On becoming the men we have been waiting for

Mac Macartney, Founder, Embercombe

Published in JHH14.3 – Men’s Health

Over a period of 20 years I was mentored by a group of indigenous Native American elders. During this training and ever since, I have attempted to bring two worlds together – an ancient world-view that emphasises relationship, interdependence, and reverence for life with the significant challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

The world is changing’, said my mother, ‘and a good thing too’, she added with some feeling. She had been regaling me with a conversation that she had experienced with a group of her elderly friends. It had left her frustrated and irritated. It seems they had been treading familiar ground on the theme of ‘things were different (better) in our day’ and my mother’s efforts to derail the predictable drift of their tense and fearful conversation had failed.

It is indeed changing, and whether for better or worse it will continue to change, probably accelerating as it does so. At Embercombe, our centre in Devon, we are witness to the impact of these changes as people from all sectors of society and of all ages share the kaleidoscope of stories that have brought them through our gates. People come for many reasons. Some arrive on the back of a crisis, some are bored, some look for meaning and purpose, some seek distraction, and some are following a trail and we are the next staging post. All carry questions, hurts, triumphs, joys, sadness, fears, and hopes. Many of our visitors bring questions around identity, belonging, authenticity, and what it means to be a human being. Some, of course, are men and some remind me of the young man I was, floundering to find my way in a society that made no sense to me. I got into all kinds of difficulty and came close to what my mother’s friends might have called ‘a sticky end’.

I was a young man blessed and challenged with many of the fixations, desires, naivety and fantasies commonly associated with my age and gender. I was physically powerful, possessed boundless energy, a fertile imagination, carefully disguised low self-esteem and a secret longing to make my mark on the world. Nothing that I could see around me was likely to yield the adventures I longed for and with the exception of a school[1]teacher who was rumoured to have once worked as a lumberjack in the far north of Canada, there was not a single man I knew whose life looked better than servitude to repetition, sameness and predictability. My own father died when I was in my very early 20s. I admired and respected him but as the only son of three who had failed to achieve academically, I believed myself stupid and incapable of walking in his steps.

We all have different stories and we all have different challenges even if they are often versions of the same thing. I now view my early failures as blessings that encouraged me to walk a path less travelled. The boy-child that I was yearned to see honour and nobility in his life. I now understand that like the fox cub or the young of most animal species I was exploring and practising the adult I was yet to become when I played, wrestled, and quarrelled my way through those early years. A woman friend wrote to me a few months ago wearily and anxiously commenting on her young son’s obsession with weapons, fighting, and winning. Recognising myself I wrote these words to her.

I was armed to the teeth all my childhood, loved pirates, fur trappers, soldiers of all kinds, battle, and extracting information from sullen, obstinate prisoners (my younger brother usually). Although I wouldn’t wish the trials I subjected my parents to on anyone, I do now understand that I was working out all kinds of complicated things about, power, self-esteem, honour, bravery and cowardice, and so on. Perhaps it’s best to express and explore these things in play than internalise and hide them. I do not doubt that Louis will be a very wonderful, principled man, and no doubt shed a little light on this troubled world.

In all sectors of our society men are finding old certainties softening and collapsing. Institutions and customs that once propped up ideas of manhood are toppling or at least shaken and are no longer imbued with unquestioning self-confidence. Patriarchy, and the beliefs and practices resulting from it, have cost women and our earth dear. Like all who are frightened, many men have and still are lashing back at the tide of change women continue to launch as they strive to redress centuries of exclusion and disenfranchisement. A great turning1 is under way and like all such processes the old will resist the new until the inevitable overwhelms that whose day has passed. These words of the Hopi Nation elders offer the only sound advice I know of when faced with such challenges.

There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel like they are being torn apart, and they will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off toward the middle of The river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. See who is there with you and celebrate.

The elders, Hopi Nation, Oraibi, Arizona. 2000 CE

There are, of course, countless men who desire to support this change and are doing so in small and great ways, but as old prejudices are dismantled new questions arise and with this, confusion, disorientation, and inertia.

