Monday, August 2, 2010

Boys Don't Cry...and other lies we tell men. Why developing an inner life is essential to healing men from the explosive violence bottled up within.

By Richard Rohr, OFM

We are getting used to the troubling news reports of men who kill their whole families, their wives, their children, or their fellow workers. We are, of course, appalled and saddened, and suspect that these men must have been mentally ill or drunk or on drugs. They often are, but more often the “reason” is probably even deeper and less obvious than addiction or illness.

I have no exact statistics, but my assumption is that this has been on the increase since the recent economic recession, loss of jobs, and all the insecurity and fear that goes with it. I surely would not want to blame it just on these factors, but let me also suggest a few others at a deeper level. Men as a class appear to be “at risk,” maybe even high risk.

We are certainly seeing this in the return of many soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year I was invited to give a retreat to the Army Chaplain Corps, and they are genuinely overwhelmed by the high incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, among their men and women. Edward Tick’s influential book War and the Soul makes the case that many men seek some kind of initiation in joining the armed forces, only to be massively disillusioned.

After 20 years of working with men on retreats and rites of passage, in spiritual direction, and even in prison, it has sadly become clear to me how trapped the typical Western male feels. He is trapped inside, with almost no inner universe of deep meaning to heal him or guide him. Historically, this is exactly what spirituality meant by “losing your soul.” It did not happen later unless it first happened here.

For centuries, males have been encouraged and rewarded for living an “outer” life of performances, which are usually framed in terms of win or lose. Just listen to boys talk—they have already imbibed it, and usually with the encouragement of both dad and mom. The world of sports, contests, American Idol, video games, and proving oneself is most males’ primary “myth,” through which he frames all reality. I challenge anyone to claim that is an overstatement.

In such a worldview there are only winners or losers, no in-between, and little chance for growth or redemption once you are deemed—or deem yourself—a loser. In the West, even the gospel is largely taught in terms of a giant reward/punishment system, which I guess made sense to a largely male clergy. It is the way we prefer to frame reality. Here there is little talk or concern for healing or growth or inner spiritual development. “Why would I need healing?” I have heard men say outright. The word is even strange to many men; it sounds “soft” and “needy”—and this rejection is a surefire plan for having an absolutely huge shadow world and an unconscious agenda that largely calls the shots. Are ongoing political, Wall Street, and church scandals really a surprise?

By “shadow world,” I simply mean all of those aspects of our own memory and hurt that remain hidden in our unconscious, those things that we’re not prepared to deal with at the moment. They highly influence us, but we have no conscious control over such feelings, motivations, fears, and agendas, so they tend to do more bad than good. Spiritual healing is precisely about bringing those issues to consciousness, which is often quite painful and yet also deeply consoling.

I once suggested to a group of middle-class Catholic men that the gospel might actually be a win/win scenario between God and humanity. An obviously successful man came up to me afterward and said, “But Father, that would not even be interesting.” It took away his whole motivation if life could not be framed in terms of some type of win/lose contest—at which, not surprisingly, he saw himself as the ultimate insider and winner. American, healthy, white, heterosexual, Roman Catholic, and probably Republican. No wonder Jesus said to the outsider, “Never have I found such faith inside of Israel.”

Take a typical woman, educated or uneducated, of most any race or ethnicity, and give her this agenda: “You are not to have any close friends or confidants; you are to avoid any show of need, weakness, or tender human intimacy; you may not touch other women without very good reason; you may not cry; you are not encouraged to trust your inner guidance, but only outer authorities and “big” people; and you are to judge yourself by your roles, titles, car, house, money, and successes. People are either in your tribe, or they are a competitive threat—or of no interest!” Then tell her, “This is what it feels like to be a male, most of the time.”

Maleness can be a very lonely and self-defeating world.

Very few women would choose that kind of agenda. Feminism and social engineers were right when they said that the typical male in most cultures has many more options and chances for advancement. But few pointed out that they were largely talking about outer options. After 40 years of ministry with many groups at different levels, I am convinced that women have far more inner options and a richer inner life—even if equally neurotic. Men have more outer options, women have more inner; that is the norm.

In describing inner feelings and states, and in talking about what they really want and need, women have many times the vocabulary that men do. They have a much more nuanced emotional life in most cases, and in general they are more skilled at relationships than men. I have done my own survey on this one: On my visits to the local grocery store, on the street, or on a hiking trail, women I meet are three times as likely as men to say “Hello,” “Pardon me,” “Sorry,” “Thank you,” or a simple “Good morning.” Many men do not even say “Excuse me” when you step out of the way for them as they barrel forward—our slowed-down version of road rage, I guess. Maybe this is simply because I am male myself, and the rules would be different if I were a woman. But it sure makes me wonder about the relational capacities—and even the relational interest—of the typical American male.

