Re-reading Robert Bly’s “Iron John,” I am struck by the breadth of references, the variety of his poetry and the linear processes of his detailed mirror/lamp on the life of a man.
The notion of the wound, ‘the axe,’ thrown (perhaps) by the father of the young man at the young man’s chest, the initiation rituals in many native tribes conducted by the older men, and now missing from the lives of North American young men and the sequence of red black and white have all stuck in memory.
Innocence, symbolized by the colour ‘white’ followed by the “wild” symbolized by the colour ‘red’ and finally the mature, more balanced, settled and calm ‘black’….indicate what Bly terms progression through which all young men pass. And, more than mere passage, a young man who ‘remains’ white, without exercising his wild man, according to Bly, will not emerge into the ‘black’. Asking myself, ‘what does it mean to be stuck in the ‘white’?
Well, for one thing, the blandness, the lack of guile, the earnestness and the pursuit of only the purest of motives through the most naïve, obvious and direct passages. What strikes me about this “white” stage, is that one of the dangers is that is can serve as a cover for some really traumatic, and yet still buried experiences. The ‘highroad’ of being stuck in one’s head, for example, seems appropriate as a sign of the ‘white’ stuckness. I did not know, for several decades, that I was so deeply impacted by that momentary incident in which I took the .22 from my father’s hands, just as he was pointing it at his head, at 3.00 a.m. sometime late in 1953. Even after studying “death and dying” and interviewing family members of men who had taken their own lives, I was still somewhat immune from and detached from my own trauma. And even after assignment to a parish in which the clergy had also taken his life, and participating in some grief “work” among the parishioners, some two years after the traumatic incident, and writing a thesis entitled, Death and Resurrection in that parish, I was still holding tight, literally and metaphorically, to my own trauma, busily beavering through the reading and writing of that project.
Preserving family secrets was a deeply held and practiced pattern I had learned to adopt, in order to preserve the family ‘name’ and ‘reputation’ as well as not to inflame a maternal parent whose wrath, a projected self-loathing, had already taken a toll both physically and verbally/emotionally. If I could not bring myself to talk about my own situation, how could I possibly even consider exposing the underlying friction, tension, and outright warfare that apparently raged in our family home? Covering, withholding, keeping sealed lips in order to “keep that stiff upper lip” and cling to the privacy and the false security it offered, is, it would seem, not the same as being ‘white’ in the Bly sense of the concept.
However, appearing ‘white’ also has its dangers, threats and implications…especially among those who consider it an unfounded, unjustified, and even affected, ostentatious, pretentious and unnatural mask. Such a mask, legitimately identified by the innate sensors in others who, themselves, have already shed their innocence and demand it of others, can and will only engender negative feelings, encounters and especially derisive judgements, even among adults. So covering up one kind of personal shame can and does often evoke ridicule, and a different kind of shame from one’s peers. Phrases like “holier than thou” and “saint,” and “self-righteous” are hurled around in what amounts to verbal and psychological warfare. Politics among the practitioners is especially noted for this kind of “attack” given the pursuit of authenticity in political candidates. (As if such pursuit were achievable except possibly to a minor degree, given the human condition and the size of the stakes in all political contests!)
The development of the proverbial mask, (Jung’s Shadow) is not a momentary finite, discreet event. It takes years to develop, and with each trauma, each wound, the metaphoric ‘sack’ of memories/experiences that were too painful to tolerate and deal with (come to terms with, explore the fullness of their meaning, their impact and lasting imprint on our lives) at the time of their occurrence, only fills up…sometimes even to overflowing. As that pattern continues, so do the skills that led to the initial ‘cover-up’ and the confidence in the deployment of those skills also grows. In the fifties and sixties, very few of our peers were talking about the private ethos of their families, unless and until some public tragedy struck. Even in small towns, where the cliché is that everyone knows everyone else’s business, at least in our little town, we were not privy to family stories, unless and until they became public gossip and avoidance of gossip seemed to be a prevalent modus operandi for most adolescents.
