by Boysen Hodgson
September’s issue of “Men’s Journal” includes a new article from veteran journalist Bill Heavey called “Bonding in the Backcountry: The Secret to Self-Exploration?” or “Are Men-Only Retreats Helpful or Hogwash?” The article highlights Heavey’s experience at the New Warrior Training Adventure.
Heavey is transparent about the connection he made with men on the weekend and his own realizations. His empathy and compassion show through, even when he’s being challenged and feeling uncomfortable. He doesn’t shy away from some of the more vulnerable processes of the weekend, which some of us think might lessen the adventure. And even so, we can describe all the ingredients and read you the menu, but you’ll still never know the taste of the dish until you’ve tried it. If you’re looking for an adventure in radical personal growth for men, this is it.
I’m led away to a soft chair and orange slices, feeling utterly spent but also purged, as if some tumor has been excised. The catharsis leaves me feeling agreeable.
The writing is much what we expected from Heavey when we first talked about his attendance at the training, in line with his column at Field & Stream. He’s honest, folksy, questioning, skeptical: an everyman ready to look at himself and the world. It’s a bold move for Men’s Journal to ‘go there’ and talk about men’s emotional lives – and we applaud this bravery. We understand that this was a tough choice. Men’s Journal has an audience. The audience has expectations.
They took a risk in covering this story. And they hired an incredibly talented and bold artist, Zohar Lazar, to do the illustrations. Lazar’s gifts are many. Sadly, it’s the opinion of many in the ManKind Project that the Men’s Journal made a poor choice in art direction, drawing on stereotypes instead of opting for a more courageous path.
Most importantly and the first thing many have noticed … with disappointment and anger … was that the black man in the cover image is drawn in a way that harkens back to racist ‘simian’ parodies of African Americans. The ManKind Project has already received emails and phone calls from people across the United States questioning this casually racist portrayal. This reflects poorly on Men’s Journal, and by extension, it reflects poorly on the ManKind Project, though we had nothing to do with the choice.
Beyond that, the style of the illustrations seems to endorse the trope that men’s emotional expression is something to be caricatured rather than witnessed or respected. It plays to the stereotype of men who cry as buffoons, as soft, as easily dismissed.
This stands in contrast to Heavey’s writing, which is respectful and sympathetic to the men he gets to know on the weekend.
I noticed in the same September issue Men’s Journal the article about Russell Wilson, and his openness to crying, his dedication to love, his goodness, and the ‘toxic masculinity’ of the NFL.
Perhaps it’s because of his emotional growth and dedication to being an outlier in the NFL that he is so valued. Rather than being a reflection of the culture that surrounds him, he stands out. And as Men’s Journal points out, he catches flak for it from other players. The article even goes so far as to explicitly include a dig at him from a rival, one that implies that his emotionality makes him weak.
This kind of belittling is largely unconscious. And no one is really immune. It’s part of the social programming we take on. We have to struggle to witness the vulnerability of a man without undercutting it, with a joke, a jab, an ‘on the other hand.’ It’s what Mark Greene would describe as a symptom of ‘man-box culture,’ so pervasive as to go almost unnoticed. Manhood policies itself. This is one of the things the ManKind Project is helping to change for 21st century men.
So how easy is it for a regular guy, a guy who reads Men’s Journal, to chose the brave path of vulnerability over the easy path of ridiculing men’s tenderness (even his own)?
Heavey’s empathy for the stories and experiences of the other men seems dismissed by the images. It reflects just how uncomfortable it still is to stand up for men’s emotional development, and the reality that all men struggle. All kinds of men, not just the bearded middle-aged dudes, and the socks & sandals wearing crowd are waking up. Those guys are all here too, and we love them, along with every other kind of man … from federal agents and Marines, to clergy and yogis, hipsters to CEOs, lawyers, professors and surgeons to recovering addicts, veterans, and Gen Z entrepreneurs.
As Bill said several times in the text … ‘I get it.’
We get it. The ManKind Project’s flagship training is easy to lampoon. What we do on the adventure can seem really weird. The bold move, the courageous move, is to lean in to the discomfort. We’re reclaiming the weirdness of authenticity that our western masculine culture – driven by image, status, certainty, and consumption – is trying to hide from. So be it.
And if these images speak to you in that way … then we’ll happily embrace them. If you’ve never heard of the ManKind Project or men’s work before this, welcome.
At the ManKind Project, in 35 years working with over 68,000 men, we’ve learned that challenge is a doorway to transformation. We challenge men. We create a space for emotional work that happens almost nowhere else in the culture. And men grow.
Quantitative research done over the last decade has shown that participation in ManKind Project programs increases men’s emotional expression, decreases depression and isolation, decreases gender conflict, and increases men’s identification and practice of values like service, integrity, accountability, authenticity, and compassion.
The work we do on our men-only retreats makes a difference – it’s helpful. It’s not for every man. And for most men, it’s a profoundly healing and transformative experience. What we do during the New Warrior Training Adventure, it’s impossible to explain. The word ‘ineffable’ is one that isn’t used often, but it’s the right word.
The ManKind Project is grateful for the public exposure (pun intended), and grateful that we’ve had the opportunity to talk with Bill Heavey on several occasions about his experience, in the weeks leading up to the weekend and after.
Here is a line that rang true for many who’ve read,
The vibe is neither New Agey nor contrived—it’s just what emerges when we stop bullshitting ourselves.