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Evolving Men’s Work

And the Seattle Men’s Evolvement Network

Copyright © 1998 by Bert H. Hoff

This article appears in Vol. 1 #3 (Summer/Fall 1998) of Men's Voices journal.
 Men's Voices: So men can find their voices and speak their truths


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Response "The Men's Movement Revisited" by Dick Gilkeson, editor of the former Mentor magazine in Portland OR.

Over the years it’s been a rich experience for me to work with men firmly committed to Seattle M.E.N.’s mission of providing information, support and advocacy for men. Men like James Smethurst, of course, who served as Executive Director of Seattle M.E.N. for so many years and worked so hard to hold Seattle M.E.N. together through some lean and difficult times. Men like former Board members Jackson Mayes, Dan Sever, Norm Dorland, Alex Gladstone, Jack Slee, Jim Schaffer, J.B. Webster, Lewis Price, Paul Hovsepian, Robert A. Carlson, Carl Merner, Halim Dunsky, Regal Watson, Hugo Piottin, Mark Murphy, Alex Vasquez, Scott Abraham and Matt Chamberlin. And two people who were invaluable on the magazine side, Susi Henderson and Randy Hilfman.

It was a rich and valuable experience for me, one that changed my life by opening me up in new ways and challenging me in new ways. I have no hesitation in saying it’s been—and continues to be—the most active growth period in my life. Even the heart-wrenching shadow-struggles were incredibly rich experiences. I appreciate men in my life in ways I had never dreamed possible.

So what happened to Seattle M.E.N.?

With all these men, all this energy, all this commitment, why didn’t it work? In one important sense, it did. Even while there were struggles on the Board and in the organization, Seattle M.E.N. continued to provide valuable services to men in the Puget Sound region and around the continent.

So why didn’t it continue? In a nutshell, I’d say our shadow ate us.

What shadow?

We tend to look for particular turning points, particular events, particular destructive shadow energies, particular men, particular scapegoats. When the Board fought about … When the executive contract wasn’t renewed … When the magazine became a one-man platform … When the national leaders didn’t support us or bail us out … When … When …

There is a grain of truth to each theory, of course. Enough truth to keep many people focused on particular causes, particular men, particular events. Enough to keep us from seeing the elephant in the middle of the living room.

The “men’s movement” that was so important and meaningful to so many of us has simply run out of steam. A lot of men are in denial about this. If only the Seattle M.E.N. Board didn’t get in such power struggles. If only the Board had committed to retain the Executive Director at a higher salary. If only …

Envision a forest—one where some of the trees are dying. We can say it’s a particular insect or a particular fungus. But the basic point is that the sick trees have somehow weakened. If it wasn’t the fungus, it would have been the insect.

As I look out over the forest of Men’s Work, I see a pattern of grandfather trees—ones we thought would just keep on growing forever—succumbing to one form of “attack” or another. MenWeb has a series of articles about the Florida Men’s Gathering being disrupted by a man and his friends who brought a lot of chaos and destruction to the circle. Some men in Seattle point to a Wisdom Council conflict about NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association. In other communities I hear about New Warriors drawing men and energy away from once-flourishing men’s councils. And I hear about conflicts in mission and approach, that cause schisms in regional men’s gatherings, or lack of energy in efforts to revive once-thriving men’s centers and men’s councils.

I see played out all around the continent a pattern similar to that of Seattle M.E.N. In each case, men can point to non-renewal of a contract, a one-man magazine, a destructive man acting out his pathology and tearing down a sweat lodge, a new New Warriors chapter, a clash of personalities and approach among men who had worked together for past men’s gatherings, or whatever. I submit that in each case it’s matter of fewer men (and declining revenues) doing over and over what worked in past years, without new energy coming in.

I was a mountaineer in my teenage and young adult years. It’s not as dangerous as many people believe. The fatalities are much more often a matter of mistake or error in judgement, rather than a freak avalanche or storm. Each year we’d pore over the accident report booklet published by the American Alpine Club. The pattern was the same. Every accident had a “trigger” and an underlying cause. Too often the public would blame the trigger. But a whole complex of factors constellated over a period of days, weeks or months to make it possible for the trigger to trigger the fatality.

Maybe the contract non-renewal, the one-man magazine, the chaotic man, the New Warrior chapter, the conflict over goals and approach are mere triggers. If that trigger had not been there, there would have been another trigger. Maybe the man who blew apart the Florida Men’s Gathering was not acting out his personal pathology but unwittingly acting out some form of archetypal or shadow energy. Is this a shadow side of masculine energy that we don’t want to confront? Maybe a down-side of masculine independence and going it alone?

A former director of a men’s studies program had an interesting observation. If you did a graph of the men’s movement and a graph of the women’s movement over time, you’d have graphs of the male and female orgasm.

Think about it.

The women’s movement has been going on and on, since the ’60s. Have we men shot our wad, and are we now done with it?

Hey, it was great while it lasted! I was lucky enough to spend some time with Tom Golden, a physically distant but very close friend who’s also an international expert on men and grief. You may remember the M.E.N. Magazine articles on men and grief (now the heart of the MenWeb men and grief section). As we wandered through Volunteer Park and climbed the water tower to look out over the city, water and mountains we ruminated over Men’s Work. Tom said, “Yeah, but I miss the energy of those big gatherings!”

