as Soul Work

Are we destined to be warriors?
Emotional Equality: Liberating Women and Men
Men Are From Earth
A Men’s Group: Essential to a Man’s Growth and Development
Soldier's Heart: The Soul's Protest.

A Men’s Group: Essential to a Man’s Growth and Development

Why do men join men’s groups? How does participating in a men’s group benefit a man? What role do men’s groups play in redefining masculinity and in changing the way men relate to other men and to women? I will address these questions based on my experience leading and participating in men’s groups the past twenty-five years.

“I feel lonely and I do not have any good male friends anymore” “I need to be able to discuss the things that are important to me with other men.” “I feel overwhelmed in my marriage and my family life and I need feedback from other men.” “I used to have close male friends, but we have drifted apart and I miss them -- I especially miss that feeling of connection.” “I got divorced recently and realized that all my friends were really my wife’s friends.” “I grew up being ashamed of being male.” I think I am really different from other men and do not know what to say to them.” “I feel guilty about my sexual feelings toward women -- I am afraid I will objectify them.” “I have trouble asserting myself and feel abused and angry much of the time.” “I am unable to hold my own in a conversation with a woman.” “I know I have emotions, but sometimes I feel numb, or, if I do feel something, I can’t put it in words.“ “I work so hard to support my family, that there is no time for me.“ These are just a few of the reasons given by men who came to me looking to join a men’s group.

How did we get in this mess?

In the book, Finding Our Fathers, Sam Osherson points to research that shows that boys, by an early age (3-5 years) understand that to be male means to shun dependence. If he wishes to avoid being ridiculed as a “mommy‘s boy“ and “sissy,” he denies his dependency needs and disowns any part of himself that seems feminine. In a culture where mothers are important caregivers, most boys, like most girls are initially dependent on and identified with their mothers -- in other words, I need her and I am like her. At a much earlier age than girls, boys are pressured to repress our needs to be cared for and dependent. It is as if each of us has the needs of a five-year old frozen within us. Women sometimes complain that in intimate relationships, men act like children. In the warmth of a relationship, these frozen needs begin to thaw and can be overwhelming.

All of this has a profound impact on a man's ability to form satisfying relationships. While the problems often show up in the way a man relates to women -- girlfriends, wives, coworkers, friends, the cure may lie in a man’s relationships with other men. A central issues in men's psychological development is the capacity for friendship with other men. Many men have had painful experiences with other males in childhood and adolescence. A man might have had a lack of connection with his father, or, worse, his father might have been abusive to the son or to the mother. He may have vowed to never be like his father, but lack any positive male role models. As a boy, he might have been bullied by other boys, or been a bully himself. In the workplace, he may come to see other males as competitors and not as allies. As adults, many men lack truly supportive and genuine friendships with other men. Many men experience a painful isolation. Caught up in the demands of daily life, there is a drift towards isolation. Unless a man makes ongoing, deliberate attempts to build friendships and cultivate relationship skills, he may become progressively more alone, even within his family. I am not talking about men with some sort of psychological disorder -- this is true for many normal, highly-functioning men with good jobs, families and all the trappings of success.

A man might have superficial connections with other men, but, especially if he is heterosexual, rely on his girlfriend or wife for deeper emotional connections. He might also assign his wife the job of initiating and maintaining social relationships. Men are far more dependent on women than they will admit, and, therefore, tremendously vulnerable to perceived rejection or disapproval. This actually makes intimacy with his wife difficult. In addition, the man might see masculinity through feminine eyes -- he may have seen his father through his mother's eyes and now see himself through his wife's eyes. This leads to a lack of understanding of the male mode of feeling, and, often, shame and confusion about being a man. A man may even suffer from an inability to recognize and articulate feelings, not because he lacks feelings, rather, he has lacks experience identifying and speaking about them.

The core of a successful men's group is the group's ability to reveal and, eventually, transform, each man’s pattern of interpersonal relationships. In a men's group, a man might find that he is more similar to other men than he thought. He may experience camaraderie and support. He finds the opportunity to work through the pain of past relationships with males and begin to see the other group members as supportive allies. Many a man has told his men's group that he imagined that they were by his side as he faced a difficult situation. He leans to identify and communicate his emotions, even revealing secrets that have caused him unbearable shame. He starts to see men as emotionally and interpersonally competent, as well as nurturing, and, so sees himself that way. He may find a portion of the mentoring that he has longed for. He participates in a group that, in the here and now, grapples honestly with how group members relate to one another. He experiences conflicts being resolved and intimacy deepened. In getting feedback from other men, he starts to see masculinity through masculine eyes. He may understand his father better. He may gain pride in being male, which paradoxically gives him the strength to face the injustices men perpetrate against women. He may learn to rely on the support of other men, making him less emotionally dependent on his wife, which, paradoxically, makes him more able to be genuinely intimate with her.

