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Thursday, April 24, 2008

What Do Men Need?

A Hierarchy of Needs

Fifty years ago the psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about the Hierarchy of Needs. According to Maslow, people have some needs that basically must be fulfilled in a particular order. Starting at the top, they are:


Although not every need at one level must be fully met before a person can aspire to the next level, the general outline rings true. Under physiological, for instance, we need air, water, food, and shelter (among other things). If we can't breathe, it doesn't matter if we're thirsty or starving or if we have no roof over our heads. And until those needs are met, we're not likely to worry too much about establishing some protection from saber-tooth tigers (or muggers). Likewise, if we are in physical danger, our self-esteem takes a back seat.

I want explore the middle two items, Belonging and Esteem, and what they might mean to us ordinary men.

Most of us have a sense of belonging in our families, our communities, our places of work. This gives us a rootedness, a compass by which we guide ourselves through life. It would seem a natural thing, then, for esteem to be a logical next step: we are loved, we are useful to others, and so on.
Feeling Like Crap

So why do so many men feel like crap? Or if we don't, why are we of absolutely no opinion about ourselves - in other words, why are we so numb?

We can talk about the devaluing of men in society and the assaults of feminism, and these may be factors, perhaps even significant ones. But I think there's a bigger factor: Men no longer get a sense of belonging from other men.

Many men get only tiny tastes of belonging from within even the best and most loving family. As for communities, they are atomized into cocoon-like households and typically offer even less belonging. Most workplaces are not long on social support, and aren't designed to be.

Many of us, often without knowing why, are isolated and lonely, even when we have a nice job and a loving marriage and family. A numbness sets in, and it feels natural. After all, we're meeting society's and our family's expectations to be a provider, a good and quiet citizen, and (depending on our situation) a faithful and loyal family man. This numbness affects all our relationships.
Men's Belonging

Where can men get a sense of belonging that will resonate with esteem and in turn give us a better sense of belonging in our families and communities?

Here are some other ways to put the question: Where can men get the most connectedness and understanding of what it's like to be a man? Where can men feel total acceptance of ourselves as men? I don't mean acceptance as husbands, or fathers, or workers, or leaders, or heroes, or anything like that. I mean acceptance for simply being male.

From other men.

I think if you get a few men together, and give us some time, we begin to come out of our loneliness and isolation to find that we're not the only ones with a full range of spiritual yearnings, sexual joys and frustrations, rage against abusive bosses, deep love for our children and partners, glory in our large and small victories, grief over our losses and compromises, zaniness and raunch, utter fatigue and distraction from just being a man.

Yes, our wives and girlfriends understand us - on their terms, or in terms of being part of a couple. But, simply because we are men, we have a far greater potential of understanding, and being understood by, other men.

This is not touchy-feely encounter stuff with lots of (perhaps) unmanly chatter. Our understanding can be nonverbal, contained in a glance, a knowing grimace, a grunt of appreciation. It's a kind of intimacy, but not the kind in which personal boundaries come crashing down. It's more like finding ourselves standing on common ground, a ground larger than the little islands we thought we were stranded on. When we do talk and listen, it's from the heart, with a clarity that can surprise us. The depth of understanding is a phenomenon I've seen in weekend gatherings, week-long retreats, and an afternoon of drumming and poetry.

The esteem part comes when we realize that we matter to other men, that our value to each other is simply in being men and not in accomplishing great feats. Because other men accept us - whole communities of men - we begin to accept ourselves and matter to ourselves.

This esteem can be brought back into marriages and families, strengthening connections there. In fact, I've heard several men report that, when things got shaky at home, their wives or partners said, in effect, "Time to do some more men's work."
The Challenge

I know it's likely that I'm preaching to the choir here. Most men reading this newsletter have already had some experience in, or at least interest in, men's groups.

But how can we spread the experience around? I'm not talking about becoming a "movement," just perhaps expanding our men's groups to include a few more men, or spawning off a new group in a new community.

I've been told that attendance at gatherings is declining, at least here in the Northeast. If the decline in men's work is widespread, it's possible that, as a collective, men are sliding down further into the pit of loneliness.

So here's an action plan: If you're involved in men's work in a men's group or by attending gatherings, invite another man to join you. If you lead a group, discuss expanding it and encourage the men to bring a friend. If you're not already in a group, you may have to start your own. See How to Start a Men's Group for some ideas.

It's a small start. But each man you bring into men's work is one more man who has a sense of belonging and self-esteem and who can bring those qualities back to his family and community.

From Menletter June 2004
by Tim Baehr