To be male, at least in this country, seems to be synonymous with having amassed an over-developed ego. This is why men in particular seem to identify themselves so strongly with their work. We think that we are what we do. We develop a sense of identity based upon the shell or container of our outer life which we construct ourselves, and then project to a world which we hope will interpret us in the way in which we desire to be perceived.
For men in particular, so much of this outer construct is based upon strength and power. And it’s not all our fault; it was learned within our culture. In subconscious ways we were taught to be this way. When we fell down and scraped our knees as little boys, parents all across America told us, “Don’t cry. Be tough. You’ll be alright.” We learned that lesson, and we brought that lesson with us into our formative years, and then into our early years of adulthood when we began constructing the container for our first half of life.
The problem is, that we are afraid to move beyond that. So, we live in a world where grown men continue to operate from an ego-centric identity that is based solely upon what we do, how we are perceived, and the power that we hold within that exchange.
You see this truth lived out all the time if you pay any attention to American politics. Over developed identities based upon work, perception, and power are what fuel any campaign for every seat in Washington and precisely what leads folks to file law-suits against Presidents for a so-called “unconstitutional health-care act.”
But certainly we see it closer to home too. In my Catholic Worker work at SAME Café, I see it all the time. I see men who have been abused by a power system, and left on the outside looking in and vying for power, straining with everything they have to project a certain identity so that they will be perceived in a certain way.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I asked a man by the name of John to help me out by spending thirty minutes sweeping the porch and sidewalk, and picking up some of the trash on our block of Colfax Ave. Less than five minutes later, he returned to the front counter shirtless, with a few weeds in his hand, banging his fist on the counter saying “Here’s your trash!” and demanding that I serve him a meal. I calmly explained to him that he was not holding up his end of the bargain and that our community café needed his support. He refused to help any further, and I had to send him away.
A couple of days later, a man by the name of Richard walked into the café after downing his 40 on the front sidewalk and began to place his order. I re-explained our policy of sobriety, and our intention to maintain a safe community space in the dining room and offered him a granola bar, a water bottle, and the chance to come back on a better day. He left in a fit of rage screaming, “F-ck you man! F-ck you man! F-ck this F-cking place!!!”
I am grateful for John and Richard, because in these raw and sacred moments of the human experience, which they have shared with me, I feel that I have been given a window into my own soul. I’ll never know how hard it is for them to live their entire lives feeling marginalized and invisible. But I do know exactly what they are doing in the moments that they have shared with me.
I know exactly what they are doing because I am in exactly the same place. They are attempting to construct an identity, which others will perceive in a certain way. They want the respect of others. They want others to recognize their strength and power and yield to their strength and power when appropriate. But deep down, just like a little boy with a scraped knee, they want to be trusted, they want to be held, they want to be known.
The secret that men are unaware of is that our over-developed ego is merely a projection of our inner brokenness. When we over-identify with who we are on the outside, we make it obvious that we have not yet developed our interior life. When we attempt to project our strength, we really project our weakness.
At worship on a recent Thursday night, Thompson shared that she sees a flower blooming as a sign of strength. She went on to explain that as flowers bloom, they open themselves and share their beauty and color with their surroundings. This vulnerable opening and sharing is the true essence of strength and the ultimate harmony of the inner life with the outer life.
As such, this vulnerable opening and sharing names the true path to freedom from the ego’s claims upon our wholeness. So, as men and women alike, may we be made whole by grace through the practice of letting go of our holds upon the perception of our outer life, and unfolding from within like the flowers that spring up around us.
–This is the full text from my Spring 2015 Article in the Denver Catholic Worker Newsletter.