All Connected ~ All Affected

People in many spiritual communities and traditions reflect often that all beings on the planet are connected. No matter how close or distant a mass event might be from you, it affects you. This notion includes both joyous events and tragedies.

This is certainly true about the current tragedies in Turkey and Syria. As of this post, the toll on human lives has surpassed 36,000, with thousands more critically injured and even more displaced. There is little doubt that, in this community of spiritually aware and otherwise highly sensitive people, many of you are feeling the shock and continuing aftershocks.

Take time soon for self-reflection. How are you doing physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually? You might be affected in any or all of those realms by the magnitude of this mass event… even though it is physically happening on the other side of the planet.

How are you doing? You might feel strangely lightheaded or unusually confused and unable to focus your thinking around even simple scheduling and tasks. Perhaps you are overly emotional, even about things that might not have affected you before. You might also be experiencing sleeplessness or difficult dreams. Are your previous traumas and memories of traumatic events coming to life?

Any and all of these may be signs that the waves of shock and grief are reaching you from all of your connections far away. And we are ALL connected.

The effects of this tragedy are going to be long-term. Now is the time to take stock of your energy and reserves. It is time to be gentle with yourself and with others – perhaps especially those with whom you are close. They are all feeling it, too, even if they do not recognize it or have the internal emotional scaffolding to support the weight of what they are sensing.

It is also time to lean into your family and community support system. Remember, you are not alone in any sense of the word, even if you feel isolated. Take time to breathe and reconnect to the support systems around you. That’s what they are for.

And if you do have the emotional and energetic reserves, remember to be there for those around you. Being a part of the community support system is also healing for you. We will all get through this together.

Note on image: Seen here is the devastation in Hatay, Turkey.
Credit: Getty Images via article on being careful when making donations.

Posted in General, Global Connection | Leave a comment

Becoming An Orphan

At the end of last year, I suddenly – but not unexpectedly – became an orphan. At the age of 69, that is no small event. Becoming an orphan at any age is, of course, no small event. Still, with an entire lifetime behind me and fewer years ahead, it does give me pause.

What am I doing here? What is this all about?
I thought I knew, but now I am an orphan

and I am not so sure.

With no one above me in the hierarchy that is the family, I am strangely on my own. Simultaneously, I am to some large degree responsible for what happens below me in that lineage. In all, though, that is not unfamiliar territory. My years of experience as a son, brother, father, and grandfather have prepared me for that, and I am certain that I will manage it well.

However, there is something deeper, more personal about becoming an orphan at this time in my life. I have become acutely aware of how over-extended I am and how many things around me simply do not matter anymore.


A few evenings ago, in a community of friends, I went on a shamanic journey. In this meditative experience accompanied by the rhythm of drums, I found myself in a familiar place: a rock shelter on the side of a mountain that faces what I now know is a setting sun. This time, I was alone. There were no elders sitting in a circle, no indigenous guide on my left side. I was alone, and the clean little cave-like structure seemed surprisingly new.

Just then, I heard a faint scurrying in the back of the shelter and seemed to hear the words “not really” from a very small and almost joyous voice. A tiny Mouse appeared from the shadows, and I heard (as much as one actually ‘hears’ things in a journey), “Let’s get this place cleaned up.”

With that, the little Mouse began to dart into all of the dark crevasses of the shelter and dig out old trash, discarded junk, feathers, small stones, hairballs, and a myriad other things that I could not see hiding in the dark shadows. Together, we pushed and swept them over the lip of the southwest corner of the mouth of the cave. I wondered what archeologists of the future might gather from the trash heap forming below.

After a while, when Mouse seemed satisfied and said something like, “OK, there you go. Much better!” Then, smiling, he added lightheartedly before skittering back to the wall, “See if you can keep it clean this time.” I found a piece of cheese in my jacket pocket and left it on the edge of the hearth.


A few days later, I invited some friends and leaders of the shamanic community here in Austin to join me for a personal drumming journey. That afternoon, I told some of the stories about my parents that may never have been heard – about their lives as best I knew them, their parents and ancestors, and some of the history that I felt needed to be spoken. There are many sides to everyone, and I believe that people are best honored by leaving a more well-rounded legacy.