While all of this good stuff does not always happen, enough of it happens enough of the time to show that men's groups are effective.

Men Are From Earth

In the early 1980’s, on a spring day in San Francisco, I wandered into the “Whole Life Expo,” a marketplace of new-age ideas and products. As a psychotherapist leading men’s groups, I was drawn to a presentation promising important new information on the psychology of men and women. Unfortunately, this promise was not kept. The presenter, a slight man with a thin voice, was, to my thinking, neither a compelling speaker nor an original thinker. His “ideas” were repetitions of the same tired stereotypes about women and men that I grew up with, only he employed a marginally clever, though not original, metaphor about us being from different planets. I left the presentation never imagining that these paltry ideas would form the basis of a multi-million dollar pop-psychology empire.

In recent columns, I have taken issue with neo-Darwinist theories that claim evolutionary and biological origins for all differences between women and men. Again, not that there are no differences between the sexes, because there certainly are, just that these theories exaggerate those differences and present simplistic expiations as to their origins. For the most part, I see these theories are junk science, in that they are presented as if they are scientifically factual without any real scientific evidence. Nowhere is this clearer that with John Gray’s pronouncements about intrinsic differences between the sexes.

Why pick on poor John, when he is already coming under increasing scrutiny? In doing internet searches on his ideas, I found hundreds of writings challenging his ideas. In fact, there are entire web-sites devoted to debunking his claims. (see footnotes for further information) Several people have pointed out that his “Ph.D.“ was awarded by an unaccredited correspondence school that has since been forced out of business by the courts and the State of California and his only accredited degree is a high school diploma. He is not licensed in any state to practice psychotherapy, and although he claims to be a “Certified Family Therapist” and to belong to several professional associations, he does not meet the certification or membership criteria for any professional association or license in the field. What is more disturbing, is that, in reaching his conclusions, he conducted not one bit of genuine research. As far as I know, he has not published one journal article demonstrating any kind of experimental or scientific evidence for his ideas, as would be expected of a research oriented psychologist. His books include no references to any research or any sort. Nor, since he is not a psychotherapist, could he have based his theories on clinical experience working with couples, as is usually the case with authors who are clinical psychologists. I have no problem with anyone publishing “common sense” ideas about relationships -- But when someone represents himself as a “Doctor” in the field of Psychology, most people assume that he is either a research psychologist a clinical psychologist, or both, and, therefore the ideas have more credibility. In the field of psychology, there is a tradition that clinical theories and research findings are questioned and debated. In the case of Mr. Gray, too many psychotherapists, to the great discredit of our profession, have simply accepted his ideas, some even recommending his books to their clients. Hungry to ride the coattails of his fame, many psychotherapist have sought his endorsement. His web-site invites therapists to “expand your practice with the mars and venus counseling center licensee program.” This “licensee” program is open only to licensed psychotherapists, so Mr. Gray could not even enroll in his own program!

One of my colleagues, suggested that I may be motivated by jealousy of Mr. Gray‘s success. While I do not claim to be immune from lust for fame and fortune, my opinions of his ideas were formed long before he became the one man industry that he is today. I have no personal enmity towards him. I’m sure he is well meaning, and, some of his ideas have helped some men be more self-accepting. However, I strongly believe, as I did the first day I heard him, that his regressive “theories” are ultimately damaging to men, to women and to relationships between women and men. They codify, as natural, universal and unchanging, ideas about women and men that are really just stereotypes and generalizations.

