A Man
Overboard

 

 

An interview with John Lee


John Lee is an author; he's even more of a personality - one of the more wonderfully warm and friendly personalities you'll ever meet.

I'd read his Flying Boy many years ago, and recently read Facing the Fire - Experiencing and Expressing Anger Appropriately, Growing Yourself Back Up, and the sweet autobiographical love story Courting a Woman's Soul.

He's a very accessible person, as well as a notable writer. He's also got depth. A man who quotes Blake and writes poetry is okay with me.

A Poison Tree
By William Blake

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

A Thunderstorm in Mentone
By John Lee

The wind is different tonight.
The leaves on the trees move easily.

Summer rain cleans the horses
grazing the wet grass in the pasture
across the road.

I saw lightning for the first time
in months. It looked like a ragged
tuning fork, and I felt the thunder
roll through my body.

Today, in a house a hundred miles
away I saw my father for the first
time in ten years.

He sat beside me with his bare shoulder
against mine as we looked at a map.
Years ago I would have wanted more to
happen and felt a disappointment,
but this meeting moved easily.

A part of me (the part that always wanted more)
felt cleaned. The lightning comes
down in straight lines and then
separates into its tines. A father and a son
and a tuning fork are like that too.

We talked about mileage; then
he showed me the peas he'd grown in his
garden.
This is the most affection I am going
to get, I thought.

Today, this amount of affection was enough.

- Excerpt From Growing Yourself Back Up.

John Lee, considered one of the pioneers in men's work, talks as much about addiction recovery as anything else. Many men credit their work in AA and other programs as the catalyst that got them involved in men's work.

"Had it not been for men's work and recovery, I wouldn't be here talking to you now," he said on the phone from his home in Atlanta, Georgia. "All the men's work in the world would not have gotten me to where I am now if I was still into my addictions."

People suffering with addictions to alcohol, drugs, work, or sex need to address those issues before they're ready to do men's work, he said.

"If he gets involved in men's work, he'll be a better man, but he'll still be an addicted man," he continued. "There are all kinds of addictions, including work. If a man works 80 hours a week, he's padded on the back and made chairman of the board. At the age of 50 or 60, he's as addicted to work as my father was to alcohol. He's an empty shallow man. That's why so many men of my father's generation, who were praised for that addiction, fell apart when it came to retirement. The work process was not there to bolster their self-esteem afterwards."

Sex can be another addiction that prevents a man from doing his personal work.

"The whole act of wooing, courting, dumping, and starting all over again, was what I was told you're supposed to do," Lee stated. "This kind of addiction is not as easily treated or seen. Codependency is an addiction. Many men will feel abandoned and fall apart if their wife is taken out of the picture. Addictions to alcohol or heroin are easier to see. There's not a treatment center in the country for work addiction."

The author said he believed the roots of addictive behavior are about not being seen as children.

"The self-psychologists talk about this in early childhood development from ages 2 to 4 - it's the applause stage of development," he instructed. "What it means in layman's terms is that children are looking for praise and applause for everything they do and everything they are, and when they don't get it (and you know most parents, single or together, don't get sufficient praise and applause), the children get sent away prematurely. That's what's living in these men that become a greedy soul or what Robert Bly refers to as the "insatiable soul." That's where you can never get enough there in adulthood. You weren't meant to get it in adulthood, you were meant to get it in childhood. People that teach and speaks publicly are some of the more wounded people on the planet. There will be a few that say that's not so, but the majority of men and women - those seriously looking at their own wounds to a greater or lesser degree - will agree. We're some of the most wounded people out there because we're out telling people about our own wounds."

The way to tell if a speaker or a therapist is beginning to do their own healing, is when they start talking about cutting back their activities, he noted.

"Really, who would want to talk about divorce, alcoholism, child abuse, rape, and incest every day for a living? People who have really worked on themselves will eventually talk about giving up the limelight or being a therapist because they're starting to heal up their own wound."

Lee is the son of a farmer, "a blue collar man." The author said he did not consider himself to be well educated in his youth. He went on to the University of Alabama where he excelled in literature and religious studies, receiving his Master's Degree before going to the Univeristy of Texas, and finally working on his doctorate - one that he never finished, thanks to the success of his first book, The Flying Boy.

"What I've always wanted to do was explore this soulful stuff and speak about it in a language that I, and my friends, can understand," he said. "I compliment people like Robert Bly, Robert Moore, and James Hillman who speak in scholarly tones. That's why I've loved teaching with Robert Bly and Robert Moore. I sit there and take notes. A lot of what I know comes out from them into my notebook."

If Lee is "arms length" from academia, he is enfolded within the arms of the public. His affable style to men's work attracts thousands, with most of his constituency coming from people who are college educated - but "not severely or irreversibly so."