Much of what I know centers around my father, since he was the stronger influence in how I grew into who I am. He was clearly a man of his times. He was born in the late 1920s and grew up through the 30s and 40s as he developed into adulthood, with all of the social and political influences of those years. And as a child of a broken and conflicted family, he had little guidance as to how to be a parent himself. Even though he made a lot of mistakes, I know that he did what he thought was right.

In that gathering, we did another shamanic journey together. In my journey, I revisited the rock shelter. It was as clean and pristine as Mouse and I had left it. This time my father was there, and he was clearly uncomfortable. He did not know what I do in service – that I am a shamanic practitioner, author, teacher, and sometimes healer – and he did not want to know. That realization was a turning point in my understanding of him, and it led to a better relationship with him in his later years.

He clearly did not want to be in the rock shelter, so I saw no reason to remain there. Instead, I found myself with him in his favorite place: a lake in the mountains of Montana that he had spoken about before. I’ve never been there, yet I saw these mountains through his eyes. I understood why it was his favorite place, even though, as far as I know, he only traveled there once. I had thought to drive there with him, but it was too late. By the time he told me, he was too frail to make the trip.

Might things have been different had he told me about Montana earlier? It is impossible to know. Yet, the lesson of that important piece of his life that he left unshared remains alive.

We stayed there together in my journey for some time. We didn’t speak much. Everything that needed to be said already had been. Soon, the journey ended, and I returned to the gathering of friends and community leaders in my home, where we then shared our individual journeys and our experiences of family and ancestors. And I told them about the lesson I learned in the mountains of Montana.

The View as an Orphan

A psychic friend told me recently that she had seen my parents walking hand-in-hand toward the sunset, and she assured me that they were together and happy wherever they were. I am certain that is true from my own inner knowing, but it was good to have her confirmation. They had lived together, almost as one, for more than 75 years. They were as inseparable in death as they were in life.

Dad was always afraid that he would go first, leaving my mom alone with her Alzheimer’s. In the end, things worked out as he wished. She passed in early November of last year. He followed just more than a month later, twelve days short of their 76th anniversary.

My sister and I are now experiencing the world as it reorganizes around a new reality without the parents who had always been there. Now, we are orphans together. As the older sibling, there is no one “above” me in the succession, no one to turn to when I need perspective or advice.

The world looks very different from this vantage point. The view is both daunting and hopeful. As Mouse told me, I need to clean house and keep it clean, so that is what I am about these days. Time to pare down and let go of things I used to think were important, yet are not. Time to focus on what truly matters in this new world.

With that, I can say I have never been more prepared and ready for this new beginning.

Follow the story from the beginning. Previous posts:
Elder Parents: The Journey Begins
Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans
Elder Parents Journey: Heart of the House
Elder Parents Journey: Meeting House
Elder Parents Journey: Spirit of the Land
Elder Parents Journey: Tender Moments
Elder Parents Journey: Returning Home
Living With Grief

Posted in End of Life, Family, General, Healing, Relationship | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Living With Grief

The experience of grief is part of being human. Everyone encounters the emotion many times in life, though we usually connect it to the loss of a loved one. This was a rough year, and it is ending raggedly. At the end of this year, both of my parents died, not unexpectedly but suddenly. After years of decline, they were both simply gone over a period of just more than a month.

My mother, Jo Starnes, passed peacefully in her sleep at 3:30 am on November 7, 2022. My father, William Curtis Starnes, followed quickly behind on December 11. They were both 95 years of age. After 75 years of marriage – 12 days short of 76 – he simply could not live without her. Some say that he died of a broken heart, and I would not disagree. He lived with congestive heart disease for many years. Eventually, the loss of his beloved wife and life companion was too much.

Welcome, Grief. We have not met like this before.

If you have followed the Elder Journey posts (see below), they were able to leave assisted living just before the pandemic really took hold. They lived at home for the next 2-3 years, then returned to assisted living last summer when mom began sleeping most of the time and dad became to frail to take care of her. This time, their journey ended.