Are men really from Mars (named after the god of war), or so different from women that it seems as though we are? Are we really oriented towards problem solving and unable to listen to feelings? Are we uncomfortable with emotion and unwilling to talk about our feelings? Do we shun advice because we are afraid of appearing weak or dependent? Do we have a need to ‘”retreat to our cave” and avoid too much intimacy with women? Do we wish to talk about nothing but sports with our male friends? Are these traits hard-wired into our genes and therefore immutable? Sure, some men, some of the time, fit any on these stereotypes. However, in more than twenty-five years of real clinical experience leading men’s groups and providing psychotherapy to men, I have been blessed to see the hearts of men, and know that we are all far more than these stereotypes. Many of us do not fit them at all, and already posses a great emotional intelligence. I have seen other men, who came into a men’s group unaware of and unable to articulate feelings, become emotionally aware, highly skilled communicators.

Doing clinical work and research is hard. Doing experimental research is even harder -- I get a headache just reading the stuff. What does it say about how men feel and communicate:

A research study at Purdue University, by Erina MacGeorge, "The Myth of Gender Cultures: Similarities Outweigh Differences in Men's and Women's Provision of and Responses to Supportive Communication," found only small differences between men's and women's comforting skills. "When it comes to comforting, the Mars-Venus concept is not only wrong, but harmful," MacGeorge says. "For the most part, men and women use, and strongly prefer, the same ways of comforting others - listening, sympathizing and giving thoughtful advice. Yet books like John Gray's 'Men are From Mars …tell men that being masculine means dismissing feelings and downplaying problems. That isn't what most men do, and it isn't good for either men or women."

Unlike Mr. Gray, who relies on anecdotes to support his conclusions, MacGeorge's research is based on questionnaires and interviews. Her research sample was 738 people - 417 women and 321 men. In studying how people support their friends, she found that men and women communicated in very similar ways. "Overall, men and women were both likely to express sympathy, share similar problems with distressed friends or discourage their friends from worrying," MacGeorge says. "Men did give a bit more advice more often than women, and women were slightly more likely to provide support by affirming their friend or offering help. However, men and women were only 2 percent different."

In investigating how men and women respond to advice, she found that both men and women welcomed advice that was relevant to their problems and was delivered in a kind, respectful manner. MacGeorge says, "The different cultures myth says that men reject advice because it threatens their independence, but this study shows that both men and women are equally receptive to friendly and useful advice."

In studying how men and women evaluated comforting comments, such as "Don't worry about it, it's not that big of a deal," or "Wow, that is awful. I can understand why you would be upset." There was a 3 percent difference between the sexes regarding what kind of comforting comments they prefer to hear. "Overall, both men and women disliked stereotypical masculine comforting that dismissed or made light of their problems and preferred stereotypically feminine comforting that validated their feelings and perspectives," MacGeorge says. "According to the Mars-Venus myth, men should have preferred the tough love but, in fact, they also value empathy and warmth."

Wow! Men value empathy and warmth? MacGeorge’s results match my own experience in leading and participating in men’s groups. Most men value empathy and warmth, and, when we find it, we are quite willing to open up and talk about our feelings.

Some men, as MacGeorge’s study suggests, lack skill in comforting. She says, "In earlier studies, my colleagues and I found that men tend to be somewhat more dismissive of others' feelings and problems, even though both men and women dislike this approach. This is one way in which the Mars-Venus myth can be harmful. If we tell men that rejecting the feelings of others is just as good, only culturally different, then we excuse them from becoming good support providers."

Contrary to the oft repeated slur, that men are just insensitive, I have found that most men are or can be good support provides. The first step is believing that we are capable of and willing to be supportive. Many of us already are. In men’s groups, even men who habitually shun feeling can quickly learn to comfort other men and validate their feelings. All they need is some clear feedback on how dismissing the feelings of others is ineffective and a little coaching on effective listening. As long as they do not feel personally under attack, most men can be good listeners. I have seen many men who listen and comfort far better than many women.

However, in a relationship, when a man is in a conflict with an intimate partner, he may believe that he is under attack and will cease listening and hasten to defend himself, often by dismissing the feelings of his partner. This is not because he does not care about his partners’ feelings or opinions. It is because he cares so much! This is one of the biggest and most hidden secrets of male psychology, men are tremendously vulnerable -- more than we would ever imagine -- to the opinions and feelings of those we love. We want so intensely to be loved, respected and appreciated. More than anything, we want those we love to have a high opinion of us. It is not our alleged unwillingness to be vulnerable that makes intimacy difficult, it is our tremendous vulnerability, so misunderstood by women and, to often, ourselves.