Public perceptions depended on public performance. And public performance was supposed to engender more highly successful, highly reputable, and highly valued examples in our little town. A university graduation, a commissioning in the military, certification as a specialist in surgery, or holding a public office like Crown Attorney, Mayor, Member of Parliament….these were among the rubrics of social status, value and honour. Ontario Scholars, inaugurated in the 1950’s awarded bursaries to high school graduates with graduating average marks over 75%, and their names were printed in the local paper, as were the names of those who tried pianoforte examinations with the Royal Conservatory of Toronto. Similarly, students who competed in music festivals, after achieving some award, saw their names appear in the local paper. The local club champion at the golf club was often pictured, as were the winning rinks from the local curling club. Even the numbers in an audience of the local theatre group were recorded by the local paper under a headline of the current play’s title.
Performance was noted, for example, in hockey playoffs, when the local team went to the provincial championship; similarly, those ‘senior’ boys basketball players proficient at putting the ball through the hoop, were noticed, recognized and admired by the juniors, sophomores and freshmen.
People whose wealth equated with their unique address, were also more visible, noteable and potentially noteworthy, and everyone in town knew specifically their names and their home location. If the local court was hearing a murder case, which had been taken to the Supreme Court of Canada, for example, the local defence attorney’s name, background along with a summary of the case, was even printed (once in my memory) in Time magazine.
Performance, whether through grades in school, trophies in athletics, size and address of residence, comprised the large component of the town’s news. Never considered a two-edged sword by the town leaders, this was what today we would consider basically “good for business”…and for recognition of the local people by their public newspaper.
The dark side of the town, the occasional case of public intoxication, petty theft, break and enter (there were many summer cottages in the area), and the occasional traffic accident, especially on the provincial highway in summer, along with the name and location of the local bootlegger were subjects heard only in small and relatively private conversation groups. Occasionally, someone would emerge as having left town, unexpectedly with a new partner, and the tongues would wag. Occasionally, too, a young woman, unmarried and pregnant, would be said to have ‘moved away’ to have the child,
Shame, in the lives of ordinary people, was not a subject for public consumption, outside the gossip circles. Suicides, for example, while most people in town knew when they occurred and the name of the victim, were never recorded in the public press. Family violence itself remained secretly closeted behind the front and back doors of most families and its shame was covered by both avoidance and denial.
Growing up in this climate, and talking with classmates all these decades later, I have learned that much more was known and clearly suspected of the dark side, even of my own family than I had imagined previously. So, not only was I deeply and earnestly engaged in my own ‘cover-up’ of the family secrets, and my own Shadow, I was totally unaware of the degree of penetration of our family story into the ears of classmates. “Who know what when,” as the proverbial question goes, remains a mystery, the depths of which I have only recently begun to plumb.
The kind of “raised shoulders” and “head-fixation” and feverish determination to perform, (whether at the keyboard, on exams, in the workplace, and even among the social and cultural events) were my personal “make-up” for nearly half a century. Not only did I wear that mask, putting it on daily, even hourly, in public and in private in my own home, more tragically, I was totally unaware of what I was doing.
I taught the lessons on the curriculum; I wrote and recorded the editorials on radio, I wrote and submitted columns to the local weekly. I briefly conducted the Rotary Songsters, coached those many basketball teams, and sold those suits, as well as all of Canada Packers’ products, and all those cases of beer, as a full-time and part-time worker. Later, I wrote those ads, brochures, newsletters, calendars and designed, with the graphic artist’s help, those posters dedicated to enhancing recruitment of college kids.
Sadly, I became a highly proficient production machine; busily engaged in pursuit of additional affirmation, really confirmation, that I was OK. Pursuing applause from others, however, is a self-defeating, self-sabotaging, self-demeaning, and self-eroding fixation, if not an addiction. Leaving to others to assess my worth, having been deprived of that in my family of origin, only prolonged the transition from ‘white’ to ‘red’ when I found, having turned to a different vocation, that the context in which I was asked (required, expected and even designated) to “perform” was so reprehensible as to be, from my perspective at least, intolerable.