Chutes and Ladders

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying and On Grief and Grieving, once expressed dismay that her seminal work on the stages of grief was misunderstood. At first people related to the stages as though they were linear, that is, one stage following another. Denial followed by Anger, then Bargaining, Depression, and finally Acceptance. She knew that grief does not unfold and pass that way; instead it is cyclic. Each stage is revisited time and again in no particular order.

One of my favorite board games as a child was Chutes and Ladders. There are a variety of similar games, though that was the version I preferred. The board was laid out with squares that formed a winding path from the bottom left to the upper right. Along the way there were several ladders of different lengths, which allowed the player to climb from one level to another higher one. There were also several chutes that slid from higher to lower levels.

Players would roll a die and move their token along the path according to the number they rolled. If one landed on a square that was the foot of a ladder, they would climb the ladder to a higher level. However, if they landed on a square that was the top of a chute, they would slide down to a lower level. Eventually, as the game would go, players would climb through the path from the bottom to the top, eventually to exit the board on the last square.

Chutes and Ladders is a realistic analogy for grief. It’s not an ever-climbing spiral, but a series of steps, of rises and drops. Each event in every day might bring an epiphany or insight that feels as though I have climbed to a higher, stronger accommodation with grief. Or it might offer a random smell, a memory, a flash of color, a photograph, a song, or any other perception that brings the sinking stomach sense of sliding helplessly down a chute, back to a lower level.

I wonder sometimes if anyone ever actually reaches the end of the cycle, whether Acceptance is ever really achieved. The board game is usually quite long. Players can climb and slide seemingly endlessly. I remember one game in which everyone simply got tired or bored and went on to do something else. Sometimes grief is like that, too. It can be exhausting, which is why I know that it is important to take good care of my health and sense of well-being – to sleep, relax, take hot baths, eat healthy food, be with supportive people.

The Loss of the Dream

In any significant relationship, there is a shared Dream – a way in which experiences of life together moves forward into the future. The reality is that what is grieved is not only the loss of the individual that I will never see again or the situation that I will never experience again. It is the loss of the Dream I had of our unfolding future together that now simply will not happen in the same way.

As an example, I can imagine the death of a friend who has suffered with a long illness. Their passing can reasonably be considered a blessing for them, and I might even celebrate an ending of their suffering. Yet, I will miss being with them: the long walks and heartfelt discussions, the travel I have shared and planned to do again. These are all elements of the shared Dream that will not happen. So, even though I might be glad for them in a way, the fact is that our future plans together are simply no longer possible.

Sometimes the loss or absence of the Dream can be as painful or even more so that the loss of the person. Dreams are continually unfolding and never expected to end. And so the impact of a broken dream can be substantial. However, the roots of the Dream can also be a source of recovery.

A Lasting Relationship

One thing is certain. There is no timetable. Some insist that grief never ends, that all I can do is accommodate it, accept that it will be with me always in some way or another. If that is true – and it likely is – then the best I can do is build a healthy relationship from it or with it. After all, I do not want to forget the experience of being with who or what was lost. Yet, the memory is at the very root of grief.

I imagine Grief as a living entity that will be with me for the rest of my life. It can comfort me or it can torment me. Which would I choose, if I had a choice?

What kind of relationship would I want with the sadness of the loss of a parent, partner, sibling, or child? Where does that missing friendship belong in the future I am creating for myself? How might that failed career inform my future plans and decisions? How do I want to recover from the lost dream? How can Grief guide me into a new and expansive future?

I know that what happened, that caused the grief I feel, cannot be changed. It happened and cannot be erased. Yet, I can manage how I deal with it.

Just more than a week after the passing of the last of my parents, I recognize that I am vacillating between denial and sadness. I have also met this new version of Grief and am certain that I will forge a healing relationship with it. It’s just a matter of time.