But how else would a man be expected to act if he does not know how to identify, much less know how to share, his sadness, his anger, or his endless grief—often about his own love and losses, or the world that he once dreamed would happen? In the male initiation rites we have been leading for almost 15 years (, one of the most surprising but revealing discoveries was that much male anger is actually male sadness. Men often have no way to know this themselves, and many probably even think of themselves as “angry men.” They are often very sad men, but they have no differentiated feeling world, no vocabulary, no safe male friends, no inner space or outer setting in which to open up such a chasm of feeling—not even in their churches or with their partners.

I know I am walking on sacred ground here, but I am going to say it: The church often does not really encourage an inner life. It substitutes belief systems and belonging systems and moral systems for interior journeys toward God. As a result the outer behavior is pretty weak as well. I would be willing to argue this position at the highest levels of Catholic hierarchy, Protestant scripture interpretation, or fundamentalist mental gymnastics.

In fact, the reason that such external hierarchy, simplistic and dualistic readings of scripture, and heady fundamentalism exist at all is primarily because of the male unwillingness to feel, to suffer, to lose, and to stand in the place of the outsider with even basic empathy. Which, of course, is exactly where Jesus stood and suffered, “even to accepting death, yes death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). How do we dare to worship a “loser” and yet so idealize winning?

So what do we do for our men, our husbands, our fathers, sons, and brothers? First of all, it’s important to note that throughout history many varied cultures, all over the world, have recognized this problem. These cultures saw that men would not go inside themselves until and unless they had to—and then it was often too late. So they guaranteed and structured an inner journey for the male somewhere between the ages of 13 and 17, and it was called “initiation.” It likely didn’t even work in most cases, but cultures knew they had to do it for the social survival of the tribe. Initiation was effective for enough men to guarantee eldership, wise men, men who moved beyond ego, control, and power into the “second half of life,” the non-dualistic mind that we call wisdom.

Initiation in most cultures was done largely through two methods: extended solitude and silence, and ritualized sacred suffering. That was the cauldron of transformation for the male. Many cultures, in a wide variety of times and places, came to the inescapable conclusion: There was no other way.

If our churches do not find ways to validate, encourage, structure, and teach men an inner life—as opposed to mere belief systems, belonging systems, and moral systems, which the Olympics do much better!—I am not sure what the church’s reason for continued existence might be. We are failing the test with one half of the species, which means we are failing for the other half too. Organized religion is not doing its inherent job of transforming people at any deep level.

In short, we have substituted an intellectual life for a symbolic life, a largely mental life for a life of inner meaning, a nice Christian club for the call to a journey that males could actually respect. We can live without success, but the soul cannot live without meaning.

An important message is found in the Genesis 27 story of Jacob and Esau. Our men are like Esau, fooled by their brothers and their fathers too, and deprived of their deepest birthright. No wonder that the Esaus of our time “want to take revenge and kill” (Genesis 27:42). You cannot take away a man’s soul or fail to reveal his soul to him without dire consequences for family, neighborhood, church, and society as a whole. Esau seems to eternally cry out, “Father, do you not have a blessing for me? Do you only have one blessing?” (27:38).

Notice in this famous story of Jacob and Esau that both of them are led by pure self- interest and seeking to maximize their “outer options.” That is the uninitiated male in every culture, including the Hebrew culture of the Bible. Rebecca, their mother, opens up their “inner options,” guides them every step of the way, protects them from one another, covers for their father, validates their cunning, and protects them from their own deceit and ambition.

Rebecca might not be perfect—in fact she isn’t. But at least she has some imagination, some caring, some passion, some creativity, some risk taking, some inner intelligence, beyond the simple win or lose game of Jacob and Esau. I wonder if Jacob and Esau are not the very archetypes of win or lose, all or nothing, dualistic minds, no blessing left if you are not Jacob himself.

Could this be the very name of faith for men in our time? We need to help our men move beyond the self defeating game of either-or, and to find the open and gracious space of the limitless, alive, and God-given world that is in-between. Where all of us live anyway.

Richard Rohr is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation ( in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province.

Boys Don't Cry. By Richard Rohr. Sojourners Magazine, July 2010 (Vol. 39, No. 7, pp. 19). Cover.

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