"I'm hoping that my voice can be of use to people," he continued. "If I read Iron John, and I do not have the background in this work, it's hard going. If you read my books, I'm only a couple steps away from a comic."

This self-effacing, good humored gentleman is happiest to hear about a man's introduction to men's work through his immanently readable books.

"At a book signing, I had a man tell me that he had refused his wife's gifts of my books. He told me she bought him one of my books and he took a band saw to it and cut it in half. I asked him which half he wanted me to sign. By then, he'd gotten himself another copy."

As I began my discussion of the "L" word, Lee skillefully addressed my own skepticism of the modern usage. Fortunately, he was versed in the work of my hero - C.G. Jung.

"I've tried to talk about love over the years," he recalled, "but it's been a strange mix with men's work. Many men, like myself, were trying to contact their anima. In a way, it was a retreat from the masculine. Both my masculine and feminine had been exposed to so much damage."

According to Lee, Jung had not dealt sufficiently with his own masculinity. (I do know for a fact that Jung did have the largest female constituency when he showed up to psychiatric association meetings. Hmmmm.)

"Jung had not wrestled with his own father issues, as was depicted in his failure to wrestle with Freud successfully," Lee postulated. "What Jung did was prematurely move in the direction of the feminine. That's what I try to point out to men; we too often try prematurely to contact the feminine and end up cherishing the false feminine. As I explored some of that in myself, with lesser and then greater degrees of success, it allowed me to access my true feminine where I wasn't projecting all the time. I had to wrestle with that masculine, and the distrust of men ... wrestle with the Oedipal stuff."

I commented to Lee that he doesn't seem to usually get into this much depth in his books. In his best Jungian references, he continued.

"My inferior function is my thinking. My feeling function is superior. A lot of times my insecurity around my thinking is so great I may have difficulty articulating what I would like to say, but I can easily use a metaphor or a story. That's my way. That's the mythopoetic way. Flying Boy is a story. (It sold 375,000 copies.) My strength lies is story telling. Because people tend to be in denial about regression and childishness, you have to be awfully adult to read a book about how regressed you are. I don't know how I ever came up with enough adult in me to write such a thing ... hmmm, I suppose I had a temporary moment of maturity."

I can't remember the last time I had so much fun and laughed so hard during an interview. I like men whose wisdom is funny.

Lee said one of the failures of modern men's work, and psychology in general, is the absence of integrating the "spiritual" into the personal developmental process.

"Psychology cannot do any more than bring one into the awareness of the inferior function," he explained. "It takes something greater than psychology to heal our wounds. There's always been a spiritual undercurrent in men's work. For instance, I was recently in Mentone with Bly and Moore and we ended up spending more time in the realm of psychology and always too little on spirituality. It's not because anybody means to do that, it's just one of the things we do. In my life and work, I'm trying to redress that imbalance."

My favorite book is Facing the Fire because it actually addresses the gold within the shadow of men's anger.

"First of all, a man shouldn't be shamed for anything in my opinion," Lee stated. "It may

have been one of the flaws in the early men's movement. Bly and I had a discussion about that issue. In 1989, some of the New Warrior men, (now the ManKind Project) would come to my seminars and cut me down. Again, nobody should be shamed, but nobody should have to endure a man's rage. Rage is the adult who regresses and then acts it out. Adults are usually not prepared or taught to express anger in a clean way. We tend to regress to this earlier state, this fight or flight state. We live in a country full of immature adults - men and women in constant states of aggression. We've come to believe that rage is anger, but it's not. Most of us would not know how to express anger as an adult because nobody's taught us how. It takes learning to express good clean anger. I learned it the hard way by raging at the ones I loved the most and doing a lot of unintentional damage. And, well, they walked away or ran away.

Modern psychology tells me I'm supposed to get these feelings out, but the psychology does not teach my how to do it. Most often when we think we are expressing anger appropriately, it comes out by way of preaching, teaching, analyzing, criticizing, shaming, blaming, demeaning, demoralizing, and judging. On the other hand, if a man says he's going to tell his truth for four hours and then he comes back in two months unsatisfied, then there's something wrong with that process. All he did was rage. Real relief comes from adult expressions of anger, not those ragings of a three-year-old."

At his seminars, Lee said he used to indulge a man who was raging. Now, he invites him to take the necessary time "off line" with one of Lee's associates to help the man get in touch with who he's really anger with; then they help him to look at his history and his past angers that never got fully expressed back then ... angers that are trying to find a way out of his body, angers directed at the wrong person.

"After he's identified his anger at his boss or his dad, then I tell him I'll take the time to stand toe to toe with him. He usually feels fine and I don't have any arrows in me."

