This is an odd time, and I am an odd person, to be writing this. I'm a woman. We just finished the Hindu Festival of Navrathri, which is a nine-night celebration of the Feminine Divine. So why am I writing about the spiritual wisdom of men?
One of my professors, David Carrasco, opened a course on Native American Religion by explaining that we cannot really study indigenous cultures, all we can do is study our encounter with them. In doing so, we still may not understand indigenous culture, but we inevitably learn a lot about our own. I'm not a man, but I have a brother, a father, a husband, many close male friends, colleagues and so on. I am surrounded by men. I may never understand them, but these relationships have taught me a lot about myself. Some of what I've learned is uncomfortable.
I've written before about Kali and the struggle for women to overcome the trauma from violence perpetrated by men. Kali is a popular manifestation of feminine rage.
She's also loaded with symbols that caution us about the consequences of that rage. Kali is usually depicted as a fearsome, multi-limbed warrioress, her bloody tongue lolling from her mouth, her many hands gripping weapons. An army in chaos flees from her, and her foot is planted on a prone man. At first, it seems obvious what is going on: Kali is angry and her enemies have scattered and fallen; the Warrior Woman has defended herself against men. But it's a little more complicated. One interpretation is that Kali's tongue is not out to demonstrate bloodthirstiness : her stuck-out tongue is an expression of surprise. She is surprised to find that beneath her foot is not a fallen enemy, but her consort, Shiva. He threw himself in front of her to stop her rampage.
In her rage, Kali could not tell friend from foe, and slaughtered those she came to help.
Here's my point: Men are not the enemy. They are just as vulnerable, nuanced and wise as women. They suffer just as much. I did not want to see this. Recently, I've had to admit that it's something that I need to see. That we all do.
Men are vulnerable to abuse. They may not be vulnerable in the same way that women are: depressingly large numbers of women are murdered by their spouses, lovers and boyfriends. While men experience emotional and physical abuse, they are less likely to be hospitalized or killed because of it. This lack of serious physical injury, compounded with societal pressure for men to hide vulnerability, makes it challenging to know the real scope of this issue. But they are vulnerable.
When men do speak up, they seldom find sympathetic supporters. In "Being the Man Does Not Automatically Make Everything Your Fault," Jackie Summers relays his experience of sharing his history of being abused by his ex-wife:
"What did you do?"
Singularly, this is the question I am asked most frequently when I tell people I am divorced, as if possession of the Y chromosome automatically means the dissolution of my marriage was intrinsically and entirely my fault.
I respond with what is -- in my mind -- the primary reason I'm no longer married to that particular individual. "My wife was abusive, physically and emotionally. In four years of marriage, I was kicked, punched in the face, she'd fly into a rage and destroy my things."
This is usually the part where the initial question is repeated: "Why, what did YOU do?"
This is loathsome. It's loathsome to assume that a man is the one at fault, and it's loathsome to ask an abuse survivor what they did to deserve it. Abuse is abuse. A survivor is a survivor. No one has any reason or right to ask a survivor what they did to contribute to the violence against them.
"The poor kid was duct taped to a chair, with his mouth taped shut....various sorority girls were having fun pushing him down the hall...[looking] at his junk, and basically fucking him up with [a] dildo....[Later] he was just sobbing quietly on the ground..."
He was not released until the next day, and soon after transferred out of that school. The piece closes with: "We laughed about it all year."
After reading that (and once I got over my anger), I wondered a few things: if and when that young man tries to tell someone what happened to him, can he expect the response that Jackie Summers received? Will he be told that he must have enjoyed it? Who are those "sorority girls"? Do they consider themselves rapists?
It's easy to think we've identified the perpetrators of abuse, and that they are men. But every one of us has the potential to misuse our power over those more vulnerable. Until we -- men and women -- confront and overturn those tendencies, we are going to keep on feeding a cycle of violence, reaction and blame. Men are not the problem. Violence is the problem. That violence may be emotional, spiritual or physical. In the end, we all suffer.
In order to solve these issues, we need to address the people contributing to the problem. Not all people who hurt others are psychopaths. Some are ignorant and appalled when they discover that they have caused pain to someone else (I repeat: not all. Some.). In his article "The Accidental Rapist," Hugo Schwyzer addresses his challenge, as a young man, to understand and respect subtle sexual boundaries. After his girlfriend tells him that she sometimes agrees to sex even when she does not want it, Schwyzer reacts: "My gaze fixed in the distance, my voice trembling, I asked what seemed the only possible question: 'Are you trying to tell me I raped you?'"
This must be a terrible question to ask yourself. It's a question that takes courage to confront. It's unfortunate that this raw, questioning honesty is often met with judgment and anger. Sometimes I've been the one judging. There are comments on his piece call him a rapist. I don't think he is, but it would be easier for me if I did. (Please read his article before commenting on my very brief excerpt!).
Men do seem to be the most common perpetrators of abuse. Until men stop crossing those boundaries, we are only reacting to the problem. We, as women, can learn to be more empowered and to defend ourselves. But In order to stop such abuse from happening in the first place, men have to ask themselves painful questions. And we have to give them the space and support to do so. We also have to confront that abuse is perpetrated and supported by women. Having conversations about these topics is complicated and painful. It means uncovering and confronting a lot of issues that we are terrible at discussing: issues we may have never discussed before. That's one of the many reasons we need to support endeavors like The Good Men Project, where both Summers and Schwyzer are contributors. It's a place to have these conversations.
When women express their truths, it is painful to hear and accept. This will not be any easier.
When we go on a rampage about "men" being violent, insensitive and incapable, we are using the actions of the few to define the many. Our sons are listening. Our husbands, lovers, brothers, fathers, friends are listening. And we are hurting them.
One of the challenges facing men is simple acceptance that men have their own masculine wisdom. It is wisdom that we are sorely in need of.
We have to stop demeaning men. I often hear: "Men are only interested in one thing," "Men are incapable of expressing their feelings," "Guys don't know how to parent" and so on. I've too often said the same, and worse. As long as we keep telling them they are sex-obsessed, emotionally crippled, incompetent parents, we limit men's opportunities for self-expression and worth. Men are not cookie-cutter, testosterone-driven stereotypes. They are not all potential abusers (at least, not any more that all women are). They are a collection of individuals who are struggling to find a way to be human despite limiting social structures. They are vulnerable and in pain. They have their own wisdom. Encountering men's' perspectives, through my personal relationships and reading the blogs of brave, honest guys, uncovered my own prejudices and misplaced anger.
I am in no way saying men and women face the same challenges, or that women have achieved safety and equality in our country. But I am saying that we have to stop punishing all men for what a few do.
I'm trying to be a better woman: to listen to men when they speak, rather than deciding that I already know what they are going to say. I've been Kali -- blindly enraged. Now I'm trying to open my eyes and see what, and who, is really in front of me. I think I'll be surprised.