The spiritual value of this to our culture is immense at a time when isolation and the lack of effective support structures are seen as one of the biggest destroyers of men. This is why men’s work is so vital.
Several years ago I suggested to the editor of one of the newspapers I was writing for that we run a men’s column to add some balancing perspective to the never-ending flood of media articles on relating and gender issues – all written from a female viewpoint. She retorted: “Don’t be silly. Men don’t have a clue about those things. Only women know about them.”
A week earlier I had been on an annual fishing trip with eight men. Once the initial blokey banter died down the campfire conversation turned seriously to what was happening with their kids, their relationships, concerns over where society was heading, the negative portrayal of men in the media and the future our young are likely to inherit. Many said how great it would be if their partners and families shared their love of the outdoors. By week’s end they were rejuvenated and dying to return to their families.
A biased mindset and stonewall against a male viewpoint on gender matters is deeply entrenched throughout the media, which is why we rarely see articles on relating, parenting or gender issues written from a man’s perspective – and why so many women say they don’t have a clue what is going on with men because men “don’t speak up”. It is a block to gender understanding, and hearing only one viewpoint creates distorted perceptions in our culture and young ones. It is also why few people get to know that Australia has one of the most advanced emerging men’s movements in the world.
No-one is denying many men have issues, but in recent decades a quiet revolution has been making steady progress attracting those who realise the deep need for a supportive new men’s culture and network where they can sort through their issues, learn to better themselves and become more effective in their own self-worth and identity and in turn better fathers, partners and contributors to a rapidly changing world.
Men’s groups have been springing up in suburbs everywhere. They are widely diverse: some are regular informal get-togethers where men discuss what is happening in their lives, others are more structured and run by trained facilitators with different weekly themes covering relationship dynamics, parenting, self-sabotage issues, intimacy and sexuality, a sense of purpose in the world, healing the relationship with our own fathers and contributing to a healthy community. Most are ordinary, everyday blokes of all ages facing issues that are a common thread in the lives of a vast number of men. In one group years ago, I found myself sitting in circle with a millionaire property developer, a single dad of three struggling on welfare, a builder, a relationships counsellor, a security guard, a government health worker, a gestalt therapist, a gay man and an unemployed musician.
A common set of ethics and agreements around many groups includes leaving your ego at the door so everybody is deemed equal, and values of strict confidentiality, respect, trust, non-judgement, acceptance of viewpoints, and an intention to learn to be as real and authentic as possible. A ceremonial talking stick is often used so everyone is heard equally.
Making real change can be a struggle in a judgemental, unsupportive environment and, while much of our culture is geared towards condemning men for their apparent failures without also acknowledging the good they do, these groups provide a powerfully supportive and affirming space and the freedom for men to become who they want to be. Many groups continue on as a strong space of camaraderie and a place to bounce life and ideas around.
The spiritual value of this to our culture is immense at a time when isolation and the lack of effective support structures are seen as one of the biggest destroyers of men.
In the past few years there has emerged an elders movement also, similar to the grandmother circles, with men of wise years holding gatherings in many states and electing men’s eldership circles. They are largely men with broad life experience concerned for the future of our cultural values and young generations.
While there are many supportive women who welcome it and most men’s organisations also support women’s organisations, some alarmists, without stopping to investigate, have been quick to label this movement a bunch of men struggling to hold on to old patriarchal values. Yet nothing could be further from reality. They have long broken away from old values that discriminate against their freedom and well-being just as much as women’s and they are at the forefront of an underground change. And just as the women’s movement did many years ago, they often face their own share of prejudices, sexist bias, stereotypes and misandric attitudes from both women and men in positions of power in government, media and academia.
Women did themselves and men a service for years by pointing out sexist attitudes and language in male culture. Now many argue the wheel has turned and it is time for men to serve women and our young in the same way.
Our culture worships the feminine a great deal, but there is little recognition of the sacred aspects of the masculine. State and Federal governments pour money into ‘perpetrator programs’ for men who do go off the rails, but fail to see the benefit of funding preventive programs that engage men in a healthy lifestyle and support mechanism that benefits both them, their families and communities.