Follow the story from the beginning. Previous posts:
Elder Parents: The Journey Begins
Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans
Elder Parents Journey: Heart of the House
Elder Parents Journey: Meeting House
Elder Parents Journey: Spirit of the Land
Elder Parents Journey: Tender Moments
Elder Parents Journey: Returning Home

Posted in End of Life, General, Relationship | 2 Comments

Elder Parents Journey: Returning Home

My father’s stroke happened near the first of January this year. The journey from the hospital, to skilled nursing care, and then assisted living was very quick, and many things had to fall exactly right for it all to work out. Yet, it did. My sister and I were amazed by how the unfolding of my parents’ odyssey seemed so extraordinarily Spirit-led. We were able to keep them together throughout all of the changes; the timing was always perfect.

My sister, Sandra, did an extraordinary job of finding and arranging resources for them, overcoming her own challenges and obstacles along the way. Had it not been for her, things would have turned out far differently. And, as the story continued to unfold, she had a powerful influence on one of the most difficult decisions we had yet to make.

She and I had two goals: to find a place where our parents were safe and where they were happy. Those two guiding principles informed every decision. And yet, just a few months into assisted living, it was becoming clear that my father was growing less happy every day. He was becoming obsessed with the cost of care, in particular. But there was more.

As he made transitions from bed to wheelchair to a walker and finally to being able to leave the walker behind, he was able to do more things for himself and my mother. The transition was, to me, slow and practically imperceptible. For him, though, each week led to a new accomplishment and increasing freedom. And he began to talk about going home. The idea frightened both me and my sister since it threatened our goal to keep them safe.

Mom’s dementia was not getting better. She was sliding deeper into Alzheimer’s. Dad’s hearing was failing, and his left leg continued to weaken often when he walked. He appeared to me always to be on the verge of falling, and according to his physical therapist, that was likely not ever to change. I became entrenched in the opinion that their safety was threatened if they were to return home, so I began to refuse even to discuss the topic with my father when he would incessantly bring it up on my visits. “Going home” was not an option. For not the first time in our relationship, we mostly quit talking.

Sandy and I generally communicate by text, so it got my attention when she messaged that we needed to talk by phone. The conversation began with, “Dad is miserable.” With that, she had my full attention. The support system of the assisted living facility was changing for the worse. Whether there had been an owner or a management change, their support and services were declining rapidly. It seemed that as he got better able to care for himself and mom, the staff began to step back from providing care. Even the quality and substance of their food were declining.

During that conversation, I had to re-evaluate my fears and assumptions. In the end, the issue came to this:

As you approach the end of your life, you are confronted with a choice. Knowing an event will happen—a stroke, heart attack, or fall—that will be the beginning of the end for you, where would you like that to be? At home, which may not be altogether safe, or in a “safe” facility that you hate?

When I could let go of my own expectation, of our shared vision of many months ago, I could finally make a needed conceptual shift. In that conversation, we began to make new plans that could meet our twin goals of safety and happiness. Mom and dad would go home, and we would build as safe a structure around them there as we could.

The details of those plans are not important, other than this: Sandy was able to find two friends of hers that she trusted to sit with our parents five or six days a week. They had experience working with elders in home situations, doing light housework, preparing meals, and providing companionship so that they would not isolate as much as before. Without them, I am certain, the idea would never have worked.

The decision was made and we all began to lay plans for their return home within the coming month.

On the weekend before the move, I returned to Temple to make some preparations. It would be my final weekend at the house alone, at least for a while. On the last evening, I took out my drum and called to House to join me. While I drummed, I explained as best I could everything that had transpired and told House that my parents would be returning home the next weekend. I drummed for a long time to also express my gratitude to House for being with me during this voyage in time, as well as to ask for its continued protection of my parents.

I slept well that night.

Follow the story from the beginning. Previous posts:
Elder Parents: The Journey Begins
Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans
Elder Parents Journey: Heart of the House
Elder Parents Journey: Meeting House
Elder Parents Journey: Spirit of the Land
Elder Parents Journey: Tender Moments

Posted in End of Life, General, Healthcare, Learnings | 3 Comments

Three Pillars of Male Privilege in America

I believe that many women would agree with the assertion that male privilege is a significant problem, not only to women but to our society as a whole. As a male of more than sixty years, I am embarrassed to admit that it took the #MeToo movement of October 2017 to get me to even begin to understand what women have been shouting about for well more than forty of those years. Perhaps it took me so long because I suffer from the not-as-rare-as-it-should-be syndrome myself.

