This isn't really a rant, just some reflections about men. I post a lot of my musings about gender issues, but more than half of them tend to be focused on women. This morning, I'm thinking about the male friends in my life.
Until I was in my 30s, I had very few close male friends. I was raised surrounded by women, and as I went into adolescence and early adulthood, I tried to make certain that women were always around me. It wasn't just romantic or sexual relationships that I was seeking; it was emotional support. Through high school, college, and graduate school, I prided myself on the large number of women who were close to me, with whom I had mutually supportive, generally non-physical relationships. Of course, the real truth was that I was absolutely terrified of intimacy with men. Men were colleagues and rivals, but never friends. I made all sorts of excuses as to why I didn't have more male friends; the most frequent one was that "most American men are sexist pigs, and I can't relate to that." (That was a lie on several levels!)
Oddly, it was my work teaching women's studies that forced me to work on my relationships with men. About 1998, it finally hit home to me that much of my academic interest in women's studies was rooted in my own fear and dislike of my fellow men. I liked being in classrooms (as a student or as a professor) where I was often literally the only man in the room -- I felt safe. As I did the work of questioning why I felt so safe when men weren't around, I realized to my shock that the judgment of women did not carry as much weight in my life as the judgment of men. In nearly all-female environments, I was at least temporarily free from the fear of being evaluated -- and found wanting -- by other males. It was a hard realization to come to at 31! The great mytho-poetic men's studies guru, Robert Bly, describes the type of guy I was:
In the seventies, I began to see all over the country a phenomenon that we might call the "soft male"... perhaps half the young males are what I'd call soft. They're lovely, valuable people -- I like them -- they're not interested in harming the earth or starting wars. There's a gentle attitude toward life in their whole being and style of living.
But many of these men are not happy. You quickly notice the lack of energy in them. They are life-preserving, but not exactly life-giving. Ironically, you often see these men with strong women who positively radiate energy.... the journey many American men have taken into softness, or receptivity, or "development of the feminine side" has been an immensely valuable journey, but more travel lies ahead.
That travel leads to learning to live not merely as a male, but as a man. Many writers in the field of men's studies talk about the concept of "homosociality". It's a simple principle: in American culture, young men are raised to value the approval of other males far more than the approval of women. Any young woman whose boyfriend acts completely differently when he is alone with her (as opposed to when he is with his buddies) recognizes this phenomenon instantly. As a shy, unathletic, narcissistic child, I had had a pretty unhappy and rough time in elementary and junior high school -- mostly from my male peers. I realized, with that sudden mixture of shame and relief that accompanies such a realization, that as a consequence of these early miserable experiences, I had spent two decades avoiding intimacy with other men.
In the past six years, my relationships with men have been transformed. Not surprisingly, I have discovered that running has played a very helpful part in that transformation. Though our informal running group does have women within it, we are primarily a male bunch. I find that men build trust and intimacy when they aren't looking directly at each other. When we run through the mountains, up and down fire roads and single-track trails, we run single-file. (We get excellent views of one another's backsides, but that is not generally considered a source of excitement.) Running single file, sweating together, we can talk and talk and talk while still having an activity that legitimates the conversation. (Even after years of workshops and consciousness raising sessions, it is still tough to meet a male friend just "to talk"!) I have brought countless problems into the San Gabriel Mountains with my friends; two, three, or four hours of hard physical (and emotional) work later, my burden has been eased.
I've become convinced that only other men can make men grow. Relationships with women can provide us with healthy challenges. They can inspire us to want to change, but they can't show us how to do it. Our wives, mothers, girlfriends and other women can only share with us what kind of man they would like us to be -- they cannot "role model" that for us. As Robert Bly puts it (and I know he raises some feminist hackles): Women can change the embryo to a boy, but only men can change the boy into a man.
I've made it a point in my life to surround myself today with three kinds of men: older men (my father chief among them, but others as well) to whom I can look for advice and inspiration; men my own age (whose experiences are similar to mine); younger men (teens and early twenties), for whom I can serve -- with luck and by grace -- as a role model. It's a good week if I spend time with all three groups of men.
We are a culture with precious few non-violent yet deeply masculine role models. Our schizophrenic popular culture oscillates between idealizing the endlessly conflicted, feminized men who struggle to grow up (I always think of Ross, on "Friends") and absurd caricatures of aggression (think of Vin Diesel in most of his films). I don't have the secret to living a balanced life as a man, but I am convinced of this: living life surrounded by other men, men who offer encouragement, accountability, and male energy, is an essential part of that healthy life.