In 30-odd years of running co-gender spiritual groups, I have often heard women complain there are fewer men in spiritual groups and therefore they are not that spiritual or intuitive. Yet many men prefer their own space initially because there are not the masks and pretence the genders often wear in each other’s company, and the work can go much deeper. There is nothing glamorous about men’s inner work. It is often raw, real and as honest and confronting as each man wants to be for himself. It also involves a lot of fun, humour and joy.
Much of the work is about self-responsibility in owning, exploring and healing ‘shadow’ issues, the dark aspects of human nature many of us find difficult to admit to or prefer others do not see. Most people have addictions or sabotaging default behaviours in some form that numb the anxieties or pain of life and we often create trouble for ourselves and those around us. It takes holding a real and sacred space of integrity and trust for this self-honesty work to gel, and when it does there emerges a lightness from the burden of self-pretence and maintaining protective masks to the rest of the world. It is a freeing and liberating space that allows more ease of realness and a more authentic way of being. In a wider sphere it means less shadow projecting into the mass consciousness.
A key part of the work is also about respecting the masculine/feminine balance and interplay, though not always in the way demanded by many women. At weekend gatherings everywhere men are becoming more connected with their ability to nurture and care for themselves and others and they are working far more intuitively. Most realise that wholeness means having a healthy inner balance of yin and yang, listening to the heart and how things feel just as much as their heads.
Ten years ago I lobbed at a men’s gathering exhausted from night shifts and dealing with my mother’s admission to hospital. One of the men asked how I was doing. “Really great mate. Where can I help?”, I responded enthusiastically. He considered me thoughtfully before replying: “Hmm, I hear your words but it’s not what I feel. What’s really happening for you brother? Make sure you look after yourself first so you can better hold space for others.” You can hide little from aware men, but the compassion and support is genuine without being intrusive or negating self-responsibility. A man holding issues of blame, abuse or anger will likewise be gently encouraged by strong men to see the benefits in taking responsibility for what he is creating.
Much men’s work is not about pleasing women or becoming what women want men to be. One of the fundamentals is getting over any need to be accepted by women. It is more about honouring and respecting women as equals, even if the respect is not returned or we disagree with their viewpoint. Many men start making better choices for themselves and show up more present in their lives, and often look for women who have done similar work and have handled their issues around men.
After a four-day men’s retreat last year based on exploring the shadow and light aspects of male archetypes, one man’s partner, a government psychologist, ridiculed the focus on shadow work, saying her women’s group would never delve into that. “We do spend a lot of time celebrating our own beauty and light. We are all acutely aware of each other’s shadow traits, but it’s an unwritten rule that we just don’t go there.”
I listened to a talk by one of New Zealand’s indigenous grandmothers last year. She said: “There is much misunderstanding about the feminine energy. Yes it is becoming strong, but it is not about men and women. It is a pure energy that benefits anyone who is purely open to it, men and women alike.
“What people don’t realise is that it energises all aspects of the feminine equally, the dark shadow as well as the divine. The shadow of the feminine energy is being illuminated just as strongly so it can be dealt with, just as the masculine has been. But many women are still too stuck in blame and judging of the men to realise their own shadow is causing deep damage to our young also. It is kept hidden behind physical beauty. People who do not address it will start to struggle with themselves because they block their own light.”
She chuckled: “The bastard is unacceptable in our world, but our women’s bitch nature is often glorified and made beautiful. It is not a good rule for the future relations of our boys and girls. They both need to be empowered in the proper way.
“Women are free to criticise men if they choose, but they cannot then expect to declare themselves beyond scrutiny.
“Just as the God energy serves male and female equally, so the true Goddess wisdom serves both without favouring either.
“There is nothing wrong with having shadow. It is a part of human wholeness, and choosing to rise above it is a courageous decision we are all challenged with.”
Interestingly, many men hold a deeply authentic respect and place of support and admiration for the women who do venture on the journey of self-honesty and realness in their shadow-clearing work. Society places far more pressure on women to maintain an image of perfection and beauty, and men realise the challenge it creates for women to break out of that mould, and they see a much deeper beauty in enduring character strength than in cosmetics, clothing or surgery.
Many men are not interested in a gender battle. Those doing the work know life is not a contest between men and women, but about learning mutual respect and teamwork in creating a better, more equitable world.
