There is a relationship between the emotional wounds that men bear and the inherent gifts that we are to bring into the world. This message is consistently instilled in art and myth throughout the world, ancient and modern. Joseph Campbell refers to this relationship as the hero’s journey. It is a path born out of inner pain and turmoil.
This journey is our calling to face the dragons within us, and allows us to return to the world with the treasure from within the soul. Many men spend an entire lifetime avoiding the difficult work of this inner journey. Those that do choose to follow the call, have an opportunity to reclaim fragmented pieces of themselves. Those pieces being integral to the delivering of their purpose into the world.
Greek mythology tells the story of Chiron a centaur, abandoned at birth by both parents. He is then adopted by Apollo and grows into a powerful teacher to many of the renowned Greek heroes. Apollo mentored Chiron allowing his gifts to come forth and to help others.
Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, speaks of the archetype of the wounded healer. The shaman of a tribe comes down with a debilitating disease. This forces him to discover a pathway to healing by facing his own death. Through this transformative journey, the shaman is then imbued with the ability to cure others.
In Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem we hear a similar idea come through in the lyrics, “Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Each of us has been wounded and ultimately carries a scar with us into manhood. The Japanese art form, Kintsukuroi, meaning to repair with gold, exemplifies this truth by mending broken pottery with gold. The repaired piece is considered more beautiful for having been broken. Gold in mythology is symbolically considered to be a representation of one’s gift or genius.
The realization of my wounds first came to my awareness in my early twenties, when I partook in a year long intensive rite of passage experience with a group of men in Southern California.
What led me to this work, was the ending of one of my first significant relationships. The sense of despair, confusion, heartbreak, and anger arising from the experience was heavy for me, and I was struggling to make sense of what had occurred and ended. I felt lost, broken and directionless.
Finding this group of men to help disentangle me from this unconscious enmeshment, was critical to my survival. It was clear that I was wounded; yet, instead of isolating myself and hiding my pain, I took the risk of opening and sharing it within this safe container.
I came into that circle of men not knowing my value or who I was. I realized that I had spent my adolescence and the entirety of my failed relationship trying to get away from parts of me that I could not accept and had hid from others. I was existing as a fractured version of my true self, that I hoped would be deemed good enough for the world someday. I was, like the broken pottery, needing to mend the fractured parts of me by imbuing them with my gold.
A few months into the men’s initiation, I was guided through a powerful process by our mentor and facilitator Francis Weller, a Bay Area psychotherapist who was trained through the lineage of Malidoma Patrice Somé, a traditional African shaman turned scholar, and author. This process was designed to elicit what they considered to be our medicine, our sacred gift and our responsibility to share with the world and our community. I did have value, but it was buried beneath the shame of my life.
I witnessed the men before me being led into deep places inside of them, where their wound lived side-by-side with their gift. I was both in awe and utterly frightened of the possibility that during my turn, I would discover nothing there.
When it was my turn I began the descent into the underworld of my own psyche, where I was to visit the room inside where my wound lived. I crept slowly, cautiously down stone steps towards a dank cellar that felt like a prison. I was terrified to discover what might be there. And I certainly didn’t want anyone else to know what it was.
I arrived at the bottom of the long stone staircase, and saw huddled in the corner of a hard, windowless room, a figure hunched over, facing the wall. My first impression of what seemed to be a hairy beast, frightened me.
I was guided to move closer to this creature. He turned and looked toward me. His gaze was downcast in my direction, but I saw him fully now, completely covered in hair, head to toe, including his face. He was hideous to me and I did not want to be in the same room with him.
The creature glanced up at me and our eyes met. I was totally transfixed for a moment. Instead of evil coming from his eyes, I saw kindness, innocence, sadness. I saw my own eyes. I saw the shame that I kept hidden. The parts of me I didn’t want anyone to know about.
I saw a longing to be seen, loved and accepted. I was guided to go to him, pick him up, take him into my arms, and place him on my shoulders. As I did this, there was a reluctance, like that of an abused animal. He didn’t trust me to take care of him. I made a solemn promise, to the best of my ability to care for him, to love him and to hold him close to my heart.