Another woman friend sent me a letter that I felt sent us plunging into another cul de sac when she appeared to equate kindness, compassion, gentleness and peacefulness with women and competitiveness, aggression, and intolerance with men. It’s not difficult to see why I don’t believe that this is either true or helpful. How, for instance, would our male children grow into adulthood if they were raised, loved, and educated to embrace values and behaviours that incorporate those attributes commonly associated with women while also exploring positive expressions of traditional male attributes? This is what I wrote in response.

I write the following because this topic is an important enquiry for me. I am a man and I am very happy to be a man. After all, creation made me a man, and I have no reason to doubt her wisdom in this. Being a man, I wish to express this essence as potently as I am able, while knowing, as I do, that I still don’t really know what it means.

So – a few thoughts and feelings. I have written the words below as if “I know” but I do not. I am simply a man who for the last 40 years has worked to find self-love. Not at the expense of anyone else, but because I believe that from this place I can discover qualities I aspire towards such as compassion, gentleness, kindness. Even love. Together with this, I find myself to be a particular kind of man. I can be kind and I can be cruel. I can be peaceful and I have a potential for violence. I am cooperative, yet I am also competitive. I like my fierce aspect, just as I like my vulnerable self.

As a human being, and as a man, I have pledged myself to the re-balancing of our Earth – beginning and continuing with me, yet externally in the world as well. The re-turning of the sacred feminine into balance with the sacred masculine is an imperative that with or without our human co-operation, is happening. We are some way on a cycle and, thankfully, the wheel is still turning. But do we know the essence of feminine and masculine energy? I somehow doubt it. It seems to me that it is unfolding, and that every step is a revelation. I quite enjoy not knowing, and intuitively I distrust the certainty that so many so often express in defining the difference.

I do not think that power and domination are masculine values. Neither do I think that love and cooperation are feminine values. It seems to me that both masculine and feminine are fully engaged in all of these, yet have a tendency to express them in ways particular to the masculine or the feminine. Men, that is real men, know how to love, and they deeply understand the necessity and virtue of cooperation.

If we want to explore power, domination, and all similar energies, we have only to look at astrology’s Pluto to discover a description of this vast shadowed under-world. Yet Pluto exists On becoming the men we have been waiting for LEADERSHIP © Journal of holistic healthcare ● Volume 14 Issue 3 Autumn 2017 25 within the astrological charts of men and women. As does Venus. Men are from Mars, and Women from Venus always was just a catchy book title, not an expression of cosmological truth. Even if it did sell millions.

The cruel and savage assault of patriarchy upon our world, felt most painfully by women, girls, and all aspects of our natural world, did not come about because men are essentially power-driven, but because they seduced themselves into a sick and self-destructive baby-fantasy that substituted the terrifying uncertainty of ignorance and fear for the certainty of control and domination. And from this grew the inevitable degrading march that now threatens the life-systems of our Earth. Once taken root it just grew and grew.

Two thousand years ago, in Britain, women were war chiefs, tribal chiefs, spiritual chiefs, political chiefs, mothers and everything else. Boudica and Cartimandua were just two for whom we have names. In war they sharpened swords, hewed and hacked along with their men comrades. As tribal chiefs they did everything that such people do – men or women. In Britain it was the Romans who brought with them the belief that women holding power was a perversion of natural law. Now, our ideas of what is feminine and masculine seem so ponderously fixated on New Age ideas of good and bad, spiritual and materialistic, that we seem stuck in the mud of our cultural bias, and unverified hand-me-down wisdom. I don’t think it helps.

The truly equal and peaceful society we work for will come about when men are parented into their true adult, away from the stupid and dangerous posturing of the bully, and women in turn assume their most powerful, potent, and confident embodiment of the feminine. Love will belong as much to one as it will to the other, because this is the underlying truth. Alongside which, no doubt the other generally less well thought of human attributes such as competitiveness, jealousy, greed and general nastiness, will perhaps be equally shared between the sexes. Much to everyone’s relief.

