husband coming to our weekend workshop. It was bad enough the man hadn’t made an empowered decision on his own to do—or not do—the weekend. He referred his wife to me so I could convince her that it was okay for him to do it. (That alone, I thought, was enough to make him a prime candidate for our work.)
But instead of talking with him I spent about a half hour on the phone with his wife. I answered every question she had, addressing her every concern about the weekend. But rather than be relieved and grow calmer, she seemed to become more agitated. Finally, I realized she was going to find some reason to object to our work no matter what. Sure enough, after I didn’t satisfy her with my answer to one very specific question, she suddenly started getting heated, projecting all sorts of accusations—that I was sexist, misogynistic, and worse. She finally had gotten to the place she had apparently wanted to go to all along—slamming the phone down in disgust but not before saying, “My husband will never do your weekend!”
Women like her must think they are protecting themselves when they interfere with “men’s work.” But, I believe, they’re actually making their own lives harder. They are contributing to both their and their partners unhappiness. And it all comes from fear. My guess is this woman was deep in fear that her husband would come back a changed man in ways that would feel threatening to her. Perhaps he’d no longer love her. Perhaps he’d no longer defer to her.
Women have good reason to fear when men go off together. All too often going off together has been an excuse for men to get drunk, go whoring, to prey on the weak. All too often the victims of those kinds of men’s gatherings are women themselves, or children, or men of color, or gay men, or men suspected of being gay. All too often men return lesser men than when they left.
But what about when men go off together to teach each other how to become better men? That happens, too. That’s another kind of men’s gathering. It used to be common for every indigenous society to initiate its boys into adulthood—to teach them the rights and responsibilities of adult citizenship. In a sense this was the very fulfillment of the village—to create generativity, to protect the village from future harm from within, to ensure its survival and continuity. The challenge is to make initiations and healing work for men so commonplace that women will implicitly understand and accept it.
In her otherwise brilliant 1999 book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, feminist author Susan Faludi made a critical mistake: deriding men’s healing work. She reduces men doing that work—going off to the woods together, resuscitating their imprisoned “Wildman,” summoning their “Inner King”—to their most superficial and reductive meanings, their most juvenile connotations. It was a terrible mistake. But it’s a mistake many women make, and not only feminists. Men need to encourage women to understand that it’s safe to let go of these judgments.
For some reason men’s drumming circles seem to be a common target of derision. Why? What’s wrong with a drumming circle? There are few better ways to get men grounded, out of their heads and into their bodies, and out of their isolated sense of self into a common experience of group. Drumming together can be a powerfully communal, growthful, even joyful experience.
Some years ago, when I was making a feature film in Iowa, the morning was going badly. The crew was taking a long time to set up; things were chaotic. I asked a musician friend, Johnsie, who was on set that day to help our stars with a choreographed scene, if he’d start drumming. Something amazing happened! Within minutes I could feel the crew grow more synchronous. Stress and dis-ease vanished off nearly everyone’s faces, replaced by smiles. In no time we were quickly prepared and ready to shoot.
Could it be some women fear men drumming together because some primordial impulse kicks in? Do they fear there will be violence, that they will be attacked? Perhaps. Certainly in different cultures around the planet drumming was often a prelude to battle. But may it also be another product of Zero Sum thinking? That, “If it’s good for men it must be bad for women.”
All the smart women I know (and I know plenty), cherish the men in their lives for doing personal growth work. They realize how it makes women themselves safer, happier, more loved. They realize they need not be threatened. They realize how well served they will be by a man’s growth. Why? Because a powerful man understands that his life has to be lived at least partly in service to the feminine if he wants to live a life of mission.
Protecting the realm, promoting harmony, creating abundance for family, community, nation, usually means at some point serving women and children. It means doing more than just keeping women and children safe, it means making the necessary sacrifices to promote their wellbeing and growth. It means helping them thrive. A powerful man with a clearly articulated mission understands that truth.
The paradox is that it takes a cauldron of powerful masculine energy to get a man to that point. It takes men going off in the woods together, it takes men joining each other in exclusive circles of support, it takes drumming circles, it takes, if not “men’s clubs,” then safe places where men can go to be alone with other men. The fact is men need to be taught by men how to be men. And it takes very strong containers to hold a man’s passage. Men will buck and resist, partly because they fear that no container can possibly hold all the grief and rage they carry. But hold it we can and do.
Smart women understand that there are multiple venues and circumstances where men teach other men, and boys, about being men. The more formal ways are mentioned above. But there are plenty of informal ways. Going camping, hiking or hunting, weekend workshops, men’s support groups. Sports can do it. The military can do it. Work can do it. Yes, even a few drinks at a bar with the guys or hanging out in some man cave can do it. The proof is always in the pudding. Does the man (or young man) return from the gathering with a wiser, more mature attitude? With a more loving and available heart? With more humor and light? Or does he return angry, closed, protective, resentful, fearful? Or worse, completely drunk or stoned, aggressive, and violent?
A wise woman always recognizes when a man needs to get out and be with other men. He’s getting short with her and kids, he’s not listening anymore, or worse, he’s starting to act out aggressively. A wise woman will urge her man to take space. Now. This truth was beautifully demonstrated to me on a men’s weekend back in 1996. When asked why he was there a man from rural Wisconsin said, “My wife saw how impatient and angry I was getting with her. She told me, ‘It’s time for you to go be with the men.’”
So sisters, when it’s a man’s time to go to be with the men, support him in that choice. And if he doesn’t return a better man then it’s time for him to consider joining different men under different circumstances. But it’s important that women support his seeking: men going off with men to teach each other how to be men is an act that should be honored.
And men, it’s our responsibility to teach the women in our lives the difference between serving our shadow self and serving our growth. Teaching by words and by example. If we demonstrate to women we’re actually doing right by them, getting that support will be much easier. Women can actually be proud when they see their men going off to be with other men. Imagine that! It’s not that hard to make happen.
Voice Male contributor Frederick Marx is an Academy and Emmy nominated filmmaker most known for Hoop Dreams. His newest film is on rites of passage for teen boys: http://www.warriorfilms.org/boys-become-men. A version of this article appears on his website, http://www.warriorfilms.org/warrior-films/2012/1/1/women-supporting-men-supporting-men.html