Let me also be clear that what I have to say reflects only the society and culture that I know. I am an American, born and raised mostly in the South. As a result, I can claim no actual knowledge about other cultures, societies, ethnicities, or any other group. However, I believe that what I have discovered will resonate across all of those divisions in some form and to some degree. My hope is that this examination of what I have come to envision as three keys to understand and call out male privilege will begin a much-needed dialog, both internal to every man and external to our society and its relationships to women.

It’s important to know that I have been working with women who have experienced a broad array of trauma for well more than a decade. For reasons that humble me, and rather confused me until very recently, my work with them has been mostly successful. I have my own theories about the necessity for these women to work with a safe male in order to heal wounds caused by men that are out of the scope of this article. Yet, I want it to be noticed that after all of this work with some quite wounded women, I still did not recognize my own deafness to what women have been telling us all for years.

The problem with American male privilege is that it is insidious. This article is a beginning to what I hope will be an on-going excavation into why that might be true and what the cost of it is and will be in the future. There are at least three pillars supporting American male privilege. One way of thinking about how to get to these issues is as though they are archeological digs: in order to find the pillars, you have to dig through a series of compartmentalized and sealed chambers of the male psyche, each accessible only if you dig through the one above.

One core difficulty of addressing American male privilege is that the trap door to the very first subterranean chamber has not only been bolted and locked, but also has been hidden deep within the male consciousness since the very first breath baby boys take. It is as though the first portal to the top three chambers has been covered over with years of dirt and is difficult to find, even if one is looking for it.

I now believe that women have been pointing at the door under all of that dirt for decades, at least. However, because of the blindness that male privilege engenders, men simply have not been paying attention. Most men have not understood the frustration their blindness leads to for women. On the whole, men have dismissed that frustration as a kind of fundamental feminine flaw, an emotional upheaval that they could “just deal with” if they wanted to.

Embarrassingly, it took the #MeToo movement pounding on the trap door to get my attention. And I bet that many of the male readers of this article are scratching their heads, wondering what the hell I am on about. Well, let me share some of my recent insights, and perhaps they will finally pay attention.

And let me add that if you are a male and thinking to yourself “I already know about this,” consider that you may be part of the problem and not as “evolved” as you think you are.

Pillar One: Men Do Not Understand Women

The very first insight I had at the beginning of this exploration was that men do not understand women, not at all. I thought I did, but clearly, I did not. I can no longer even tell myself that I do in any meaningful way; that, I know, would be lying. It took a lot for me to dig into that fundamental understanding. Yet, it became clear at one point that, if I did not admit that I don’t understand women, I had to admit something worse: that I was a closet sexist. That hit me like a brick.

Some of my earliest memories around sexuality come from my experiences in middle and high schools. I was a sensitive boy, especially sensitive around girls. I clearly remember sitting at lunch at a table, the only boy at a table of girls. They talked openly in front of me about “girl things” as though I was not there. I was virtually invisible and quite uncomfortable. I believe, though, that I was possibly one of the very few non-threatening boys in the school or that would never have happened.

What our current president referred to in the Access Hollywood scandal and dismissed as “locker room talk” is real. I remember becoming physically ill when I heard what other boys said about my female friends, yet I was unable to do anything to stand up for them. Not only was it a dangerous thing to do, but there were also no guidelines or support for doing so.

I remember seeing what I thought of then as gangs of male students moving through the hall literally yelling obscenities about women as a whole. I was embarrassed, intimidated, and angry. But I said nothing for the same reasons that I did not speak up in the locker room.

With these experiences (and more) and my daily current work with women, surely I understand them, right? I mean, they tell me just about everything about their lives and challenges. Yet, as I now see it, almost all of those discussions carefully skirted around the deeper memories and emotions stirred up in them by the #MeToo movement. I work diligently to engender and prove my trustworthiness to my clients from day one. Yet, even so, either they did not trust me to receive what they really wanted to say, or much worse, they were telling me and I completely could not hear them.

