Yesterday in the food court of the local mall, I saw a mid-thirties man wearing a black t-shirt on which were emblazoned the words:
“A warrior is an ordinary man with a laser focus”
Mankind, the non-profit offering training in leadership and connection to men around the world, now operating in at least 13 countries according to their website, prominently displays the word “warrior” and markets exciting and transformative weekend retreats for men. Testimonials abound about how the experience has made “me a different man” now able to relate more completely and effectively with family, spouse, co-workers and oneself. Telling the truth, making only promises that can and will be kept, listening actively and empathetically to the loved ones in a man’s life, and offering interventions, suggestions, recommendations and coaching in a respectful, and mutually accepted manner, without over-powering another….these are all very appropriate guideposts for all men.
Similarly, self-confidence, and leadership training to seek and to find the best in everyone, and then working supportively to help others to release their ‘highest self’ is such a highly needed and valued quality among men, especially when masculinity is finding so many opportunities to be ridiculed; the most obvious ridicule of healthy masculinity is the U.S. president.
Full disclosure: I have never attended and Mankind retreat, workshop or leadership training session.
Also, I want to uphold all efforts by men to uphold other men, to embrace healthy masculinity if all of its many forms, and to build a male-bond that embraces the globe. Male leaders especially, are under extreme pressure to hold fast to a vastly outmoded masculinity that values all of the symbols and the mythologies and the weapons of hard power, military might, athletic prowess, male sexuality. Disdaining weakness, sacrifice, self-effacement, modesty, humility and especially emotional sensitivity and sensibility, many men remain locked in the concrete cell of a stereotype that is not sustainable and even life-threatening.
As far back as 1986, Carol Pearson wrote The Hero Within, in which she documented the warrior archetype, for both men and women. Here are some of her words:
What do warriors learn? First, they learn to trust their own truths and act on them with absolute conviction in the face of danger. To do so, moreover, it is necessary for them to take control of, and responsibility for their own lives….To identify oneself as a Warrior is to say, “I am responsible for what happens here,” and “I must do what I can to make this a better world for myself and for others. It also requires Warriors to claim authority, that they have a right to assert what they want for themselves and for others. Warriors learn to trust their own judgement about what is harmful and, perhaps most important, they develop the courage to fight for what they want or believe in, even when doing so requires great risk—the loss of a job, mate, friends, social regard, or even their very lives.
Eventually, if they do not regress to find refuge in dogmatism and become tyrants, they also will develop flexibility and humility. All the liberating truths, by themselves, fail! They fail partly because each is just part of the truth; all of us are like the proverbial blind men, each feeling one part and trying to describe a whole elephant.
The hero ultimately learn not the content per se but a process. The process begins with an awareness of suffering, then moves to telling the story and an acknowledgment to oneself and to others that something is painful. Then comes the identification of the cause of that pain and taking appropriate action to stop it. The hero replaces the absolutist belief that in slaying one dragon we solve all problems for all time with a belief that we continue slaying dragons our entire lives. He or she learns that the more we slay, the more confident we become, and therefore the less violent we have to be….The stronger and more confident Warriors become, the less they must use violence, the more gentle they can be—with themselves and others. Finally, they need not define the other as villain, opponent, or potential convert, but as another hero like themselves. (Carol Pearson, The Hero Within, Harper San Francisco, 1986, p. 84-5)
A little later, Pearson writes cautionary words for men:
When agency is separated from care, it becomes will, domination. This is the primary danger of warrioring for men…..(M)any men move into warrioring prematurely when they really still are at the narcissistic Orphan stage and only later begin to see the importance of caring for others….(Men) who have integrated care and sacrifice into their lives can fight for their country, their company or their family but sometimes not truly for themselves. Indeed, that the hero traditionally has been cast as male and the victim as female holds dangers for both men and women. While women may fear the presumption of stepping into the heroic role, men may identify their heroism solely in terms if protecting and rescuing others—especially women and children—while they neglect the captive victim in themselves: men, they believe, are not supposed to need rescue. Neither men noir women can fight intelligently for themselves unless they have taken the time, as Wanderers, to find out who they are and what they want. (Pearson, op. cit, p 86-7)
Without in any way wishing to cast doubt on programs for men by groups like Mankind, I have a couple of observations of caution. First, in the most broad and un-nuanced language of public discourse, including that of marketing, public relations, political debate and even public consciousness seeping into our collective unconscious, the very word “warrior” is radioactive. Thinking that public figures are elevating public debate into a zero-sum game, in which there can only be winners and losers, and then applying that template to everything they (we) do, severely limits our options. First, whatever “war” it is we are engaged in demands a full-out life-death commitment, given that losing is socially humiliating, demeaning and worthless, rendering the loser almost worthless in today’s parlance.
Such desperation poured like white-hot lave from the mouth of Brett Cavanagh in his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, when he, under orders from the Supreme Leader, burst forth in a barrage of invective against Democrats, including the Clintons, and those questioning his account of that night in high school. The evidence from Dr. Blasey-Ford, while compelling and riveting, nevertheless, was insufficient to block his confirmation.