There could be volumes written (at this keypad) about the complicity of the Christian church in the blocked evolutionary development of its clergy, and even more tragically, its laity, in all aspects of their lives. Maintaining a public “face” of perfection, in the light of the human condition, including our universal vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and deviations from social norms, especially while paradoxically preaching “forgiveness” and “love” and “hope” and “acceptance” is simply unsustainable. And defining human weakness as “sin” in desperate need of reformation, only magnifies the perverse magnetism and attractiveness of those weaknesses, and renders all people (except those in power) subject to the taser of condemnation, alienation, ostracism and self-righteous contempt especially if our defaults bring public scorn to the hierarchy.
The “red” wildness of young (and sometimes not so young) men is categorically unacceptable inside the church, and even some clergy, as recently as the beginning of this century, were advocating publicly the now-unlawful view that homosexuality was to be “cured” by treatment programs, under the guidance of the church. Even yesterday, a potential candidate for the Conservative Party leadership in Canada is telling anyone who is listening that homosexuality is a human choice, not a biological condition.
In the church, I witnessed the imposition of unjustified and unsupportable requirements of obedience, loyalty and duty to the institution, including to the power and the rulings of older men so needy and insecure that they deferred, without question, to the wave of feminism that categorizes all women as victims of men, in cases of complaints, and then enforces a zero-tolerance policy without due process and a full investigation. Rendering women as unequal to men, in all cases, without deeply and thoroughly exploring the finer details of each situation, can and does only dig deeper the hole of inequity that is premised on the mis-guided notion that history (all men) has maligned women, intentionally, deliberately and purposefully.
For many pages, in this space, I have been arguing that while history has been written, and to a large extent, conducted by men, and a male culture has thereby been imposed on our collective consciousness, (while ignoring our masculine collective and individual unconscious), this dynamic is not to be construed as malicious or criminal and exclusively rendered a female interpretation. Men, all men in the west, have to acknowledge that we have played a part in the inequity experienced by women, indeed most women. However, we have not imposed this culture from a malicious and certainly not a criminal motive as some would have it. Furthermore, women, as is the case in many families, have considerably more power and influence than their male partners. Much of that imbalance in power and influence in families, unfortunately, ensues from the silence, the passive aggression and the avoidance of confrontation on the part of too many men.
Similarly, in too many organizations where men hold executive power, and where they see, hear and confront angry women berating them and the organizations the lead, too many men have defaulted, in fact surrendered, to the wave of political activism that is both legitimate and often inordinate on the part of women.
Men have to step up to the plate, without fear of being “out-duelled” by our female partners, and women, for their part have to acknowledge that the ‘war of the genders’ hurts both, and leaves both disempowered in the long run. Not through more “performance” (as combatants, victors, and deniers) but through our real acceptance of all of our worts, gaps and vulnerabiliites, shared in humility and authenticity can and will we (men) meet, greet and open to the many gifts awaiting such a shared conversation and dialogue between gender equals.
And the church would be a very appropriate place for the imbalance in both perspective and practice to be first acknowledged and then addressed.
Masculinity, like that of the trump-cult, only exacerbates the war between the genders, and the Republican Senators reinforce their own anti-deluvian attitudes by supporting his lying case. All men are being seriously damaged by the current debacle playing out in the U.S. Senate…but it is not the first such debacle, nor will it be the last.
The gift will not only be appreciated by our female partners, co-workers and colleagues; it will also bring us to Bly’s “black” state in which our confidence, without hubris, and our grace without dilletantism, and our strength without tyranny will find their proper place and execution. That inner warrior, not dependent on the applause of others any longer, can finally find its voice and reduce our dependence on hard power of all varieties.