Those suffering from the greatest lack of understanding about male psychology, may be psychotherapists themselves. In general, psychotherapists portray men as unemotional, distant, defensive and “resistant” to psychotherapy, No wonder so many therapists uncritically swallow the ‘Men Are From Mars” line. No wonder so many therapists can not work successfully with men. Confronting this sort of bias, and lack of understanding, I sure wouldn’t open up about my feelings.

Over the next few months, I will write more about men’s groups, and, how to more effectively engage in meaningful conversation with men.

Emotional Equality: Liberating Women and Men

What if something that almost everybody believes to be true turns out not to be? Last month, in this column and in many conversations, I challenged one of the fundamental beliefs about the differences between women and men. This belief tells us that, by nature, men are more aggressive, violent, and less empathic whereas women are cooperative, peaceful and more empathic. The key here is empathy, which is the ability to understand the feelings and experiences of others. If one is more empathic and, therefore experiences others as sentient, thinking, feeling beings rather than objects, one is more likely to care and cooperate and less likely to harm and cause pain.

Let’s be clear, I am not saying that there are no natural gender differences. Of course there are. Likewise, It may be true that historically, and even currently, women demonstrate more empathy that men. I am suggesting that it is historical and current access to power and not innate gender differences that causes some of these differences in behavior. I assert that men are equally able to experience the whole range of human emotions, including empathy. The greater emotionality attributed to women has been used, in the past, to argue that women are irrational and not suited for positions of power and responsibility. Now, strengthened by the ideas of psychologists such as Carol Gilligan, some argue that women, with their superior emotional functioning, will lead is into an era of peace and respect for “mother earth.”

As I said in last month‘s column, women in power act much like men in power. Men without power act much like women without power. People with power are more direct, assertive and care less about the feelings of others. People without power have to be less direct, more deferential and accommodating and more attuned to the feelings of others -- especially about the feelings of those who have the power. This is the argument made by Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers in their book Same Difference.

I introduced this idea at a monthly salon that I host. Some argued vehemently for the superior emotional capacities of women, highlighting the “hormone bath” that prepares an expectant mother to bond with her child. However, the only expectant mother at the salon argued that she thought she and her husband were equally qualified as parents. To highlight Barnett and Rivers’ argument about the effect of power differences, I asked the group the following question: In America, are people of color more aware or the moods and attitudes of white people, or are white people more aware of the moods and attitudes of people of color? Attending this salon were five African-Americans, one Asian American, one immigrant from Europe, one immigrant from the Middle East, and at one European-American (this writer). The answer to my question was immediately apparent to the group. People of color, just to survive, have to be more aware of the moods and attitudes of white people. That is because white people occupy most positions of authority that people of color have to interact with. On the contrary, white people can more easily avoid interacting with people of color, who less frequently occupy positions of authority. When white people do interact with people of color, it is usually when people of color are providing them with some service.. Therefore, white people do not to have to be particularly concerned with reading the moods and attitudes of people of color. Several salon participants quickly saw the parallel. If men occupy most positions of power, as we historically have, women, just to survive, would have to be attuned to men’s moods and attitudes.

This is a cornerstone of the argument put forward by Barnett and Rivers The personality and communication differences between women and men are not due to inherent or biological differences, as claimed by pop-psych entrepreneurs such as John Gray. For example, if, in a business meeting, women are less likely than men to interrupt someone else, it is because, historically, they have had less power and dared not interrupt. To test this, just look at women who have achieved and grown accustomed to positions of power. For example, for several years I worked in programs funded through Alameda County

Behavioral Healthcare Services, where the Director and Associate Director are women who have both been in their positions for many years. Either of these women, when chairing a meeting, can interrupt any participant, male or female, with a speed, efficiency, and, if necessary, forcefulness unrivaled by any man. If either woman is burdened by an awareness that they might have hurt someone’s feelings, there is no evidence of it. In fact, I see no evidence, and am aware of no evidence that women in positions of power demonstrate more empathy, or other supposedly female characteristics, than men in similar positions.

Of course, none of this is simple. Women have historically had some areas of power in some cultures, especially as mothers. Many contemporary American men report feeling overpowered by their wives within the family. We do not have time to address all of these complexities, however, I am convinced that upon investigation, we would discover that access to power affects behavior more that alleged gender differences.

