In retreat with my men’s group of 26 years and still trying to figure out the unanswerable question, “What does is mean to be a man?” My answer began with acknowledging that the masculine and feminine exist within both genders, but in different amounts and characters and while it’s important to understand and accept the full spectrum of possible percentages, from 50-50 to 100-0, it’s also important to acknowledge that the differences exist and then explore what they mean.
I don’t care whether it comes from testosterone, brain chemistry or a mythical Iron Jon spirit, but there is a masculine energy, a masculine psyche, a masculine spirituality and the question is “What do we do with it? Use it to win football games? To surge out on the battlefield? To dominate wives or children or workers under our management? Or do we turn it to protection of the sacred, bring it to the battlefield of the gods and devils of our own selves, the good and evils out there in the world? Do we use it to beef up the selfish and narcissistic ego or to vanquish it through a disciplined practice like Zen meditation?”
My two-word summary of a positive masculinity is “tender ferocity.” The ascendance of the old-style male macho bully to the top of the heap is bad news on every level, but amongst them is the model for young males, the permission to go ravage the world with their swagger and blind power and hurtful muscles. Beautiful men and women I know are calling for empathy and understanding of those who voted for this to happen and at the end of the game, that will indeed be necessary. But what about ferocity? Let’s not be too naïve or passive here. Martin Luther King did not calmly say, “Everyone is acting from their own truth and we need to respect that.” Instead, he bellowed out with great power his words about “Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification’…” Strong words. He talked about meeting physical force with soul force, but that soul force is cultivated through a fierce discipline and an iron will. No wimpy understanding or passive acceptance.
The tender side of things comes easily to me, fed by countless hours spent with children and babies, with Rumi, Whitman, Mary Oliver, Bach, Billie Holiday, Keith Jarrett, trees, fields and a practiced habit of sharing vulnerability. There often is at least one such moment in every workshop I teach, often at the end with a quiet song or lullaby with people’s heads on the backs of their neighbors feeling the vibration of each precious voice. But there is also often a time when my voice goes down to the belly and the passion rises and I speak out on behalf of the children we are beating down, neglecting, emotionally abusing in our poorly-thought out practices we allow to go unchecked in our schools. The kids need somebody to fiercely advocate on their behalf and though some workshop folks don’t want to hear it, I don’t give a damn. If they signed up to work with children, they better take seriously our implicit Hippocratic Oath—“First do no harm.”
From the national theater of politics to the Orff workshop to each class I teach with kids to my own daily struggle on the zazen cushion come face to face with my own demons, this is what is called for—tender ferocity. It helps to name it so I can live it more fully. And I just have.