To sew the seed of “warrior” into the minds and heart of especially young people of both genders, is to risk pushing them to an totally unnecessary brink in their own lives, if “loser” is the single perceived option to any conflict.
Another observation about the “warrior” goal, regardless of how ambitious, ethical, and heroic it may be, concerns the step of “wandering” or even being lost, or in confusion, or abandoned or even outcast, in a culture that quite literally demands instant gratification as a needed step to the healthy warrior. Wanderers, as epitomized by the Gethsemane experience remembered and re-enacted in this Lenten period, are not nearly as idolized or idealized in our culture, except in serious dramas in which serious issues begging life choices take hold of an individual. Given that the Wanderer archetype is both difficult and highly demanding as a challenge to everyone, and given the culture’s tilting toward almost instant “success,” it might be relevant to review the Wanderer’s dilemma and the potential gift of taking this path, especially for men who eschew long-term solutions and processes, in our preference for “action, now”!
Pearson’s words might be helpful to each of us here:
Jean Auel’s bestselling novel, Clan of the Cave Bear, portrays and Wanderer’s dilemma, Ayla, one of the first home sapiens, is swimming one day when an earthquake kills her whole tribe. She is only five. Wandering alone for days, she finally is picked up by Iza, the Medicine Woman of the Clan. The Clan, we learn, are humans, but of a different species. They have phenomenal memories but are not very good at abstract thinking or problem solving. They also have absolutely rigid, patriarchal sex role patterns. Deviation on critical points is punishable by death but the patterns by now are so genetically encode4d that no one in the Clan even thinks of deviation anymore.
The tension between the desire for growth, for mastery, for pushing the limits of one’s capacity to achieve versus pone’s desire to please and fit in is a quintessential Wanderer’s dilemma. Ayla’s story is illustrative of it. She is strikingly different from the people around her and they fear her difference. So does she, because it threatens her survival, which is dependent—when she is a child—upon pleasing the Clan. To find herself, she must leave the people she most loves so that she can stop compromising to please them.
The most important difference Ayla feels is her capacity for androgyny. She is capable of performing both male and female tasks, and she is curious enough to want to learn everything she can. She resolves her dilemma by conforming when with the Clan, but when she is alone she secretly teachers herself to hunt.
When Ayla’s ability to hunt inevitably is discovered, her punishment is to be declared dead. Usually, Clan who are pronounced dead actually die, so strong is their belief in the declaration. But there is a provision in Clan mythology that, if a person comes back from the dead after a certain number of “moons,” he or she can be accepted into the tribe. That means Ayla has to survive on her own for a long time—and in winter. On her own means dealing with not only physical survival but also the emotional crisis of learning to trust her own sense of the Clan’s reality: They said she would be dead; she thinks (but us not sure) she is alive….
When she comes back, she is accepted. She very much want to be part of the Clan again, for she has been dreadfully lonely, yet the experience of making it on her own has made her even more confident and therefore less malleable and more independent of Clan mores…..(M)aking an absolute choice for ourselves and our own integrity even if it means being along and unloved is the prerequisite for heroism and ultimately for being able to love other people while remaining autonomous. It is essential for creating the proper boundaries so that we can see the difference between ourselves and another person—so that we will not have to objectify them to know ourselves and what we want….When we find work…that expresses our souls, we find ourselves by what we bring into being. The Wanderer’s quest, then, also is about agency, productivity, creativity. (Pearson, op. cit. pps. 68-69-70-71)
What is going on for your scribe here is the tension between the public vocabulary of such words as “warrior” and “wanderer” in a culture in which the denotative meaning of words almost erases the connotative meanings. We are living at a time when layers of meaning, especially of words that are heavily freighted with being ‘hot-buttons’ tend to lose much of their intonation, their overtones, and their complexity. And in a culture in which reading and writing are being supplanted by 240-character-tweets, (or less) the dangers of reductivity into mere headlines of concepts that demand their being written and inscribed into the psyches (and the minds and hearts, and then into the value systems and operational impulses) of millions, especially men to whom these pieces are intended, I trust these cautions are read and accepted in the spirit in which they are proferred.
A culture which relegates complexity in human beings and especially in human relations to “experts” risks abandoning the very hard and potentially highly productive inner work of “getting to know who I am” and the even more subtle and imaginative work of discerning if and when to interject, to speak or listen, to smile or frown, to walk away or to stay and let in those thoughts, words, attitudes and perceptions that come to us a “strangers” in the night. Reducing to shibboleths, or more seriously to “bullets” in a list to learn, repeat and discuss with others, such notions as the warrior, the wanderer, androgyny, and the pain of not knowing, while paradoxically attempting to find one’s singular path, could be the most destructive approach one might find and take.
For a few “irritants” and discomforts, there are a few chemical relievers. For the process of becoming a healthy, hearty, full-throated and fully engaged male, no such pills will suffice, Thankfully! Naturally, the rewards of a more comprehensive and complex journey also far outweigh the immediate relief of those pain-killers, the need for which will inevitably return.