My whole point in writing this, is to debunk the notion of female emotional superiority. This is an idea that I think harms both women and men. It harms men, because so many men devalue their own emotional experience, thinking it inferior to women’s In their marriages, friendships and family relationships with women, many men feel bewildered, overwhelmed, inferior and inadequate. This does not benefit women in the long run, because the man is likely to withdraw, isolate, get angry and defensive, and, in some cases, resort to controlling or violent behavior. When a man understands, values and can articulate his own emotional experience, he is more able to maintain a close and mutually respectful relationship with a woman.

My experience as a man and a psychotherapist, is that men feel things very deeply. Given the opportunity, a little encouragement, and a setting they trust, most men are quite able to discuss their emotional lives, especially with other men. It is far easier than most therapists would believe. Of course, it is essential to recognize that the mode of feeling and the style of communication is sometimes different that it would be with a woman. Likewise, a little skill in guiding such a conversation is important. I have lead and/or participated in a few thousand group and one on one conversations with men over the past 28 years. I have seen, over and over again, that most men demonstrate tremendous empathy in dealing with one another. In conversations regarding their marriages and intimate relationships, most men clearly value intimacy and know how to show love. Most moving of all, is the tremendous love and dedication that the majority of men have towards their children. This is not to deny the violence committed by some men, but to affirm the humanity of most men.

Debunking female emotional superiority is advantageous to women as well. It liberates them from the “caring trap,” as Barnett and Rivers call it, that pressure to live up to the inflated expectations of feminine empathy. It could also liberate psychotherapy from its obsession with the mother-child relationship. Recently, I attended the American Group Psychotherapy Conference in New York. I was stunned that so many psychiatrists and psychologists still focus so exclusively on the mother, largely ignoring the role to the father. While this may seem like honoring women, in fact, much of the discussion of mothers is quite negative, naming them as cause for all sorts of psychiatric woes. Its time we released women from the burden of being men’s “better half,” while recognizing men’s full humanity.

Are we destined to be warriors?

Last month I wrote about the symptoms of emotional distress experienced by U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq and how a psychotherapist might interpret these symptoms as the cry of our collective soul. I picked this topic both because it is current and disturbing, and, because, it goes to the core of, historically, how we have defined masculinity. The preparation of young men for warfare leads us to declare that, by nature, males more aggressive and less empathic that women. Even with women now in combat roles, the psyche of the warrior, able to kill without the burden of feeling the enemy’s pain, is seen as masculine.

Psychotherapists wield enormous power in being able to define what is normal and what is abnormal, what is healthy and what is pathological. Therefore, we should chose our words carefully. If we unthinkingly accept that it is “natural” and “normal” for men to be warriors, it is therefore a “disorder” for a man to return from war psychologically damaged. If, on the other hand, we listen to the nightmares, depression, suicidal feelings, alienation, and, occasional outbursts of murderous rage that many returning soldiers experience, we may hear the soul testifying about the horrors of war.

To take this protest seriously threatens one of our culture’s most cherished beliefs about women and men. That women are, by nature, more relational, emotional, nurturing, cooperative and caring, while men are, by nature, more autonomous, rational, aggressive, competitive and emotionally detached. In the past, these ideas, enshrined by psychoanalytic theory, led psychotherapists to lend our voices to the chorus declaring women unfit for leadership because they lacked the necessary decisiveness and capacity for logic. Men were the standard of psychological and moral development, while women were incomplete. This changed in the 1970’s and 80’s with psychologists like Carol Gilligan revolutionized our field, elevating and honoring the traditionally “feminine” qualities of relatedness, empathy, nurturing. In many ways, psychotherapists now see women as full human beings, as psychologically and morally superior, while defining men as emotionally stunted and interpersonally incompetent.

As important as Gilligan’s work has been in rescuing femininity from the dungeon of male dominated psychological theory, it further reinforces old ideas about essential differences between women and men. This has led many to assume that when women and the feminine voice ascend to full power, they will lead the world to peace. So, will Condoleezza Rice behave differently as Secretary of State than the men who have preceded her? She has given no indication of being more empathic, more nurturing or any less willing to wage war

This raises a point that could demolish our ideas about many of the essential differences between women and men. It is power and not gender that causes many of our differences. Women in power act much like men in power. Men without power act much like women without power. People with power are more direct, assertive and can care less about the feelings of others. People without power have to be less direct, more accommodating and care more about the feelings of others -- especially about the feelings of those who have the power. This is the central premise of Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers in their book Same Difference. Of course there are essential differences between women and men, but they are often exaggerated. Other factors, power, situation, personal abilities and temperament, social and economic forces are often more compelling and better explain our behavior.

