Masculine Challenge [67]

By Dr. Keith Witt
November 5, 2012
iStock_000001146230XSmall“If you point your finger at me one more time, I’m going to slap you upside the head!” This was delivered with no humor and utter conviction by a welder sitting across from me with his wife in a therapy session circa 1980. We were on the fourth floor of the Anacapa building in downtown Santa Barbara, on a hot summer evening, with the smoke from a wild fire rising across the northeastern sky. Everybody was pretty crabby. I immediately started deescalating the tension with some version of, “I’m sorry, man. You’re right, I shouldn’t point like that. Also, what’s going on with you and your wife right now?” The guy immediately relaxed back into the session, but his wife needed some minutes to calm down. Feminine people are often freaked out when violence arises, and she could feel the danger in the room as her husband got in my face. Sensing the smoother vibe, I encouraged him to join me in reassuring her that violence was not imminent, and we got back to the business of helping them love each other better. The three of us were doing fairly well by the end of the session. Even in those days I was pretty relaxed with masculine rage and challenge. By 1980 I’d been practicing martial arts for fifteen years, and was quite familiar with angry, violent men. I knew that if a guy had it together to give you a chance (“If you point your finger at me one more time…”) he’d usually cool down quickly if you respected him one man to another. This welder and I actually had a stronger relationship after that episode. Years later when I heard David Deida assert “The masculine grows best in the presence of loving challenge, while the feminine grows best in the presence of loving praise,” it brought back a flood of such memories. Women weeping with release feeling themselves understood, validated, and praised for their desires to love better and shine in the world. Men first tensing and then relaxing as I challenged them to reach beyond their egos to grow and feel all of whom they were. When you are whole, vulnerabilities are strengths and resources rather than shameful burdens. There is a fine line in all of us, a threshold, an event horizon, where passion leads us to lose self-awareness and surrender to hostile defensive mandates. You can tell you’ve crossed this threshold when no input from the outside can change your mind or alter your pissed off self- righteousness. We easily see how a tantruming three-year-old has crossed the line. We have a little more difficulty with rigid, angry adults who are deaf and blind to new facts or perspectives. We find it especially hard to be aware of ourselves entering defensive states. Such loss of control is especially hard on men, since America pathologizes and infantilizes men who lose control and surrender to violent emotion and action. On the other hand, helping men discover these event horizons, and challenging them to keep hold of themselves in clutch situations and do right rather than harm is one of the privileges of being a psychotherapist–and a necessary part of the work. Men are stronger and wiser when they can catch violent states and reach for compassion and vulnerability. Compassion and vulnerability enhance a man’s warrior nature by using violent emotions, thoughts, and impulses as resources to be contained and channeled into doing right. Appropriately channeling violence also makes men more attractive. Most women yearn to feel a man’s power and willingness to put it on the line, while still feeling safe from his testosterone fueled evolutionary legacy. Every man’s genome has been shaped by millions of years of male ancestors who successfully held position on dominance hierarchies, met threats from nature and other men, and protected families and tribes from danger and attack. So, if you’re a guy, never surrender to violence. Learn to value those around you who have the courage to challenge you as you approach the line between self-control and acting out. That’s real masculine power, to never lose the responsibility to make each moment better and safer for everyone.

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