Friday, May 29, 2020

#90 Men, agents of and pathway to cultural metanoia (wildness, savage, anger, and denial...hope?)


There is no way to separate this summer from others, when looking at violence perpetrated by angry, and especially disempowered men. Where the disempowerment comes from, however, from outside or from within, remains an open question.
There are at least two different lenses through which to begin to explore masculine anger, hatred and outrage, the personal and the cultural.

 From a personal perspective, Robert Bly’s honesty and clarity are disclosed in these words:

Boys feel wild; they love their tree houses, their wild spots in the woods, they all want to go down to the river, with Huck(elberry Finn) away from domesticating aunts. Boys love to see some wildness in their fathers, to see their fathers dancing or carrying on. Some boys are so afraid that they will become domestic that they become savage, not wild. The marks of wildness are love of nature, especially its silence, a voice box free to say spontaneous things, an exuberance, a love of ‘the edge,’ the willingness to admit the ‘three strange angels’ that Lawrence speaks of. Yeats realized searching Roman and Greek texts that even Cicero, considered middle of the road, was much wilder than any of his friends; the wild man is not mad like a criminal or mad like a psychotic, but ‘Mad as the mist and snow.’
How many years ago
Were you and I unlettered lads
Mad as the mists and snow?
This question does not mean that wildness is restricted to childishness, or is dominated by so-called primitive emotions, or amounts to atavism. The wildness of nature is highly sophisticated…Jung remarked, ‘It is difficult to say to anybody, you should become acquainted with your animal, because people think it is a sort of lunatic asylum, they think the animal is jumping over walls and raising hell all over town….Yet the animal…is pious, it follows the path with great regularity…Only man is extravagant…’(Visions Seminar I, p. 282)
Thoreau says, ‘In literature it is the while that attracts us.’ King Lear attracts us, the dervish, the Zen laugher. The civilized eye of man has become dulled, unable to take in the natural wildness of the planet. Blake says, ‘The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the storm sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity, too great for the eye of man.’…One can keep one’s job and still be wild; one can remain married and still be wild; one can live in cities and remain wild. What is needed is a soul discipline that Gary Snyder calls ‘practice of the wild’…The practice is a secret that not all understand, but many blues musicians and jazz soloists and lovers understand it. ‘Whoever’s not killed for love is dead meat.’ (Robert Bly, Approach to Wildness, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, Poems for Men, Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade, Editors, Harper Collins, 1992, p.3-4-5.)
“Some boys are so afraid that they will become domestic that they become savage, not wild,” writes Bly, in a statement needing both repeating and echoing around the Planet, and especially in North America where ‘savage’ masculinity dominates the cultural mind-set and discourse.

From the same book, Michael Meade in a section entitled, The Second Layer: Anger, Hatred, Outrage, writes these words:

If the First Layer of human interaction is the common ground of manners, kind of speech, polite greeting and working agreements; if the Third Layer is the area of deeply shared humanity, the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of all people, of the underlying, fundamental oneness of human love, justice, and peaceful coexistence; then the Second Layer is the territory of anger, hatred, wrath, rage, outrage, jealousy, envy, contempt, disgust and acrimony. It is the Via Negativa, the Field of Conflict, the plain of Discord, the hills of Turmoil. And the Second Layer always exists between the First Layer and the Third….The populations of the Second Layer includes a high percentage of giants, hags, trolls, boxers, bears, street criminals, cops vultures gargoyles, streetwalkers, and outraged motorists. The sidewalks are cracked, the stores are closed, the lights don’t work, and there is no one who’ll listen to you. When people avoid this territory, they begin attracting shadowy figures who will one day explode into their life. Or, like a TV evangelist, they are compulsively drawn to the figures of the night. Cultures that try to shut out the Second Layer wind u0p with overcrowded prisons, high crime rates, huge black markets, and, finally, riots in the streets…There’s more bad news,. The only way out of the First Layer, the only way to break the spell of niceness when it has shifted from ensuring life’s continuance to insulting life’s purpose is to enter the turmoil of the Second Layer. Furthermore---and don’t blame this on me—the only way to find the next location of the Third Layer is by traversing the battle-scarred., dog-infested terrain of the Second Layer. (Michael Meade, op cit. p. 285-287-288)

Men are neither hemmed in by their biology and their culture, however, although such an entrapment might emerge from a binary/Manichean perspective. While naturally “tilted” and hard-wired to the ‘wild’ there is a deep and abiding difference between being ‘wild’ and being ‘savage’. And it is that subtle difference that seems to be missing from the cultural language dripping from the pages of our dailies, as well as from the screens in our rec-rooms and on our tablets. And then there is the question of ‘appropriate anger, outrage, contempt and hatred’ that hangs over the streets of both Toronto and Minneapolis this morning. Both cities are gripped in the rage of incidents whose explanations so far escape credibility and thereby trust.

In the middle of these two assessments of different aspects of masculinity, lies the demon denial, on a personal level, and then on a familial level, later on an organizational/institutional level, and finally on a national/international level. And at the same time that men are legitimately bearing the blood of wars, crusades, insurrections, terrorist attacks, exploitative trading, demeaning labour and environmental practices, they/we are in denial of our own dark side. And this denial extends from the personal to the tribal to the institutional to the governmental. And, without offering anything more than a common sense, as opposed to an expert and certainly not a clinical opinion, it is clear that denial cannot but lead to volcanic eruptions of human desperation.

