as Soul Work

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.

©2005, 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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