It was only when I had the insight that maybe I didn’t understand women as much as I thought I did that I realized the best course of action was to: “Sit down. Shut up. And listen.” Does that mean that men have no part in the dialog? They absolutely do! I suggest, however, that the dialog can only be had in a meaningful way when men understand that 98% of what we believe about women is not true.

Guys, let me tell you that women are telling you exactly what you need to know about them. You are just not listening. As long as you think that you already know about them, you are wrong and you are adding to the problem, no matter how sensitive you think you are.

“You’re not talking about me, right?”
“I’ve always loved and protected women!”
“How can you not see what all I am doing for women?”
“How can you say that I don’t understand you? Haven’t I proven myself?”

If these are your words, you are part of the problem. That is an expression of a masculine language intended—subtly for certain—to deflect and shut down further dialog, not open it. Try this instead: Sit down. Shut up. And listen.

Put your ego and sense of bruised self-importance aside and really listen to what women say. Don’t take it personally and don’t try to defend yourself. Know that is a dead giveaway as to your own lack of understanding and your own male privilege.

Once you do that and prove that you are really interested in hearing them, you will find that women will begin to talk to you about what is important. Once you do that and let them know you are giving up on the idea that you know anything and are willing (at last) to listen, you will likely hear the words, “Thank you.”

Only then can a real dialog and understanding begin.

Here is one more thing to know: Women don’t understand men, either. However, I have come to believe that 1) they know that, and 2) they understand men better than men understand women. Why? For safety. It is axiomatic in the animal world that weaker animals need to be smarter than the stronger ones—the prey needs to know more about the predator than the reverse. There is more about this later, but it is certainly relevant to know at this point, as well.

Pillar Two: Boys And Girls Are Socialized Differently

Among the first things that you will come to realize when you begin to listen to women is that girls and boys are socialized completely differently. The effects of that difference in socialization are profound. Both men and women grow up within two separate silos of socialization. Though we think they are the same, they are not.

Babies are color-coded at birth: boys are blue; girls are pink. This actually does not seem as true about babies born in the 2000s as it was for most of my childhood and adult life, including having two sons of my own. But this color-coding has absolutely contributed to the confusion around socialization of children and the effects on us as adults.

Color-coding has helped generations know how to deal with babies. The question, “Is it a boy or a girl?” is easily answered by what color clothing they wear. I instantly know whether I’m dealing with a “little man” or a “little girl.” (Notice the subtlety of the difference.)

The fundamental question, though, is why does it matter whether the baby is a boy or girl? The answer is so that we will know which socialization program we need to switch to in order to properly interact with the child. It would not do to treat a “little man” the same as a “little girl.”

My partner and I were walking back from the local store recently when we passed a young man sitting on the step of their front porch, watching his child play on the sidewalk. As we passed by, the child fell forward on the concrete and began to cry. The father did not move but instead said, “You’re OK. Come on. Get up and come over here. Let me take a look.” Until that point, I really could not tell whether the child was a boy or girl. Once he said that though, the gender of the child was clear. It was a boy.

Imagine the same scenario, but instead, the father rushed over to the crying child, helped her up, gave her a big hug. The differences in socialization are not even subtle when you begin to look for them.

These differences in socialization continue into every single aspect of the rearing of a child: schools, neighborhoods, churches, playgrounds, family constellations… on and on. Within the silo, it is almost impossible for the child to tell what is going on for the most part. Occasionally, one child will say of her sibling (usually the girl):

“Why does he get to go hunting, and I don’t?”
“Why do I have to wear a dress, and he doesn’t?”
“Why can’t I play dodgeball, and he can?”
“Why can’t I go out with my friends, and he can?”

Universal answer: “Because he is a boy, and you are a girl.” This is clearly the most frustrating response possible, often leading to fights, slammed doors, screaming, running away, and other “aberrant” behaviors.

Dad says, “What’s that all about?” Mom answers with a shrug, “She’s a girl. That’s just how girls are.”

Granted that these are very broad generalities. I would argue, however, that the boy tends to win in these situations; and the girl loses. Here lie some of the very deep roots of male privilege, nurtured by the male recipient of male privilege from his own father, and supported by the mother who, in this case, appears to have surrendered the field. Most likely, her mother did, as well.