I know that many may find this hard to accept, but if you could bear with me, I would like to use it as a jumping off point to discuss various aspects of male psychology. Over the next few months, I will explore these questions: Are men naturally more aggressive and violent, making them well suited for war? Are men really more rational than emotional, or more removed from their feelings? Are men really more autonomous than relational, preferring independence to intimacy and reluctant to commit to a relationship? Are men less capable of empathy and less caring towards others? Are men less willing and able to communicate about emotional matters -- can they even really listen? What of male sexuality -- are men less likely to remain monogamous and more likely to stray?. I will explore men’s feelings about their families and children, and evaluate how competent men are as partners and parents. I will base my thinking on available research, on 28 years of leading men’s groups and practicing psychotherapy, and on my own personal experience. I welcome your feedback as we proceed.

Soldier's Heart: The Soul's Protest.

…but who is it now, in my ears, who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth? Who looks out with my eyes?
What is the soul? I can not stop asking…Rumi

James Hillman tells us that the languages of many so called “primitive” people have “…elaborate concepts about animated principles which ethnologists have translated as ‘soul.” Many of these peoples also recognize a condition we could call “loss of soul”, where a person is out of him or her self and can not find the connections to others. Better than anything detailed in our modern diagnostic manuals, this describes the loneliness, despair, addiction and loss of meaning that I encounter each day in my psychotherapy office.

Of course, the “psyche” of psychotherapy derives from the Greek word referring to breath, soul and life, and “therapy” from the word meaning to “minister, serve and attend to.” While we may never answer the question, “What is the soul?“, we know, as Tomas Moore wrote, that soul “…is tied to life in all of its particulars -- good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart”

What does it really mean for a psychotherapist to minister to the soul? A person is usually driven to psychotherapy by painful symptoms, hoping to quickly eradicate these symptoms and become a happier, more well-adjusted person. However, Hillman warns us that “because symptoms lead to soul, the cure of symptoms may also cure away soul, get rid of just what is beginning to show, at first tortured and crying for help, comfort and love, but which is the soul…trying to make itself heard…for the symptom is the first herald of an awakening psyche that will not tolerate any more abuse.”

A practitioner of “soul” psychotherapy attends to symptoms and helps decipher the soul’s message, not just for the individual, but for the collective. The soul, that spark of awareness that “looks out through my eyes”, belongs to a larger, world soul. Let’s apply this approach to the following “case studies.”

According to an article in the January 17 San Francisco Chronicle, 30% of the soldiers returning from Iraq may need psychiatric care, to deal symptoms of anxiety, panic, depression, anger, nightmares, estrangement from loved ones, emotional numbness and a variety of somatic complaints. The article quoted Veteran’s Affairs workers concerned about adequate funding for such treatment. Certainly, we, as a nation, have a responsibility to provide the best medical and mental health care for veterans returning from war. But I think we owe them far more that that.

If we really listen to what their symptoms are telling us, we hear the cry of our collective soul. As the Chronicle article points out, psychological wounds of war have been chronicled since ancient times, given names such as “Soldier’s Heart,” during the Civil War, “Battle Fatigue,” in World War II, and, since Vietnam, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” In this progression we see both the ascendancy of the psychiatric paradigm and the power of language. Psychiatry’s ability to name a human state as a “Disorder” gives its practitioners awesome power. It defines a collective catastrophe as an individual malady.

It is not a far stretch of imagination to feel the impact of being in a war zone such as Iraq, in near constant peril, unable to tell friend from foe, witnessing death and suffering. What would a “normal” reaction be? What we label as a “Disorder” might be the natural human response to inhuman conditions. It may be that those who do not develop observable symptoms are in greater psychological peril. What about the barely perceptible damage done to the soul of the society that sent them and those of us privileged to distance ourselves from the trauma?

What the Chronicle article does not mention is the high incidence of suicide. A Dayton Daily News examination, published in October 2004, identified 21 returning soldiers who committed suicide, although the actual number is likely much higher. In several of the cases, family members say that the horrific experience of war contributed the deaths. Even more soldiers have committed suicide while still in Iraq. That so many would chose suicide, the permanent solution to a temporary problem, shows how unbearable the emotional wound of war can be.