The ManKind Project has progressed dramatically since the early 1990's in its approach to dealing with anger, Lee admits.

The "charges" men get are not simply psychological, but physical as well.

"Men get this physical charge and then try to release it intellectually," he said. "If I have a knot in my stomach, it's going to be real hard to just talk out that knot. Too often, men will converse for hours and never work through the energy carried in their body."

This is the strength of The ManKind Project, in its ability to safely help a man find a more complete healing experience through its psycho-drama scenarios.

Lee referenced the 1993 book, Writing From The Body, which he said helps people write out their distresses.

"Many people have emotional blocks to their creativity because their emotions are so stirred up," he explained. "They try to address their issues with only the intellect. Most people are not able to access their transcendental function (Jung's words). Most people are too distressed emotionally to ever get to what you've just described. That's why you have a few people who are creative for the many. First it's catharsis, then art."

Lee said men's work comes secondarily to Robert Bly's exquisite poetry.

"Culture grabbed on to the secondary and let go of the primary," he said. "Men's work has tended to overshadow that voice. Many of us are battling to get our artistic vision out. Robert Bly is to our time what Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, William Blake, and Yeats were to their time. Men's work got Bly in The New York Times and on the cover of Newsweek; and it is my deep hope and trust that it will be his poetry that puts the Pulitzer Prize in his deserving lap."

We headed toward the end of our conversation by discussing his

Courting a Woman's Soul. (Bly called it "The best love story I've read in a long time." Being happily married myself (for the second time), I told him that I thought a good relationship was simply finding "a good hearted woman." He agreed.

"And you have had to do your own work in order to recognize it when you see it," Lee said. "That was your half, her half was her ability to give love to someone and cherish it. My wife did the same with me. She taught me about four kinds of love, because my family showed me a little about Eros (romantic love), but what my wife showed me was Agape or spiritual love, Phillios, or friendship. Then Robert Bly, Robert Moore, and others taught me about Caritas, or love of community."

This is where John Lee blew me away with an additional idea of the love of community. I've always been drawn to the power of community through the works of Martin Prechtel and Malidoma Some. Here, Lee introduced the idea of sharing community with a woman.

"In my past when I was with other women, I would not involve my community in that love for her. It was mostly erotic love. My community and I would stay over here and the women in her community would stay over there. When Susan and I got together, one of the major things I did differently was set up times for us to be together with primary people in my life. We went to dinners and gatherings, and at the end of each, I'd come back to these people and ask them to tell me what they thought. I've got a "defective picker" and I've never picked women well. So, when my community said this is the right person, you've picked well, I knew I had the right woman. I remember consciously asking them why they hadn't given me feedback with my previous girlfriends and they responded by say they'd known all along "but you never asked us into the decision making process."

Love of community and community love. Interesting ideas.

And the conclusion is almost trite, but with this understanding, it makes sense. Lee tells us as couples to become friends.

"It's cliché, but nobody really does it," he said. "In my past failed relationships we never really got to the heart of friendship and very often we weren't that compatible and so we could never really be friends. I'd say 'let's be friends,' but not until after we'd both beaten the hell out of each other, psychologically, spiritually, and socially ... it sounds like a lot of gall to say after a disaster of a divorce, ' now let's try to be friends.'"

Adding poetically, Lee said "Spirit is the thread that weaves those four loves into wedding garments."

Don't we all tend to segment love? I do.

"Why not have a fuller awareness of spirit in all four loves," said Lee, more like a blessing. "When we can acknowledge our narcissistic and negative grandiosity, we are better able to access our enlightened sovereign." He referenced Robert Moore's work again. "Once the shadow king has been acknowledged and dealt with - even applauded - we can then go back to our rightful place standing in spirit."

Flying Boy, Flying Boy Book II: Journey continues; The Fliying Boy Book III Stepping Into the Mystery: For sons, lovers, mothers and wives, The Wounded Lover: A book for women raising sons & men coming to terms with their fathers; Recovery: Plain & simple, Health Communications Facing the Fire - Experiencing and Expressing Anger Appropriately, Growing Yourself Back Up, and the sweet autobiographical love story Courting a Woman's Soul and the re-release of Recover: Plain & Simple available on my website at www.jlcsonline.com

© 2005 Reid Baer

*     *     *

The fame you earn has a different taste from the fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria Vanderbilt

Reid Baer, an award-winning playwright for “A Lyon’s Tale” is also a newspaper journalist, a poet with more than 100 poems in magazines world wide, and a novelist with his first book released this month entitled Kill The Story. Baer has been a member of The ManKind Project since 1995 and currently edits The New Warrior Journal for The ManKind Project www.mkp.org . He resides in Reidsville, N.C. with his wife Patricia. He can be reached at E-Mail.



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