Sunday, September 20, 2009

Of Estrogen and Anima

I still remember the first time I suggested to a client that he may find it helpful to do some anima work. A thirty-something, well-educated professional, who’d already achieved what most of us might aspire to in a lifetime, this man had always measured his successes with a traditional ‘male’ yardstick (Note 1: as a culture, we were still on the cusp of metrification; note 2: any double entendres are completely intentional). He was ‘appropriately’ aggressive – in work, interpersonally, in leisure – allowing him to advance quickly and deliberately on all fronts. He could fly jets, he had leading-man good looks, he was a good provider, and he was respected and deferred to by colleagues. In short, his animus, his male ego was fully intact. So why the niggling dissatisfactions, the cracks appearing in his relationship(s), the relentless searching for the final piece, attaining which would no doubt make him feel complete (or so he thought).

Bear in mind that these were times, in the very early 1990’s, of rampant gender-role identity confusion (bit of a mouthful, that). There were women trying to be men – at least psychologically; there were men masquerading as women – athletically, entertainingly; there were men trying to be men – but ever so carefully so as not to ‘piss off Mother Nature’; there were strong women with traditional values; and there were men wondering just when it became politically incorrect to be male. And so on. . . and on. The ‘roar’ of the strident feminists, the equivocation of the fence sitting ‘soft male’ apologists (as Robert Bly was derisively fond of labeling as he advocated for men to reclaim their ‘wild man’), the entrenchment of any number of seemingly incompatible, ‘gender postures’ made one, at once, long for the simpler days of Father Knows Best and celebrate the energy of such diversity. So when the consummate, well-socialized macho man is advised to explore his feminine side, one can only imagine the confusion contained in the “my what?” response – not to mention, the resistance.

In the past fifteen to twenty years, we’ve made some progress; although I strongly suspect, were I chatting with this same man today, I’d be greeted with the same quizzical, initially amused look – conveying every bit of the unvoiced “you’re kidding, right?” Dinosaurs like Steinam at one pole and the religious, fundamental right at the other, beating its paternalistic drum relentlessly, still survive – but the uncritical acceptance of these anachronistic extremes has thankfully diminished. A sort of regression to the gender-posture mean, as happens with all statistical and social phenomena, has once again asserted its truth.

Jung’s concepts of animus and anima, descriptive of the male and female energy contained in each of us, have once again found a more sustainable, more balanced, less suspected expression in the culture. My now yellowed with age comments to my former client were little other than a suggestion that he explore a healthier balance in his life. The (literally) high-flying, aggressive, competitive ‘yang’ energy that had appeared to serve him so well in his first few adult decades, was sufficiently lopsided that it had begun to flag as a formula for living. A little more ‘yin’ was needed. At the time, no easy prescription – when polarities abounded; balance, equanimity eschewed.

Which brings me to the impetus for this piece. In our parish, this is ‘ACW Sunday’ -- for the uninitiated, the Anglican Church Women’s day to report in and hopefully recruit a few younger folk to their ranks. Some discussion had grown around the choice of readings for our BCP service – together with the ‘preferred’ language to be used. The ‘Virtuous Woman’ (of Proverbs 31) was to be described as the ‘strong and capable’ woman. And the homilist was to be the assistant priest, with no small reputation / track record for championing the role of women in the church. My wife and I had joked a bit around how she might ‘explain’ my absence from service today – with my rather flip summary comment: “Too much estrogen!” I’d anticipated (and I really must resist the temptation to pre-judge these things) a, how can I put this, asymmetrical morning (read lopsided, polarized rant – once again at the cost of equanimity); and chose to take a pass, rather than boost my blood pressure.

I suppose this is, in some ways, an extension of last week’s rant (of my own) – a rebuke of exclusivity. My client and our priest are, in the words of a friend, the ‘sandpaper’ that rubs away our surface rust and allows us to consider things from a slightly more ‘exposed’ (and hopefully, available) perspective. My sense is that, as long as we travel back and forth along the same ‘highway’, with feminism at one end and chauvinism at the other, making our points, expressing our position at the expense of the ‘other camp’, we will never see any other landscape. A detour, just a little ‘north’ of this all too well-travelled path allows us to both distance from this adversarial, partisan and pointless debate, bent on cultivating the already converted (whichever camp that may be) and alienating the other; and to regain a little balance in our perspective. Welcome to Equanimity, population TBA.

BTW, what was the homily about? Community building – but that’s another story.

David Howard

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