As I held him in my arms, I looked around the room to see a door that I was unaware of before. I was instructed to go through this door, and that on the other side, I would find my medicine, my sacred gift. I hesitated. I felt fearful that the room would be dark and empty, much like the one I was in now.
I summoned the courage to face what was there.
I opened the door, shielded my eyes and held my breath. Slowly, I began to gaze around and breathe in the scene that lay before me. I was in disbelief. It was not just a room but an entire land. A beautiful, bountiful country, filled with golden light, like I had never seen before.
There was music coming from the hills, children playing, laughter echoing, birds soaring. Joy poured forth from this place. I felt this richness and robust power that made me giddy inside. I felt at home, in love, at peace, welcomed. I didn’t want to leave this place. I was reminded I could come back and visit here anytime. This land belonged to me.
The men’s group helped me discover the beauty in my brokenness. I came away with a tangible sense of how sharing my pain and vulnerability was immediately received by these men as a gift in being able to see more of me.
Making sense of this awareness and knowledge has taken time, patience and has required a greater understanding of the relationship between wound and gift and how they tend to play out in a man’s life. There was not a silver bullet to be found. I thought that once I discovered my gift, I would be fully healed and everything would fall into place. It hasn’t happened quite like that.
Michael Meade, an author and speaker, whose work is largely about distilling the meaning from myth, claims the first wound is when the soul enters the body at birth, that movement from the eternal realm to the time bound realm.
The longing we have to reconnect with the eternal is an ache that many men will carry for a lifetime. We are also wounded by our family of origin. By design they are incapable of fulfilling all our needs, which requires us to leave home or differentiate at some point.
This leaving is where the role of mentor traditionally would come into a young man’s life and support him in the process of healing and exploring the wound. Think of Mr. Miyagi in the movie The Karate Kid.
Meade claims, we don’t necessarily ever heal the wound fully. What’s more true, is that as the gift expands, the shadow of the gift, the wound, also expands equally. By design this reciprocal relationship as it continues over a lifetime, serves the function of bestowing the man with humility, which disallows the ego from stepping in to distort the gift-giving into a self-serving function.
This pattern is often seen in pop culture. When someone extremely talented, like an athlete or musician, rises to fame and becomes a star in people’s eyes. We are witnessing them in their genius, their gift and their gold. Despite their success, they wind up falling into some great difficulty; depression, drugs, suicide, because they are not tending to their wound in a conscious way.
Men are notorious fixers, so the concept of a wound that never heals is frustrating. For myself, in the places where I struggled in life, I often sought the solution. I looked for ways to change or get rid of what I didn’t like.
The real work for me has been tending to the wound as a devotional practice. This practice at times has come in the form of simply being able to sit and be present with the little me, where before my tendency to escape the pain would be to disassociate with busyness or substances.
I have also had moments in my life where in the suffering, there was a more immediate transformation of the wound into a gift. These moments occurred when I let my guard down and allowed myself to be witnessed in my suffering and grief by a community.
The vulnerability underneath my shame revealed an innocence that was completely trustable. I was able to bestow my gift fully to those with open hearts as they received my pure and raw expression of myself, my true value.
Learning to love the unlovable and to accept the unchangeable is the process that has allowed me to begin to arrive fully into my skin and land in a place of wholeness. In this wholeness the flow of my gifts into the world has become more organic. Knowing my wound intimately has also led me to the greater gifts that are my purpose.
My wounds have guided me to be in service to others. The need for belonging; the need to be held intimately by a greater community; the need for loving guidance and mentorship; the need to be accepted in the places we are most in pain. These are the foundations of the work I now do with men.
I have also discovered that in a true and pure giving of my gift, the healing flows in both directions; to the person receiving it and to the wound from where it came.
For men, to go into the unknown world of our pain is a frightening yet worthy task. The avoidance of which will weaken us. In facing what we need to face we gain strength, confidence and even support from unseen opportunities that would never present themselves if we stayed in the safety of the world that we know.