Extending this imaginary case further, you might find the mother talking with her daughter later. What might she say? It is probably best to leave that answer to the women because I have no way of knowing. I don’t have any experience within that silo. I can only make assumptions, which by the way, is another deep root of male privilege. If we do not know, we tend to create stories, and those stories reinforce what we already believe.

But go ahead and try it. What do you believe they talked about? Whatever it is you think, it is a story you made up from your own beliefs. That is actually pretty important. You need to know the stories you tell yourself about life in the other silo.

Gender and Gender Identity

Certainly, some children fall outside of the established gender silos. One of the hard truths about the binary view of gender, in addition to the toll it takes on the socialization of children, is the toll that it takes on people who do not identify with their assigned gender roles. When a Tomboy looks in the mirror as puberty overtakes her and sees her body change, she can feel, and often does feel, betrayed by it—betrayed by her own body.

(Remember that my experience is primarily with women. I can assume that this experience is the same for boys, yet I do not know for certain. I leave that for them to express, or those who have more experience with boys. However, the work I have done with a few young men strongly suggests this is true for them also.)

The sense of confusion, rejection, and isolation of children who fall outside of the established social gender norms appears earlier than most people realize. The deep-seated feeling that the child does not belong anywhere often persists well into teenage and adulthood years, especially if the child does not find adequate support and assistance.

In the current American social system, being outside of established norms is never a good situation. These established institutions, including the silos of socialization, are long-standing and will be very slow to change. Yet, knowing about them is highly valuable to creating change in the American male privilege system.

Pillar Three: It’s In The Language

In December 2018, I posted on my Facebook wall a video regarding a study sponsored by two advertising agencies of men touching women in a Brazilian nightclub where 86% of women in the country reported being touched without consent. I was not as interested in the study (which was basically not at all scientific, intended only to raise awareness), rather in the responses the article might bring up and the discussion around them. I was not disappointed, and there were a few surprises.

The study involved a dress to be worn by women that had sensors embedded in the cloth. The study was designed to measure where the women were touched and how many times in a bar setting. The dress recorded up to 40 gropes per hour. Perhaps predictably, the majority of the touches were on the back, arms, wrist, neck, waist, and hips. When they showed the study results to the men, they expressed surprise.

The comments on my feed were enlightening in regard to how one might determine whether touching was appropriate or acceptable. My favorite guideline was:

“Imagine you’re in a maximum-security correctional facility, in a room of big beefy inmates with no guards around. What kind of touching would you be uncomfortable receiving from any of them?

“Let that guide you. If you wouldn’t want to be behind bars with a guy touching you that way, then don’t do it to her unless you know her and know that you have explicit permission to do it.”

There was a predictable discussion with comments from men indicating that women should be aware of how they are dressing and where they are going. After all, some asked what women should expect when they go to a bar? Other women indicated that they didn’t go to bars for just that reason. These are both expressions of and a cost of male privilege, which the study reflected also exists in Brazil, as well as America.

Of course, women should be able to dress however they want and go wherever they wish without being treated inappropriately or made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Apparently, though, many men who responded did not agree, and some women had simply given up.

Still, that is not what got my attention.

There were a couple of discussions between men that expressed some form of the defensive comments referenced in Pillar One that are sure signs they are not listening to women. Another was, to my eye, a somewhat benign exchange about how NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) might consider the issue. But then there was this from a woman:

“You got some dudes on here that don’t know how to not sound like a predator.

“That’s all I’m going to say here, but, seriously, some of them need to check their level of defensiveness as an indicator of possible predatory tendencies in thinking and speaking (likely behaving, too)—even if, or should I say, ESPECIALLY if, they are currently unaware (ostensibly) of these tendencies.”

Here is the key observation again: “…that don’t know how to not sound like a predator.”

Suddenly, I realized that underneath the social silos supporting the separation of girls and boys is language. Boys and girls are taught two different languages: boys, a predatory language; girls, a submissive one. Take a look at these statements that I regularly hear female clients speak about hearing as they grew up:

Don’t make waves.
Don’t be too much.
Be nice.
You’re so sweet! or Be sweet!
What would “They” think?
Give ____ a hug.