Few women also get to hear of the pain many men feel over the divide and separation that gender discord creates in our wider world, but realise it is part of a process of choice. Many women also are increasingly voicing concern over the negative projections on men in our culture.
While there have been strident calls for better male role models for our young in the past few decades, the same voices tend to denigrate and destroy many efforts to make this happen, and as a result, many men have a deep mistrust of an increasingly feminised and condemning media, government and legal system.
Besides the block against a male perspective in the media, there are other reasons the public rarely sees what is happening with the men’s movement.
Several years ago a young male reporter from one of the country’s biggest newspapers joined in a facilitated week-long father/son camp run by a men’s organisation as a youth mentoring and bonding exercise and to help the men become better fathers.
The journalist’s glowing report was sidelined and, in its place, a woman editor who had no involvement with the camp wrote a damning feature on the dangers of “men taking boys out into the bush”. It set back the image of valuable mentoring work decades and blackened the public image of a lot of good men’s work.
It seems many writers cannot mention the good that men do without first pointing out everything bad about them. There are male editors who believe they are doing the right thing for women in allowing condemnation of men that they would regard as sexist or politically incorrect if it were against women. At the same time, stories of good work that men are doing or the challenges they face regularly go into the trash bin.
On Father’s Day, one high-profile woman columnist launched an attack on ‘deadbeat dads’, claiming many fathers were no more than a destructive influence in their kids’ lives, before admitting there were also good men and that fathers got little recognition compared to mothers.
Another, humouring attempts to raise funds for prostate cancer, admitted she regularly degraded men in her column, adding to her readership, “but they do deserve it, don’t they girls?”
Yet another refers laughingly to her “expletive moron of a partner”, and later writes that for International Women’s Day she will tell her daughter never to accept disrespect from boys.
One new age women’s magazine in Queensland ran a ‘special men’s edition’, with articles focussing on domestic violence, environmental destruction and headlines including, “Are you a w–ker?”.
Another writer complains in a family-oriented newspaper of the “lack of available man-meat” on the Gold Coast.
The explosion in internet blogging has also seen a proliferation of blog sites by women venting blame and debasing of men. As author Dr Warren Farrell wrote recently, “degrading women is sexism, degrading ethnicities is racism, but degrading men is regarded as humour”.
It is only a decade since women campaigned loudly over the negative portrayal of women in the media affecting our girls’ self-esteem, yet we have little concern over the devastating effect on our boys the media and advertising can have with its dumbing down images of men as either violent abusers or inept, immature clowns. This marketing strategy of dumbing males while portraying females as intelligent and glamorous is regarded as empowering women to influence their buying choices. The lesson we should have learnt previously is that we do not empower one gender by degrading another.
A common justification offered is that men deserve the abuse they get because of the past wrongs historically perpetrated on women and because of the hardships women still suffer in Third World countries. Men who regularly support the female cause but object to the abuse they get are often told to “get a sense of humour”.
Yet the deep flaw in the historical argument is that these men are not the ones who committed past wrongs or set up any form of ‘patriarchy’. They are the ones working hardest to make the much-needed changes, with little support. And they have little influence over what is happening in other countries where poverty-stricken men also struggle against oppression and violence.
We would not see wisdom in the current generation of Americans demonising current generations of Japanese or Germans over what happened in past wars.
Few stop to see that, the easier we make the journey for those progressing change, the quicker our mass cultural consciousness will shift for all. When we make the journey difficult, we block the very change in men and valuable alliances and supportive partnerships many are seeking.
I have heard a number of women asking why men don’t speak up more, in the same way women did for their cause. There are powerful marketing forces that work to censor male viewpoint. Media organisations have become astute researchers of human nature and weakness in order to target their most lucrative demographics and attract advertising dollars. It is common practice now to slant news coverage towards attracting the selected audiences that will appeal to advertisers.
One major news organisation issued an editorial directive to its staff several years ago based on its market research. The most lucrative demographic hunted by the media is women aged from 16 to 42, who have the strongest spending habits. Another developing market identified is young men into their mid-twenties who are fashion-conscious, love sport and like to see images of attractive women. The one market tagged to ignore in media coverage was men in the general fathers’ age group of mid-thirties to early fifties. They were identified as men with strong family values who often felt disenchanted with the world and their role in it, and therefore had little marketable value to advertisers. They are not as caught up in consumerism and hence you can’t sell them much.