It feels very important to me that men and particularly young men succeed in locating an understanding of manhood that encourages the positive human attributes relevant to all genders while also allowing elbow room for those whose energy and drive pushes at the boundaries of whatever might be considered normal. We are not all the same and we should avoid the futility of trying to be. Wholeness is the onward journey, sponsored by parenting, teaching, and mentorship that encourages our unique gifts to flourish and ripen. A young man dear to me has always dreamed of becoming a soldier. His parents opposed it for years only yielding when it became clear that he would not submit to their will. Now he trains with a special forces regiment. The question for me is not whether he should or should not be a soldier but rather, what kind of soldier will he be?

During the first few years after I arrived at Embercombe I was still being mentored by a group of Native American teachers and healers. Throughout the 16 years I had been trained and mentored by them they had made it very clear that they expected their investment in me to yield dividends. Any sign that I might not reciprocate in this manner prompted the possibility of an abrupt termination to my training. The outcome they hoped for was that I would make a commitment to vigorously share the gifts and knowledge that my life experience, talents, privileges, and education had bestowed on me. Their reasoning and its communication were both clear and forthright.

You are part of the 1% of humans upon which has been heaped rights, freedoms, and privileges that few others around this world enjoy. You have never known hunger, thirst, extreme cold or extreme heat. You sleep safe in your bed each night and an array of choices has been laid before you. With all this bounty and all this good fortune, curiously, you seem surprisingly dissatisfied, almost ungrateful. You stand on the shoulders of countless others who fought for your future. There is no meaning in a human being’s life that turns away from the responsibility of serving life. What child is it that would not honour those whose love, care, and courage, nurtured his young life?

During the same period of time my education was supplemented with tutorials that my Native American friends believed had been sadly missing from my schooling and university education. For example, the misogyny that lay unnoticed by most in our laws, social culture, religion and attitudes; the manner in which history is manipulated by those whose avarice is assisted by the ignorance of others; how language and the roots of words can yield insight and unearth deliberate obfuscation; how fear and ignorance can foster acts of terrible cruelty, especially when manipulated by those seeking power over others.

Every step along the way of my prolonged learning journey with these teachers took me closer to an understanding that I had been born at a critical juncture in my species’ history and the history of the earth. Epiphany followed epiphany, each one part of a deepening realisation of the catastrophic inevitability that results when hubris, ignorance, cleverness, creativity and disconnection from nature combine.

When our collective egoism was unfettered from the restraints that a sense of the sacred encourages, we became truly dangerous – understanding that might does not bestow right. Over time we have created laws that attempt to mediate the excesses of those who wield power, but we have not done the same in relation to our species and all those others who share the earth with us. Only very recently has the concept of earth rights, animal rights, life rights, begun to take hold and gain traction.

We need men to become comfortable in their skins as men, but primarily as people; people who recognise that On becoming the men we have been waiting for LEADERSHIP 26 © Journal of holistic healthcare ● Volume 14 Issue 3 Autumn 2017 humanity has undergone some kind of rite of passage and that now we are challenged to demonstrate that we have the courage and the intelligence to learn from our past mistakes and successes. While it may not be so in the future we still need men and women to make babies, and although an exclusively binary world is tedious and misleading, a prevailing design principle extant in the natural world is the joining and separating pathway of two great powers, the feminine and the masculine, the egg and the sperm, Wakan and Sequan, goddess and god.

As we continue to unravel the complex questions accompanying gender, rights, responsibilities, and our species’ role here on earth, one thing is clear to me. It is imperative that as people of all genders we lift our heads above the noise and busyness of everyday human preoccupations and see what is happening to this beautiful planet we call home.

I wish to be a man of integrity and courage and I have choices to make that will determine whether my wish is realised. It is my responsibility to determine the man I am and am yet to be. Meanwhile my seven-month old son looks on and no doubt places his trust in me to protect him and stay loyal to the promise I made when he and his mother and my older son stand together as a family. This I will do, but since I have the ability and the resources I will do more than this.

I will consider my family to be an ever-increasing circle that radiates outwards and has the capability to cross oceans and continents. This is our strength, kinship with the wider family of all things and all people, in relationship with the entire human and more-than-human world. Connected, compassionate, aware and actively engaged.


  1. Joanna Macy joannamacyfilm.org
  2. The Earth Charter http://earthcharter.org/discover/the-earth[1]charter/; Ecoc