Then imagine saying those same things to a boy, instead of what men generally heard growing up:

Be strong.
Stand up for yourself!
You can do it! You’re a winner!
Get up and get it done!
You can do anything you want.

The situation is that these kinds of messages, these fundamental differences in language, are constantly and consistently reinforced throughout the children’s rearing. They simply do not know any better, other than when girls begin to notice the differences. Yet, girls, as well as women, are mostly not heard, which is another reason that such privilege is so pervasive and insidious in the male culture of America.

Healing Begins With Men

The only way to address American male privilege, and to begin to heal the wounding it has caused, is for men to wake up and make some internal changes. I heard over and over again that the only effective force for change is men who recognize and stand up against privilege. “No one listens to women,” has been a constant and true statement throughout this entire excavation.

That men actually do begin the work is the only way male privilege can be addressed in America—the only way to stop the constant demeaning, diminution, and outright threats that women face on a daily basis. Period. That’s it. If men do not come to the defense and aid of the women that we say we love, we are all closeted sexist liars.

If you are in, here is what you do:

Stop talking. Stop defending. Really listen.

Understand that you fundamentally do not understand. Make that your baseline. When you are talking with women about anything that they think is important, do not assume that you know what they are talking about. Pay attention to them exclusively and practice active listening: ask questions, reflect back what you think you heard and make sure you got it right.

Pay attention to your own language.

Pillar Three postulates that the languages taught to boys and girls is different. I hope that you are properly impressed with how subtle that is. This is not only about what society teaches children. You need to recognize the effects of the programming on your own psyches and worldview. Your thoughts, reactions, and behaviors are fundamentally based on the language you have been taught. And the way to catch and change that programming is to pay attention to your own words.

One strategy for catching yourself is by listening to other men and doing your best to disambiguate what they are saying and the stories they are telling themselves. You can bet that you are doing the same.

Be brave. Take action.

I was outside working on the lawn not too long ago when I heard a young man walking down the street and talking loudly on the phone to his male friend. I mean very loudly. The words his friend was apparently using about his girlfriend—and women in general—was disgustingly sexist. I was shocked and surprised, and he was gone before I could get my wits together. Once out of sight, it was too late; and frankly, I was afraid to speak up, even if I had the chance. I still regret that.

Make space for women to be heard.

In general, women are not heard. They are talked-over, their opinions are negated or minimized, or they are simply ignored. On more than one occasion I have been told that a woman made suggestions several times that were simply not regarded as valuable. That is until a man made the same suggestion and got credit for the idea.

When you really start to listen, you will find that women bring a lot to any discussion. They think differently and they see things differently. That kind of out-of-the-box thinking is extremely valuable in understanding how to be more creative. And they should get credit for that!

From now on, do not let other men demean or denigrate women. Stand up for them at every opportunity. This is what it takes to be an ally, and women want (and need) allies in their cause to be treated, if not equally, at least decently.

Learn about institutionalized sexual harassment and abuse.

Take courses and workshops if you need to in order to better inform yourself about the topic. These courses are not only about sexual abuse, but also the structures that make it possible to exist. You will learn a great deal that you don’t know, including what you do not know about how male privilege shows up in your own psyche. You will see that it does.

Suggest (or insist) that your employers and other organizations in which you participate sponsor such training for its staff and members, as well.

Spread the word.

Guys, we are all in this together. Talk to your male friends about this issue. Recruit them as allies or at least deal with their misogyny when you see it. Call them out, too. If they don’t like it, then you might consider changing friends.

Here is a simple thing to do. Men tend to talk over or interrupt women when they are speaking. When you see that happen, set an example. Let everyone know that you want to hear what she says, to let her finish. It is really difficult for people in a group to ignore you, as a man, indicating your interest in hearing the woman out. That is a very clear statement and example for other men in the group.

This is important. By paying attention and taking on this challenge, men working with women can begin to chip away at the current dysfunction of our social systems. It is going to be a longer-term struggle and not quick or easy at all. Yet the cost of doing nothing needs to be ranked as completely unacceptable, which it is.

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