Without a voice, these men suffer from ‘invisible man’ syndrome. Yet ironically this ignored demographic is the oneswith the values and the greatest potential for creating meaningful change in our world.
Instead we see pages filled with sport, fashion and beauty and countless articles on how women struggle with achieving work/life balance, while men are commonly stereotyped as either problematic or not doing enough housework. The few studies that have been done on men show they experience the same struggles with work/life balance and similar prejudices and biases in the workplace and government services.
An attempt was made by a group of women educators last year to attract more men into the early childcare industry in a bid to correct a serious shortfall and create more gender balance for our youngest. Despite the industry already being 96 per cent staffed by women, Queensland’s anti-discrimination office still blocked the scheme, claiming that a childcare training course for men would discriminate against women.
There is a strong element in the media, probably more through ignorance, that believes it is doing a crusading cause and protecting women by highlighting men’s faults in a bid to force them to change. The media perception of men has been fuelled also by a constant flood of press releases and research put out over the past four decades by powerfully-funded government women’s lobbies, often with the agenda of proving a need to maintain their funding.
A number of progressive women and men psychologists and family counsellors are now in the forefront of questioning the accuracy and bias of much of this research and the damage it is doing to family relations. But basically the mud has stuck and there are no government men’s agencies to offer an authoritative, balancing perspective.
No-one is denying there are many men who have serious issues that need addressing. Men are often the first to admit that, but all the indications show the negative aspects of men have been seriously over-stated in the rush to empower women and there has been little exposure of the vast amount of good that men do.
Likewise there has been little focus on areas where women have deeply destructive issues to overcome. Many social problems are portrayed only as ‘male’.
Our young ones, especially boys, suffer as a result. Girls also suffer from this disempowering of the masculine, and it is a concern widely voiced by a large number of men. When men are ridiculed and debased, our culture starts to lose respect for the value of authority. We see it in increasing lawlessness, violence and destruction in our young people. Statistics by the Australian Institute of Criminology this year show violent crimes, alcohol abuse and assaults by young women (often against each other over fashion and beauty) is one of our fastest-growing social problems – and one we are ill-equipped to handle because our law-making mentality is still deeply entrenched in seeing only men as offenders.
Ironically, it is still men we expect to do the majority of policing and upholding the laws that keep us all safe and protected.
Releases obtained under Freedom of Information laws in recent years have shown that our biggest source of data on family violence, the National Personal Safety Survey, has been geared to interview three times more women than men on their experience of domestic abuse (1995 survey sample – women 6300, men nil; 2005 survey – women 11,800, men 4500; planned 2013 survey – women 16,700, men 5300). Despite the heavy bias, the survey has still shown men make up at least a third of the victims of family violence, yet governments still refuse to provide services for them and their children.
Modern independent research interviewing equal numbers of men and women is increasingly finding that violence is both perpetrated and experienced almost equally by both genders, indicating a breakdown in gender relations and a need for counselling work rather than the previous standard stereotyping of “male patriarchal privilege and control over women”.
Although government advertising campaigns still infer men are the major cause of child abuse, state government statistics released in 2009 under Freedom of Information revealed mothers were three times more accountable for child abuse than fathers. There have been strenuous efforts to try and keep the statistics confidential.
What is slowly emerging is a new understanding of gender interaction and dynamics the genders need to address equally, rather than the past simplistic approach of simply labelling and criminalising men as the only problematic ones who need fixing.
It is not a blaming or finger-pointing game. Understanding the true reality behind a lot of agendas for protecting lucrative government funding means all of the people caught in cycles of abuse or struggling to cope can get the compassionate help they need, regardless of gender.
What many men have been actively realising is that change starts with self, and taking care of healing their own inner demons first, and creating a supportive network puts them in a better place to hold space for other men, for their families and the changes our culture needs to experience. Finding their own voice and identity first, away from the common projections and stereotypes of mainstream media and political-lobby agendas, is one of the first steps to real, sustainable change.
Paul Mischefski is a journalist, Spiritual counsellor, and a member of the Executive Committee and Elders Circle of Men’s Wellbeing Inc, based in Queensland. www.menswellbeing.org
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