Writing about the United States specifically, but the words help to put into perspective some of the world’s primary issues, Robert Bly writes:

The health of any nation’s soul depends on the capacity of adults to face the harsh facts of the time. Bur the covering up of painful emotions inside us and the blocking out of fearful images coming from outside have be3come in our country the national and private style. We have established, with awesome verve, the animal of denial as the guiding beast of the nation’s life. The inner city collapses, and we build bad housing projects rather than face the bad education, lack of jobs, and persistent anger at black people. When the homeless increase, we build dangerous shelters rather than face the continuing decline in actual wages. Of course, we know this beast lives in every country; we have been forced lately to look at our beast. As the rap song has it: ‘Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.’..Ernest Becker says that denial begins with the refusal to admit that we will die. We don’t want anyone to say that. Early on in t he cradle, swans talk to us about immortality. Death is intolerable. To eat, shit, and rot is unthinkable for those of us brought up with our own bedrooms. We want special treatment, eternal life on other planets, toilets that wil take away our shit and its smell. We love the immortality of metal, chromium implants, the fact that there are no bodily fluids int he machine, the precise memory the computer has, the fact that mathematics never gets colon cancer; and we are deeply satisfied that Disneyland can give us Germany Spain, and Morocco  without their messy murderous, shit-filled histories. ‘All this the world well knows.’…Essays, poetry, fiction, still relatively cheap to print, are the best hope in making headway against denial. The corporate deniers own television. We can forget about that. There’s no hope in commercial television at all. The schools teach denial by not teaching, And the students’ language is so poor that they can’t do anything but deny. School boards forbid teachers in high school to teach conflict, questioning of authority, picking apart of arguments, mockery of news and corporate lies….Great art and literature are the only models we have left to help us stop lying. The greater the art the less the denial..Bre4aking through the wall of denial helps us get rid of self-=pity, and replaces self-pity with awe at the complicated misery of all living things…A poem that confronts denial has a certain tone: it is dark but not pulled down buy evil. It is intense but not hysterical; it feels weighty, and there is something bitter in it, as if the writer were fighting against great resistance when he or she writes the poem….The writer could be said to be ‘eating his shadow’; in the Japanese martial arts tradition, it is called ‘eating bitter.’ (Robert Bly, op. cit. p.195-196-197-198-199)

How can an individual man, for example, begin to ‘eat bitter’ in a world that pits so many “us’s” and so many “them”…It is not merely a question of men versus women, or Republican versus Democrat, or East versus West, or dictatorship versus democracy, or have’s versus have-not’s….or Christians versus Muslims…or right-to-life versus choice…or fossil fuels versus renewables….and not only are issues never to be permitted to be defined in either-or options, so too is no man (or woman) to be permitted to be defined as “angry” or oppressor, or victim or innocent. Within each gender, too, stereotypes dominate: e.g. wimp or alpha for men, and angel of whore for women.

And the restoration of language, at both the most basic level, and even more importantly at the poetic, imaginative and literary level encompasses all of these tensions, while offering light amid the darkness of ignorance, thoughtlessness, insensitivity, bigotry and those “isms” that we throw around like grenades in a desperate pursuit of power. It is our individual and collective complicity in a culture that seeks to, indeed depends on, the abuse of the individual, except as client/customer/servant/doctor/attorney/’essential worker’ and all of the other definitions that subvert a full human identity in favour of a transactional, political, lobbying/defying/protesting/covering for preservation of power or grasping a thin  thread of respectability, status, and fame.

My experience in both education and theology/ministry has shown that those who defer most to those in power are more acceptable to the power structure than those who confront those in power. Those whose insight, criticism, honest push-back, and especially whistle-blower-courage peek through the asphalt of our denial, and our innocence and our blind-spots have too much to tell us that we dare not fail to open our ears, eyes and sensibilities to their pleas and their prayers.

And especially inside the ecclesial institution, the fact of the obliteration, scorched-earth blindness to difficult and significant nuanced abuses of power is not only permitted but actually fostered by those determined to rise to prominence and those already in charge. Good news, in the gospel, was and is a confrontation of the powerful, so much so that the adage “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” is bandied about in jest, but with a sunburst of reality and truth. Somehow, as a prominent, and formerly potent light amid the darkness of the secular culture, the mainline churches have undergone a spinal-ectomy, as well as a heart, and mind and larynx-otomy. Silence, especially when the planet faces crises of our own making, is neither a sustainable theology, nor a sustainable ethic, nor a redeemable spirituality.
Bishop Barber and Rev. Al Sharpton continue, with the occasional appearance of a Jesuit and a Rabbi to speak common sense humanity, however, without the gravitas attended to the scientists, the virologists, and the attorneys. And this framing of the culture in terms that defy complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity, while clinging to a false security of snail-depictions of masculinity and femininity, common-sense caring of self and others through a simple mask, and the common-sense policing of intervening when a man is murdered under the knee of a companion officer, and an epileptic young woman falls 24 stories from a balcony when only police officers were inside the apartment of that balcony.

It is not that the church’s abdication of its voice and role in the public discourse led directly to either of these preventable tragedies. However, its failure to honour the poetic, the imaginative and the creative needs of each individual, but preferring power-over to empowerment of all, as a means of self-sustaining the institution, models precisely the inverse of the kind of model it has the opportunity to offer, in the name of all deities worthy of the name.

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