MenWeb and Men’s Voices are still selling the Oral Traditions tape Men and the Life of Desire, the one tape that perhaps best captures the energy of those big men’s gatherings. (Click here for info.) In the tape segment we use as a MP3 WebCast on MenWeb, Robert Bly, James Hillman and Michael Meade each talk about why they’re there. Robert says, “The joy of the day is the joy of being together with many men, which wasn’t a joy I had, ever, before I began to do this. Hopefully, later in the day we’ll sing and we’ll be able to hear 700 men’s voices, which is a thing that I never forget, no matter where I am. If I’m in trouble I remember something like that.” James Hillman adds, “Something goes on here that can’t be reported. Keeping alive something to do with other men besides the usual ways we live with other men, by watching TV or drinking beer, or talking about cars or talking about sports. There’s no movement of the soul in there.” Michael Meade adds, “The feeling of 750 men coming through one doorway, with exuberance, dancing, singing, playing drums, howling, and no one getting harmed or hurt, is something I come for.”

What happens when a man has shot his wad? He plants his seed. The seed grows, and gives birth to something else.

We have planted a seed, and the fruits are all around us, even if they’re not in the dramatic—the orgasmic—energy of huge, high-energy men’s gatherings. It’s now a social cliché to say, “It takes a village to raise a child.” People think of Hillary Clinton. Well, I think of Malidoma Somé, who was saying this at men’s gatherings almost a decade ago, long before it was a public cliché. I’ve always maintained that the real Men’s Work happens when small groups of men get together in groups, not to drink beer and talk about sports, sex and cars, but to share their emotional and feeling sides and talk about things that are really important in their lives. Where men support each other instead of competing with each other. I venture to say there are more men in men’s groups than ever before, and men no longer whisper when they mention their men’s groups to “outsiders.” More men are open about liking poetry, and writing poetry, after Robert, James and Michael published The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poetry for Men. Men seem more open to talk about their emotional, feeling and nurturing sides than in the John Wayne days. Michael Gurian has branched out from his men’s movement roots to publish best-selling books about raising and mentoring boys, and anticipated a whole flood of new books on this topic. (We’ll review several of them in our next issue.) As I look around me, I see many more men working hard to make their relationships work, and many more men involved in the lives of their children.

Imitation, it is said, is the sincerest form of flattery. The Promise Keepers and the Million Man March flatter us greatly. The focus on getting together in small groups to discuss real things in our lives, on not forsaking family and relationships for elusive career goals, and on being much more involved in the lives of their kids is familiar to men long involved in Men’s Work.

What happens when a man has his orgasm and plants his seed? Evolutionary biologists tell us that the name of the game is preservation of the genes, not preservation of the species. The man goes on, to plant his seed in as many places as possible. The woman seeks protection and provision for her egg until the offspring reach maturity. And thus, over the course of the millennia, we have developed a masculine archetype we don’t talk about much, the Nurturing Man—the man who stays and sacrifices to nurture his seed to maturity.

At the risk of invoking the homophobic shadow, I’ll use the word “love.” Men’s Work is about getting in touch with our masculine selves—and loving other men in nurturing and supportive ways instead of competing with them. I’m continually struck by M. Scott Peck’s definition of love, the will—the discipline—to nurture our own and someone else’s spiritual growth.

In 12-Step Work there’s that 12th step, service. A saying in AA is “Keep coming back!” There’s another implicit saying, “keep giving back,” for your own good as well as for those you support.

What happens in Men’s Work? Men going through a sticky divorce, custody or child-support issue get involved in men’s rights stuff. Then their problem gets resolved and they move on in their lives. Men encountering a crisis in their lives come to men’s gatherings, men’s councils or men’s groups to get the support or spiritual growth they need, and then move on in their lives. Maybe they encounter personality or power struggles and decide too much sacrifice is required. Maybe they get busy in their lives, now that their crisis is over, and just stop showing up.

Who’s there to help the new guy? I know they’re out there, because I get the MenWeb e-mails as often as I did before, from men who are so grateful that they’ve discovered Men’s Work. Who’s there to nurture the growth of the seed we’ve planted? Who’s there, not just for their own growth and enrichment, but to sacrifice and nurture the seed, to support other men? Who’s there to pick up the banner and move forward when the Old Guard, the men who have held men’s councils and gatherings together for so long get tired? If one or two guys carry the load it gets heavy fast. If ten or 20 guys carry it, together rather than in isolation, it’s light—even fun.

What is the shadow I spoke of earlier, the elephant in the middle of the living room? Maybe it’s not power struggles that tear men’s organizations apart. Maybe it’s a lack of sustained, nurturing energy. Maybe it’s the eons-old pattern of having our orgasm and moving on to the next thing, rather than having the nurturing energy to stay and nurture our seed to maturity.

So where is Men’s Work going? I get asked this a lot. Frankly I don’t know. I don’t think that there will be another explosive, orgasmic burst of energy like the one that followed Robert Bly’s interview with Keith Thompson, “What Men Really Want,” in New Age Journal in 1982, or another wave of huge, high-energy men’s events. I think it will be a quieter, “think globally, act locally” type of energy that starts with more and more men consciously being Nurturing Man in other men’s lives by loving other men: by having the will—the discipline—to nurture their own spiritual growth and that of other men in their lives.

Read the response "The Men's Movement Revisited" by Dick Gilkeson, editor of the former Mentor magazine in Portland OR.

Read another response, from James Shelley, Director Men's Resource Center, Lakeland Community College, Kirtland OH

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