Some of these suicides give us a window into a rarely discussed psychological impact of war. Killing other people is itself traumatic, especially when the killing violates the soldier’s moral values. Like in Vietnam, American soldiers in Iraq cannot easily distinguish “enemy combatant” from civilian, ally from adversary, causing them to sometimes shoot first and question later. Internally, this questioning can go on for years and cause severe spiritual and emotional distress. Even if commanded to take part in an atrocity, the guilt can be overwhelming.

Jeffrey Lucey, a 21 year-old reservist from Belchertown, Massachusetts, returned from Iraq and descended into depression, alcohol abuse, and hallucinations. After two admissions and discharges from a VA psychiatric hospital, he hung himself in his parents’ basement, pictures of his Marine unit on the floor below him. Shortly before his death, he had shouted at his sister, "Don't you understand?" Your brother is a murderer." He then showed the dog tags he said that he took off the necks of the two Iraqi soldiers he was forced to shoot, one in the eye, the other in the back of the neck.

In perhaps the most dramatic “case,” Andres Raya, a decorated US Marine of Mexican decent, came home from Fallujah for the holidays and brought the war to his hometown of Ceres, California, making casualties of himself and two local police officers (one dead, one wounded). "It was premeditated, planned, an ambush," according to Ceres Police Chief Art de Werk, "It was a suicide by cop." De Werk said “investigators …believe that Raya, a Marine who had served seven months in Iraq, was concerned about the possibility of going back into combat.” Julia Cortez Raya said that her son served in Fallujah: "He came back different.” While we can only speculate about what drove Raya to kill and be killed, we know that the assault on Fallujah was particularly bloody, with many civilian casualties. Participation in such an event could certainly change someone profoundly.

There is no justification for Mr. Raya’s horrific actions. To understand is not to condone. To look for the soul’s message in the symptoms, no matter how severe, is not to diminish the suffering of the victims of his assault, who were decent men doing their jobs. Perhaps the soul’s message can be found simply in the fact that Mr. Raya brought the war and its suffering home, to his home town, so that we could not so comfortably avoid it. Perhaps the soul is telling us that home is where the real problem lives and the real enemy resides. Psychotherapists are always urging clients to look inside to find the source of their troubles. Couldn’t we say the same to our nation?

Many of my comrades would chasten me for being “political.” Psychotherapy has always been political. Although many therapists consider themselves liberals, the history or our profession has been far from progressive. It was not until 1973, under pressure from gay rights groups, that we finally removed homosexuality from our list of psychiatric disorders. Psychotherapists still sometimes argue that white people, who date or marry outside their race, are suffering from low self-esteem. Black men are still misdiagnosed on a regular basis, being much more likely to be labeled “paranoid” than their white counterparts. To define a social problem as an individual pathology is a political act and psychotherapists do it every day.

Certainly, it could be true that some troubled veterans are mentally ill, and were so before entering the service. Others may have had an underlying psychiatric condition that war experiences exacerbated. To refuse to explore beyond the boundaries of individual psychopathology is gross negligence. Supporting our troops takes a lot more than bumper stickers, flag decals and yellow ribbons. We need to listen to what they say, and, equally importantly, what their symptoms say. Not only must we listen, we must take the message into our hearts, to see them as part of us and not separate.

I am not suggesting that waging war is never justified or necessary. That is for all of us, as citizens, to decide. As psychotherapists, our job is to help our clients gain awareness of their motivations, and clearly understand the consequences of their actions. Often, we must break through walls of denial. If, as a nation, we choose to send our soldiers into war, let’s be honest about how the trauma impacts them, and above all, let’s not blame them for their suffering

©2010, Gary Hoeber

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Psychology has a long past, but only a short history. - Hermann Ebbinghaus

Gary Hoeber has been working as a psychotherapist since 1976, helping a broad range of people successfully deal with a wide variety of life challenges. He is a leading practitioner and teacher of group psychotherapy. An Instructor at John F. Kennedy University since 1988, he offers classes on "The Practice of Group Psychotherapy." His approach to group therapy is highly interpersonal, assisting in the development of effective communication and relationship skills and increasing the capacity for intimacy, friendship and community. His work with individuals focuses less on pathology, and more on the unfolding of one's life purpose, using a depth psychology informed by poetry, story and mythology. Gary is licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist and has offices in Berkeley and San Rafael, California. or Gary will also be reviewing important new books on psychotherap

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